North Charleston declined when it lost its naval base
Crime skyrocketed, and policing is seen as overzealous
"There is a heritage of systemic racial prejudice here," one resident says
Jeffrey Spell felt embarrassed the flowers were cheap lilies left over in the grocery store from Easter. He carried them solemnly into the park where Walter Scott was shot and killed by a police officer a week ago.
Once there were trailers here, on each side of the asphalt. I can still see the electrical hookups. But there are no remaining signs of community; just oaks, weeds and a rusting chain-link fence.
At the spot where Scott fell, a small memorial has risen. On this day, it’s nothing like the one to Michael Brown in Ferguson – not yet, anyway. Perhaps it will grow if more people like Spell feel compelled to visit. He placed the potted lily by a small wooden cross. He knelt for a few minutes and walked back out, head bowed.
“There’s a real problem with cops killing people in this community,” Spell tells me afterward. “And there’s a problem with cops getting away with it.”
I ask Spell his age. “Fifty,” he responds. “I am the same age as Walter Scott.”
Spell is white. He’s lives in Charleston, the city known for its Old South splendor. North Charleston is its ugly stepsister, separated from many parts of the metropolitan area by the Cooper and Ashley rivers – and by so much more.
Tourists flock to downtown Charleston to gaze at magnificent homes and eat in restaurants good enough to snag headlines in national foodie magazines. Visitors rarely venture north, where signs of better days haunt almost every street.
Spell has been practicing real estate law in North Charleston for 17 years. One time, he went over to see a piece of property for a client, and the police stopped him for a broken brake light. They fired off a slew of questions. They suspected a white man was in the ‘hood looking for a drug deal, Spell says.
“I was just doing my job,” Spell tells me. “But maybe the cops are on edge because of the high crime around here.”
The city was labeled one of the most dangerous in the country in 2007.
Walking around North Charleston and speaking to its residents, both black and white, I heard echoes of the conversations I had in Ferguson, Missouri, last fall, after Brown, an unarmed black youth, was killed by a white police officer and long before a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report confirmed a pattern of harassment and racism against Ferguson’s black community.
“There is a heritage of systemic racial prejudice here,” says the Rev. Thomas Dixon, a black community organizer in North Charleston. “I don’t believe what happened is the fault of the police chief. The problem is entrenched.”
This is not the first time Dixon has raised the issue of overzealous policing, he tells me. But community organizers have not been able to gain traction with their concerns. He has been pushing for a citizen review board that would get involved in police brutality cases.
“We get stonewalled,” he says.
But after a cell phone video of Scott’s shooting was released, he said, authorities “were incredibly receptive.”
The video, shot by a witness, shows Officer Michael Slager firing his gun eight times as Scott runs away after being stopped for a broken taillight. Scott, who was unarmed, was struck five times. The video of the shooting prompted the city to quickly take responsibility for what happened. The mayor apologized to the Scott family, and Slager was charged with murder and fired from the police force.
I could not verify the tales people told me of their encounters with police or how they were profiled, but most of the people I spoke with, black and white, said they’d been stopped by North Charleston police at one time or another.
North Charleston police stopped black people almost twice as often as whites between July 2007 and February of this year, according to law enforcement data on stops that did not lead to an arrest or a ticket.
Micah King, a 30-year-old black resident, tells me he has been stopped by police four times this year. One incident, he says with a laugh, was legitimate. “I was speeding. But every time, I found myself outside and getting my car searched. For what?”
Several agencies are investigating Scott’s killing. But I wondered whether the tragedy would lead to a larger probe of this community, as was the case in Ferguson.
Perhaps what I heard anecdotally in North Charleston would one day carry more weight.
Broken dreams and Dreamliners
Montague Avenue runs through North Charlestown and ends at the Cooper River. I begin my journey through the historic Park Circle neighborhood, not far from the water, where the Charleston Naval Base was once located.
The base was the largest employer in all of South Carolina, but after the end of the Cold War, North Charleston got the shocking news in 1993 that the Navy was closing it.
