In front of the Confederate flag that reminds so many people of racial tensions that continue to haunt South Carolina, a large crowd gathered Tuesday evening in front of the State House in Columbia
The diverse group of more than 100 were protesting what they saw as injustice in the failure to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in the August shooting death of Michael Brown. The shooting has ignited nationwide dialogue about race, justice and the relationships between law enforcement officials and communities of color.
The group faced Gervais Street with their signs of “Black Lives Matter” and “The Process is Broken” as passing motorists honked.
Emerald Anderson-Ford of Columbia crouched beside her 2-year-old daughter in a stroller explaining to her why so many people were gathered.
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“It’s important that she understand that just because things happen to you, you don’t have to be OK with them,” Anderson-Ford said. “It could very well be my son. It could very well be my husband. And I just think about the fact that there is a systematic oppression, a systematic something that’s making this OK to happen to our black and brown boys – and I don’t know what it is.”
The gathering was organized in part by the Carolina Peace Resource Center in Columbia, which is planning more protests in Charleston and Greenville next week.
“It’s been said that a Grand Jury could indict a ham sandwich,” Peace Resource Center president David Matos said before the rally. “The failure of the Ferguson Grand Jury to indict Officer Darrin Wilson on any charges reflects the refusal of the St. Louis prosecutor’s office to make a case.”
The firestorm of response to the situation in Ferguson comes as something of a surprise to S.C. NAACP president Lonnie Randolph.
“It surprised me that people seem so shocked and just happen to be surprised by what’s taken place, and they shouldn’t be,” Randolph said. “All of these myths and lies about how much progress we’ve made. This whole thing that racial relations are so much better. I wonder where are (people) talking about?”
Bradley Powell, who stood at the State House rally with his arms raised in a “don’t shoot” gesture, said people are “rightly upset” by the fatal shooting of Brown, an unarmed black male, and a grand jury’s decision not to hand down an indictment.
“The political reality is that black and brown lives don’t matter,” he said.
In general, and as a surprise to almost no one, black communities are far more pessimistic and distrustful toward law enforcement agencies, said Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former Florida police officer and state investigator.
“When the community does not trust the police organization, when they do not view law enforcement as a legitimate source of authority, it causes a great deal of friction,” he said.
Right now, Stoughton said, people are focusing on the short-term issues they see arising out of Ferguson, such as crowd control and violence. And while those are important issues, the more important conversations that communities need to be having with their law enforcers are conversations about long-term relationships and trust between the two, he said.
“The protests are not just fists in the air,” Stoughton said. “They really have to be the opportunity for hands to be reaching out on both sides. … If we continue the way we have, we’re just going to see the same event over and over again.”
An important way to improve relationships between communities – and not just communities of color – and the law officers charged with protecting them is for the two groups to work in concert with one another, Randolph said.
“The public is also responsible for not being involved all the time, as opposed to being involved just when a crisis occurs,” Randolph said.
“We need to keep a watchful eye on government,” he said. “All aspects of the government belong to the people. When you have involvement of the government with the people in the community, it makes a better form of government.”