A group called Black Lives Matter - Charleston has been setting the tone for protest actions following the April 4 shooting death of Walter L. Scott, and they have a very specific demand: They want the city of North Charleston to create a Citizens Review Board to oversee the actions of the police department.
"We want the Citizens Review Board to have the capacity to oversee investigations into officer complaints and the ability to affect the training, recruitment, advancement, and the policies of the North Charleston Police Department," says Shanalea Forrest, an organizer with Black Lives Matter - Charleston.
Members of the group — whose name is sometimes stylized online as #BlackLivesMatterCHS — held a protest at City Hall Thursday night demanding that City Council schedule a special public meeting within 24 hours to discuss the creation of a Citizens Review Board. But Friday came and went, and City Council never scheduled such a meeting.
According to group organizers, Mayor Keith Summey offered to meet with some of the protesters behind closed doors to discuss the issue. A city spokesman confirmed that Summey made the offer and said that the group rejected it.
After a weekend of memorial and protest events related to the death of Walter Scott, Black Lives Matter - Charleston issued a statement Sunday afternoon:
To reiterate, our request was for an emergency City Council meeting to be held within the next week to introduce the idea of a Citizens Review Board. Where is the responsiveness of City Hall to an urgent request of its citizens, who are overcome by grief, anger, and passion?
The local group's proposal has some precedent. In the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown, the mayor of Ferguson, Mo., announced in November 2014 that the city would create a civilian review board to monitor the police.
New York City established its Civilian Complaint Review Board in its current form in 1993, and today it acts as an independent agency that investigates complaints made against NYPD officers and makes recommendations to the police commissioner. It is composed of 13 members, of which five are designated by City Council, five by the mayor, and three by the police commissioner. The board received more than 2,700 complaints in the first half of 2014, including about 630 complaints that involved police questioning, stop-and-frisk, or searches.
A January 2013 study published by the Center for Public Policy at Cal State Fullerton found that more than 100 citizen oversight committees had been established in the United States. The study noted:
Although most law enforcement personnel throughout the United States perform honorable and conscientious police work, enormous amounts of damage can be done by a single reported incident of police misconduct or corruption. In response to allegations of wrongdoing and the use of excessive force by officers, some police agencies have solicited public opinion and involvement in an effort to build bridges of trust and promote transparency. This often includes discussions of establishing a citizen oversight committee.
Black Lives Matter - Charleston formed in December in the wake of the 2014 police-involved deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and has been vocal and visible since the early stages of the Walter Scott case last week. While the organization does not have any titles, one organizer, Muhiyidin d'Baha, was front and center with a megaphone during the first protest rally at City Hall last Wednesday morning, leading chants and inviting people to speak into a bank of microphones from national news media.
Representatives of Black Lives Matter - Charleston met at North Charleston City Hall Sunday night and issued the following statement in a press release:
After a day of rest to pay respects to Walter Scott, we aim to demonstrate our discontent with the speed of governmental response to the outcry of its constituency.
We are also now formally initiating project #WeAreWatchingYou. Project #WeAreWatchingYou is a community-driven decentralized use of surveillance upon the officers of law. In this project we are seeking to impact police culture by putting the law under the surveillance of the people. When we see an officer we will pull out our cameras and make our presence known by saying "We are watching you!" This is a life-saving practice that could have saved Walter Scott and simultaneously a demonstration of community power. This week will not be business-as-usual if business-as-usual means our leaders will continue to sit on their hands. Every day the concerns and request of the people are ignored the demonstrations will non-violently escalate into having greater and greater impact upon the Charleston region and City Hall business.
The group announced that it was holding "non-violent direct action training" Sunday night. It has distanced itself from protesters' announcement last Thursday that they would shut down traffic on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge (the protest action never happened). When asked whether Black Lives Matter - Charleston was associated with the bridge shutdown threat, d'Baha said, "Not at all," echoing the responses of two other organizers from the group who were reached by phone.
"We're an organization here that's been in Charleston," d'Baha said. "We've been doing this work, so we don't want anybody coming in and creating havoc for no reason."