I mentioned in my column last week that for spring break this year, we took a family road trip south, with a final stop in Charleston. To be honest, by the end of the week we were ready to come home.
Two kids in a single hotel room gets very old after, well, five minutes.
So, coupled with less than fair weather and our desire to get home, we left that Saturday morning, hopped on Interstate 26 and headed back to Fort Mill.
What I didn’t realize is that almost the exact time we were heading through North Charleston, a man driving a black Mercedes named Walter Scott was pulled over by North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager.
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When I heard the news, my first thought was for the city of Charleston. I was worried that the beautiful city which I had just visited would turn into the riotous rubble that Ferguson, Mo., had become last summer.
To everyone’s credit, it has not. Not even close. I also commend the family of Walter Scott for telling Al Sharpton that they did not want him at the memorial service.
The media instantly turned this into the normal race circus, with the expectation that there would be protests and riots. They stood at the ready, with a lit match ready to light the tinder box.
However, local officials acted quickly and diffused what could have been another explosive, divisive event in our national and state history.
There are two terms I want to define; racism and bigotry. They are often used interchangeably. Racism is a discrimination of people of a certain race. Bigotry is discrimination of people of a certain opinion.
I will admit. I am a bigot.
I don’t care if you are black, white or fuchsia, if I see you walking down the street with a New York Yankees hat on, I will not like you. At least, not at first.
If you let your kids run around a restaurant uncontrollably, I will likely assume you are a bad parent.
I have even met people who look like, act like or talk like people I have met in the past, and I am predisposed to treat them like those people.
We all make these assumptions because at least in many small ways, we are all bigots.
Police officers are trained bigots.
Let me explain. They are trained to recognize irrational behavior and make decisions based on what they observe. They are trained to be more keenly aware of the situation, and monitor for telltale signs that something is “out of place.” They have to have preconceived notions about people, because their duty is to protect people from a potential outcome.
If you listen to the dialog, it is not hard to figure out that Officer Slager picked up on something being out of place very early on in the discussion with Mr. Scott. What unfolded proved his suspicion correct.
I have never been in law enforcement, but I would have to believe that when Mr. Scott left the vehicle, then tussled with Officer Slager, his adrenaline went through the roof, which put into motion a series of events that cost Mr. Scott his life. I am sure his friends and family have been running through the “what ifs” of the situation, wishing in the end that he had just stayed in the car.
Please understand, I do not condone the deadly use of force in this incident. I do believe that the officer was rightfully arrested and discharged from the force, but I do believe that he will likely end up being guilty of manslaughter, not murder. And I fully believe based on the reports and watching the video that he is without question guilty.
However, the fact remains, that he pulled over Mr. Scott for a broken tail light – a minor infraction. I would find it impossible to believe that Officer Slager reported for duty that morning looking for someone to kill. As the mayor of North Charleston has relayed, this is a very sad situation from every angle.
I had a recent run-in with police in Alabama. It was pretty bizarre. I was pulled over for speeding, for which I can neither confirm nor deny my guilt. However, the officer informed me after running my license that I was driving on a suspended license.
I could think of no reason why that would be the case, I assumed it was a mistake. However, I remained calm while asking questions. The officer responded in kind. Ultimately, he let me go with a ticket for not having my license. I found out the following day that it was in fact a mistake and that there wasn’t a single ticket on my driving record. So, I will be visiting the great state of Alabama again in a couple of weeks.
By the way, the police officer was a black man, and I am white. We managed to have a cordial exchange under very stressful circumstances without that exchange becoming a topic on the evening news.
I wrote a column a couple of months back about the Fort Mill police and how I have witnessed them on several occasions “doing it right.” But this can happen anywhere, it can happen here. The key is to always remember that you know more about yourself and your intentions than the police do, and their actions are based on how quickly you can show them that you are not a threat.
Jim Donohue can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org