With many of this year's biggest news events still so fresh in the minds of Charleston residents, it's difficult to fully understand what the past 12 months have meant for the city. At first glance, it would seem that tragedy will be the defining characteristic of 2015, but to allow such would be a mistake, a failed chance at progress. If all of Charleston is to prosper and improve, it must mine the lessons of its past, disregarding neither the inconvenient truths nor the difficult answers, and become the sole author of its future. These are the stories that made 2015.
It was a Saturday morning in April when Walter Scott was pulled over by officer Michael Slager for a non-functioning third brake light. Dashcam footage from the officer's vehicle shows Scott attempting to flee the scene on foot, but it was another piece of footage filmed by an eyewitness that ignited an examination of local law enforcement practices and race in South Carolina. Captured on a cell phone by Feidin Santana, the video shows an unarmed Scott running away from Slager following a physical altercation. Slager then draws his weapon and fires eight rounds at Scott, killing him. The events shown in the video differed from Slager's account of the incident and ultimately led to the officer's indictment for murder. In October, the City of North Charleston approved a $6.5 million settlement for Scott's family. Slager currently awaits trial and is being held without bail, but the effects of Scott's death would be felt throughout the year.
In late May, a 15-month-old chocolate bull terrier mix was sold to William Dodson for $20, according to court records. Two days later, the dog was found with its muzzle taped shut. The animal's tongue had been clamped tightly between its teeth, and the dog was quickly turned over to the Charleston Animal Society for emergency medical treatment. Those tasked with rehabilitating the dog named her Caitlyn. Photos of Caitlyn's injuries quickly spread online and the public response was one of shock and support. Donations poured in from all across the globe to help pay for Caitlyn's medical costs. Dodson was arrested for ill treatment of animals, and Caitlyn recovered from her injuries, eventually finding a new home with a foster family and becoming a national symbol for animal rights.
On June 10, joined by several members of Walter Scott's family in North Charleston, Gov. Nikki Haley signed into law a bill requiring that all South Carolina police officers be outfitted with body-worn cameras. Originally called the Walter Scott bill, lawmakers' response to Scott's shooting and the actions of former North Charleston officer Michael Slager made South Carolina the first state in the nation to establish such a policy for all agencies. However, the bill has its problems; the main one being that footage recorded by police body cams is off limits to the public and not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson — these nine parishioners lost their lives on the night of June 17 when an armed white man entered Emanuel AME Church and opened fire. Five individuals in the church that evening survived the shooting: Felicia Sanders, the mother of victim Tywanza Sanders, and her granddaughter, Polly Sheppard, and Pinckney's wife and daughter. Following an extensive manhunt, authorities tracked 21-year-old suspect Dylann Roof to Shelby, N.C., where he was arrested the morning after the shooting and returned to Charleston. Roof currently faces multiple murder and weapons charges and is expected to stand trial in July 2016. The attack on Mother Emanuel, one of the country's oldest historically black congregations, increased national concern over the racial climate in South Carolina. Days after the shooting, a website was discovered, appearing to belong to Roof. Photos of the suspect posing with a handgun and the Confederate battle flag were found on the site, as well as a manifesto detailing the racist motivations of its author. The tragedy at Mother Emanuel drew international attention, and a makeshift memorial to the victims took shape in front of the church. In a show of support, thousands gathered along the Ravenel Bridge on the Sunday evening following the shooting, and the City of Charleston established the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund, which went on to raise almost $3 million in donations for the families of the victims. Through the violent actions of one man, the old wounds of South Carolina and its history were laid bare. But the massacre at Mother Emanuel reminds us all that the path to peace and equality is ongoing.
"For too long, we've been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career," said President Barack Obama during the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney in a eulogy that seemed to touch on all the challenges facing Charleston. "Perhaps it causes us to examine what we're doing to cause some of our children to hate. Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system and leads us to make sure that that system is not infected with bias, that we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure."
The eight-month search for a new superintendent for the Charleston County School District ended in July with the controversial appointment of Gerrita Postlewait. Former chair of the S.C. State Board of Education, Postlewait earned the title of Superintendent of the Year during her time in charge of Horry County schools, but her welcome to Charleston County was anything but warm. The selection process for the new superintendent drew accusations of bias and lack of transparency from local officials and community leaders, several of whom called for the search to be postponed following the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel. Postlewait's job has only become more difficult with the recent revelation of an $18 million shortfall for the 2014-2015 school year and growing concerns over financial problems for the district.
Less than a month following the tragic events at Mother Emanuel, the Confederate battle flag was removed from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia. The flag had been a point of controversy for decades, flying atop the capitol dome since 1961 before it was relocated to a nearby Confederate war memorial in 2000. After the state Senate's vote to place the flag in the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum and a marathon debate among the members of the House, Gov. Nikki Haley signed the bill into law on July 10 using nine pens that were then given to the families of those killed in the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel.
As Charleston's homeless population continues to grow, officials took steps to keep panhandlers from peddling near city streets. Going into effect Sept. 18, the ordinance prohibits the passing and receiving of any item from any occupant of a vehicle that is located in a lane of travel on the roadway. Those found in violation face a possible fine of $1,092 or 30 days in jail. While many see the new rule as an attempt to keep the local homeless population out of sight, the city called the ordinance a way to promote the free flow of traffic and ensure the safety of pedestrians near roadways.
For days at the beginning of October, it seemed as if it would never stop raining. Creeks and rivers swelled and city streets continued to fill with water as Charleston experienced the effects of what meteorologists called a 1,000-year flood event. The record-breaking amounts of rainfall were enough to temporarily close the Charleston peninsula and ravage communities in the Midlands as dams and roadways failed. Shelters across the state filled with those who lost their homes to rising waters, and after four days, some parts of the Charleston area had experienced more than two feet of rain. Finally, the clouds parted and residents were able to return home to pick up the pieces following the storm, but with at least 17 deaths reported and more than $1 billion in damage, the lasting effects of the flood are still being felt.
After 40 years in office, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. announced he was ready to step down — leaving Charleston residents with the difficult decision of electing the city's first new leader in a generation. Fortunately, there were plenty of candidates to choose from. While those vying for the office managed to keep it civil early on, the race for mayor eventually turned into the three-ring circus we all expected. The final vote came down to a runoff between state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis and John Tecklenburg. Stavrinakis had long been considered the frontrunner in the race and held a slight lead in the first election, but he was no match for the clean campaigning and good-natured demeanor of Tecklenburg, who won the final election by more than 3,500 votes. The new mayor is set to be sworn in on Jan. 11.
Showing no clear signs of an immediate resolution, the debate over Sergeant Jasper may be doomed to drag on forever, much in the way that Sisyphus must push a boulder uphill only to watch it roll back down. In February, concerned residents filled a meeting of the city's Planning Commission, who were prepared to hear the Beach Company's proposal to redevelop the Sergeant Jasper site. The initial plan included three buildings with a concealed parking garage and up to 35,000 square feet of commercial space, including a 24-hour grocery. The Beach Company would soon withdraw that plan from consideration, in favor of a new proposal for a project that would have consisted of 80 luxury residential units, approximately 118,000 square feet of office space, and 40,350 square feet of neighborhood retail. That plan was nixed by the city's Board of Architectural Review, which drew a lawsuit from the developers. Following another volley of designs for the site, Mayor Riley, in one of his final acts as mayor, offered up a plan that may resolve the Sergeant Jasper dilemma in our lifetimes. In November, Riley brought it all full circle, directing the city's Planning Department to work with the Beach Company to devise a new plan for the Sergeant Jasper site based on the developer's previous proposal from the beginning of the year.