On Wed. May 6, a group of protestors featuring members of the gay rights group Southerners on New Ground (SONG) and the Black Lives Matter-inspired #BlackBrunchCHS blocked the Ravenel Bridge with their cars and bodies for a few minutes. Their purpose was to encourage their Lowcountry neighbors to address a very serious problem: the racist murders that have been committed by police against unarmed black men across the country.
Although these individuals blocked traffic on arguably the busiest section of road in the area at the busiest time of day, this act of protest was designed to be safe — and it was. And it certainly drew the attention of everyone in the Charleston area.
As you know, a month ago North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager shot and killed an unarmed Walter Scott as he was running away. Because the shooting was captured on a cell phone, media outlets from around the world aired the footage. The Lowcountry immediately reacted — as did North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers, who fired the officer, and the S.C. Law Enforcement Division, which charged Slager with murder — but the responses were generally quiet and mildly apologetic, much to no one's surprise. After all, we're in Charleston, and in Charleston we're supposed to be polite. We're supposed to smile, pat someone on the shoulder, and shake our heads.
The May 6 activism on the part of the Cooper River 4 challenged those time-honored attitudes that we should never raise our voices or inconvenience anybody. As the Cooper River 4 protested on the Ravenel Bridge, they shouted, "It is our duty to fight for our freedom," "We must love each other and support each other," and my favorite, "Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!"
A dozen activists were standing on the Ravenel Bridge pedestrian path, watching the drivers and filming everything to ensure the safety of the protestors in the roadway. Other protestors went into the street and held up posters. When the group was asked to leave the bridge, four people sat in a circle, their hands connected. Ultimately, those individuals — the Cooper River 4 — were arrested and taken to jail.
In an online statement from the protestors, the group wrote that they "demand an end to the violence against black people by police, the murder of black people by police, and the constant surveillance, economic deprivation, and fear put upon black people who live in Charleston by police and by the City of Charleston and many power holders who live here."
I recently spoke with two members of the Cooper River 4, Pope (née Ansley Katelyn Pope) and Chantelle Lebeau. Pope says, "I'm tired of navigating through life in fear. Why does my blackness put me at higher risk of criminalization, violence, policing, and terror?"
Meanwhile, Lebeau says, "This is about the lives that are demonized and systematically slaughtered to preserve white supremacy. This is to get the attention of those who ignore what is happening ... and inform them about what they can do in the movement. I will not be complicit."
I find this activism to be powerful and necessary. Many of the people who were part of the recent protest have experienced racism in their lives — Pope, for one, is African American. Unfortunately, their work demonstrates that racism operates in a numbers of ways. It's here in Charleston in May 2015.
Fortunately, these activists aren't running away. They'll have to pay fines. They're speaking out. And they're recognizing that it's not simply the job of one group to bring about change. All of us are needed.
Thanks to the Cooper River 4, #BlackBrunchCHS, and SONG, the time has come to recognize, here and nationwide, that when it comes to racial matters, our nation is an embarrassment — and that's putting it mildly.