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Rock Hill concerned black leader: ‘Legacy should be results, not existence’

The Concerned Black Men of the City of Rock Hill march to the Rock Hill Police Department earlier this summer.
The Concerned Black Men of the City of Rock Hill march to the Rock Hill Police Department earlier this summer.

Brad Rawlinson has heard you, loud and clear.

He’s heard the criticism, the taunts, the sarcasm, the anger, the (occasional) praise and the (varied) insults.

He’s not frustrated or angry. If anything, it just makes him sad.

“You can’t actually have a real conversation about real issues without getting to these guttural, dark, deep places,” said the Rock Hill lawyer. “Maybe that’s a part of this, that I’m pulling back the blanket.”

Over the past two months, Rawlinson has become the de facto leader and spokesperson of the activist group, The Concerned Black Citizens of the City of Rock Hill.

The group, spurred by the recent national shooting deaths by police of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, has become the topic of both support and scorn across South Carolina. What began as a short march to deliver a list of 10 demands calling for greater accountability from the Rock Hill Police Department has since sparked a series of pointed discussions on race, law enforcement and the black community.

In this Aug. 31, 2016 file video, Rock Hill mayor Doug Echols and city manager David Vehaun address community policing, need for continued communication to close "information gap" between citizens and officials. Both say the public has ample oppor

After spending years operating in both major political parties, Rawlinson has seen how slow change can come from the inside. Politically correct words and closed-door conversations can only go so far, he said. Sometimes, the lawyer said, only marches and pointed letters can make people sit up and take notice.

The group’s initial mission has nearly drawn to a close: Nearly all of their requests of the city have either been met or answered appropriately. But Rawlinson sees a new and refocused future for his core group and its members.

There’s also a new future for Rawlinson: He’s taken a step back from his position with Schiller & Hamilton Law Firm on Oakland Ave. in order to take charge of Concerned Black Citizens full-time.

“It’s a position that pays exactly $0,” said Rawlinson. “I don’t know what that part of my career will look like. ... I want our lasting legacy to not be existence, but results.”

Getting involved

For about 20 years, Rawlinson struggled to feel comfortable with his political ties.

He spent close to a decade as an avowed Democrat who helped re-elect John Spratt to Congress before later switching to the Republican party, where he soon became a leader at the Republican Law Society at the University of South Carolina, where he earned his law degree.

As a male, black working professional, he felt disaffected at some point in his life by both sides of the political fence. Organizing marches and touting the party line began to feel less genuine as he began to feel both parties saw minorities as “less than equals.”

“I really tried to get out and make a difference, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t comfortable that my messages or my presence was changing anything,” said Rawlinson.

It didn’t take too much convincing for Rawlinson to get on board when a close friend called him earlier this summer to vent about the recent spate of police shootings. He and a group of 10-15 local friends began meeting to start drafting a letter to city officials that included demands for information that they believed would maintain safety for everyone.

Making ‘demands’

Among the demands, the group sought to attain use of force data, collect complaint statistics, and mandate that all officers wear body cameras during all official police functions.

 

The term “demands” has since elicited an angry reaction: Many critics of the group called the Concerned Black Citizens opponents of police and law enforcement.

Some criticism turned into downright name-calling. He says he’s been called “terrorist,” “hood trash” and “uneducated.”

Rawlinson, who says he spent a year defending law enforcement in use of force cases, begs to differ.

"We're hoping for true transparency in what's going on in the city, as a whole," said group member Johnathan Montgomery last month. "At some point, if we realize that more than one person's screaming 'Fire!' there has to be a fire there."

Since the group’s march in July, leaders like Rawlinson and Iraq war hero Cedric Caldwell have met with Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols and Police Chief Chris Watts. Last month, the Rock Hill City Council OK’d a $1.3 million agreement to provide body-worn cameras, dash cameras and related file storage equipment for police use.

Watts said his department had been researching companies as early as January.

“There are individuals in the white or the black community who don’t understand about what we’re doing, so people might not know the full scope of what’s happening,” said Echols in an Aug. 30 interview. “Communication is the key, I think, to make sure people understand each other better.”

Data drive

Much of the data requested is now available on the city’s website as a part of the police department’s annual report. The department reports that there were zero (0) complaints of bias-based profiling during 2015, and hasn’t had any such complaints in the last 15 years.

Of the 29 citizen complaints that were received and investigated, 17 of them were unfounded (demonstrably false, with no credible evidence), while four of them were sustained (the allegation was true and action taken was inconsistent with policy).

Additionally, out of 54,488 calls for service, only 29 complaints were received in 2015.

Rawlinson says he’s never been out to paint the police department in a negative light - he says, if anything, officials should be emboldened to make the numbers public.

Rawlinson is a lawyer, but that doesn’t mean he won’t change his mind. The Rock Hill Police Department declined to give the group its training materials in regard to use of force, indicating that might give criminals the ability to foresee and defend against certain tactics on the street.

Rawlinson and his friends were satisfied with the response - they later dropped that as a point of contention.

“Maybe it’s my training,” he said. “I’m a lawyer, give me a good response, and I’ll probably change.”

The lone sticking point on the list of demands has been a scheduled monthly public forum, moderated by Watts. Echols and Vehaun have said the police already attend close to 80 or 90 public events between neighborhood meetings, “Coffee with a Cop” sitdowns, National Night Out and other opportunities.

According to the annual report, Watts participated in six City Council ward forums in 2015. In all, the police department said in the report that its employees took part in 287 community service events in 2015 throughout the city.

“We want to be sensitive to the chief’s time and to the officer’s time to make big impacts across the city in everything we do,” said Vehaun. “Imagine you have 30 different groups come in and want 30 different meetings, it would be difficult to schedule that.”

The group argues that the forum they’re suggesting would only require Watts.

The next step

But Rawlinson’s group isn’t planning on a second march to hold out for that final demand: Leaders are currently in talks to decide how best to pivot to their next mission. As the son of two educators, Rawlinson is partial to hosting a mentoring effort to work with youth.

Much of the work won’t be widely publicized, he says, and even when the group decides the next topic to raise attention for, it’ll likely be on a much more face-to-face basis.

Rawlinson has stepped away from his position with local law firm Schiller & Hamilton, and recognizes that his activism could be a hindrance to his professional future. But he’s entertained plans of opening his own firm in the future, and isn’t looking too far ahead .

“At the core of the group is that we want to solve the things that are hard to solve, because people don’t want to talk about it,” said Rawlinson. “Sometimes, it stokes a lot of emotion and not a lot of thought.”

David Thackham: 803-329-4066, @dthackham

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