The city was still reeling from the destruction Hurricane Hugo wrought in 1989, and thousands of people lost their jobs.
Sallie Turner moved her Hot Heads hair salon onto East Montague Avenue 17 years ago, at a time when North Charleston was trying desperately to come back from the shock of the base closure.
“I did a lot of officers’ wives’ hair,” she says while working the magic of a body wave on a client’s hair. “That was our big industry: the Navy. This area was already going downhill, and then the Navy left.”
Then, just when developers eyed the area to build retail and housing in the 2000s, the recession hit. Every project ground to a standstill. But Turner says she still has hope North Charleston will revive.
A big boon was the opening of a Boeing plant here in 2009 to build Dreamliners. The company employs about 7,000 people.
But North Charleston, which now has more than 100,000 people, is still struggling. The Park Circle neighborhood is the only part of the city where I could see clear signs of recovery.
Here, East Montague Avenue is hopping with restaurants that serve veal and filet mignon and $12 glasses of wine. There are upscale specialty stores, and the sidewalks are spotless. Younger white people are moving into new apartments or renovating bungalows. The area reminded me of Ferguson City Walk, the revitalized downtown district in that town that serves as a stark contrast to the West Florissant corridor that caters to African-Americans.
“Boeing rebooted our economy,” Turner says. “I personally never thought I would see any bikers or skateboards in North Charleston, but look, we even have designated bike lanes.”
Turner acknowledges the economic divide in the city. But she bristles when asked whether the problems are race-related.
“I have to tell you I am proud of this place,” she says. “I was raised by a black lady who worked for us since I was 3. This is a community where everyone is friend and family. Look, the Civil War didn’t end yesterday.”
Her words remind me of what I heard in Ferguson from people who put “I Love Ferguson” yard signs on their lawns. Some hesitated to ascribe the town’s problems to racial discrimination. Others admitted to only recently having their eyes opened to the ways blacks were being treated in their community.
Working to survive
South of Park Circle, I’m a bit surprised to find myself on a road called Meeting Street. The names conjures the leafy heart of historic Charleston, several miles south. But around these parts, there are dilapidated cottages, billboards and a railroad track. And a lot of signs that say “This property is under the jurisdiction of the North Charleston Police.”
The line at Bertha’s Kitchen, home of the most unpretentious soul food in town, winds out the door. The clientele here is rich and poor, black and white. On this day, two white sheriff’s deputies are eating next to a black janitorial worker.
It is here that I meet Vanessa Brown, 49, an assistant principal of Garrett Academy of Technology.
“I think drugs have impacted our community so much,” Brown says. “Most of the kids I know are from single-parent families. Their mothers are working two or three jobs. The kids are working, too. They are working just to survive.”
Garrett Academy is 99% minority. Brown works with North Charleston police to help keep her students out of trouble.
“I know they are doing their jobs,” she says. “I can’t say all officers are bad.”
But she knows why young black men in this community don’t trust the police.
“We’ve got to teach our young people how to react in those situations. I spent a lot of time teaching young males to be compliant,” she tells me. “If we don’t teach them social skills, their reaction gets them in trouble.”
She hears the cries of the African-American community: Hire more black cops. But where are they, she asks? They have to apply for the jobs in order to get them.
So many of her students end up with violations for drugs or petty crime. Then they get out of school and can’t get decent jobs.
There are few black teachers at her school, she says.
At another well-known soul food eatery, Lorraine Smalls, 55, says she worries about her young grandsons. They will soon grow to be young black men.
“You got really good officers, and you got some who want to go above the law themselves,” she says, taking a break from cooking at My Three Sons restaurant on East Montague Avenue.
“There’s a lot of profiling going around,” says Smalls, who has also been stopped by police and issued a warning. She worries that if there is no justice for Walter Scott’s family, North Charleston will see the same unrest as Ferguson.
“It took a lot of guts for that young man to shoot that video,” she says. “But thank God he did.”