Walter Scott's death and the cycle of contempt for black lives

"We can no longer ignore the fact that members of law enforcement have become a threat to the lives of black men and women."

by Charles F. Coleman Jr. The Root | 4/9/2015, 2:16 p.m.
"We can no longer ignore the fact that members of law enforcement have become a threat to the lives of ...

By now, many in America have watched the obscene video showing the death of Walter L. Scott, shot in the back as he flees for his life from North Charleston, S.C., Police Officer Michael Slager. Seemingly in an instant, eight shots from Slager’s gun turned Scott from a man to a memory. Then the officer adds insult to injury by appearing to try to frame Scott, with video footage showing him dropping what appears to be a weapon near his dead body.

Another black life that mattered has been lost and another name has been transformed into a hashtag symbolizing the latest inexplicable killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of law enforcement.

What is clear is that Slager knew exactly what to do in order to concoct the perfect formula for a police officer’s freedom. His lie was prepared and his version of events was designed to fit neatly within the same lazy narrative that always seems to surface when police show wanton disregard for black lives. Plant a weapon. Check. Fear for my life. Check. Black thug struggled with me and threatened the use of force against me and I reacted by using my service weapon. Acquittal (if there is even an indictment and a trial).

It’s a story to which we have become so desensitized that we expect it before it happens. So much so that media members and respectability apologists alike were practically tripping over themselves searching for a way to sully the character of Scott, a 50-year-old family man and father of four.

There are a few alarming things of note stemming from the public discourse about Walter Scott’s death. The first is the media’s failure to frame the discussion properly within the broader narrative of law enforcement’s continued abuses of people of color in America.

We have all heard the obvious question, “Would an arrest have taken place if there were no video?”

Let me assure you that that is an unlikely possibility. The fact is, as shocking as the video is, and even as it may have been a catalyst for Slager to be charged, it still may not be enough to overcome the thinking of jurors in South Carolina for a unanimous conviction.

This is because the video cannot itself address a mindset that exists regarding the alleged threat posed by black men in the eyes of law enforcement. Even as those black men are unarmed and running away in fear of their own lives, they still somehow pose a threat. As a former prosecutor, I have seen jurors’ personal biases defy common sense even in the face of incontrovertible evidence. That same possibility still exists in this case.

Another discussion emerging from this incident is the notion of #bluelivesmatter and #itsnotallcops. If that movement is to gain any traction, the blue wall of silence must come down. Looking at the video suggests that even as Slager attempts to drop what appears to be a weapon on Scott after shooting him, another police appears to observe this happening. For many Americans, this is a sensational shock, a thing from the movies. What everyone needs to understand is that this is hardly a movie. This is real life and this happens. Not in Hollywood’s studios, but in real America.