In South Carolina, home of Palmetto trees and weird New South racial politics, the aftermath of the Walter Scott shooting has been notably different from responses elsewhere.
Protesters in New York City shut down the Brooklyn Bridge in frustration over Scott’s tragic death, but 800 miles away, South Carolina has been comparatively serene since the macabre, in-the-back police shooting a week ago. Protests in and around North Charleston seem supplanted by vigils and the soft, spiritual strength of Scott’s parents maintaining remarkable calm in the face of loss.
“There are faithful and truthful people, and God has a way to make them do the right thing,” Scott’s mother, Judy, told reporters last week.
South Carolina is quickly going about the important business of policy response. Some watching from the outside may wonder where the big protests are, but there seems to be a resolve not to go down that road.
Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), assistant Democratic leader in the U.S. House and South Carolina’s lone black congressman, referenced the video of the shooting. “You can see what actually happened,” he told The Root. When asked if the shooting may have dramatically altered the political landscape in the state, he added, “There are things you can see here that you can’t see elsewhere.”
In some ways, Clyburn—state political kingmaker that he is—sees a policy opening rather than a platform for protest.
Having watched the video, he and his colleagues intend to tackle a number of policing issues, from making body cameras mandatory (although South Carolina’s cop lobby is balking at the initial $30 million cost) to overhauling hiring and training standards. State Sen. Marlon Kimpson (D-Charleston), an ambitious and relatively new-blood lawmaker, had already filed the mandatory body-camera legislation known as Senate Bill 47 with Sen. Gerald Malloy (D-Darlington) following a wave of killings and protests last year. Clyburn is pushing legislation back in Washington, too.
In December the Republican-dominated South Carolina Legislature wasn’t really feeling S.B. 47, predictably aligning their interests with the state’s influential law-enforcement community.
But since the death of Scott, the bill—along with companion legislation on the House side—has gained traction as GOP legislators eagerly sign on to it. “Change is hard for some people,” a confident Kimpson said when describing the multimonth, multistakeholder process. “But momentum for the bill is now there. And it would not have happened if not for that shooting being caught on tape.”
South Carolina’s body-camera bill is presumably the impetus for a fresh assault on other issues and what black policymakers, including Clyburn and Kimpson, describe as a fresh climate for “change.” The question is: Will it be Ferguson, Mo.-level change?
Not really. Or, rather, not in that way. At the moment, change is all locked on a disciplined, two-pronged strategy between lawmakers pushing impactful legislation in the statehouse while advocates push a ground game focused on voter involvement and output. Black politicos, in essence, are handling it.
“The culture of law enforcement has always been problematic, especially when it deals with the racial profiling of our black males,” state Rep. David J. Mack III (D-Charleston) reminded The Root. “I think that this tragedy has allowed us to capitalize on civic involvement. Getting more people to vote. Getting more people involved. Folks are going to have to make the change.”
Enter South Carolina’s massive black voting population, nearly 30 percent of the state’s voters. The Scott tragedy may translate into extra black political mobilization, since African-American registration (pdf) is on the upswing. South Carolina’s black political footprint is solid, with Republicans such as disgraced-governor-turned-representative Mark Sanford in the neighboring 1st Congressional District forced to watch it closely. Thus, it was no surprise to find Sanford—who could be hungry for a statewide comeback—showing some thoughtful remorse in a way that most Republicans just don’t.
There’s no lack of simmering outrage or anger in South Carolina; nor has the state suddenly transformed into an idyllic racial utopia simply because of swift arrests and a contrite North Charleston mayor and police chief. As the nation reflects on 150 years since the end of the Civil War, the aftershocks of Scott’s death ripple through South Carolina. His death at the hands of a trigger-happy white man occurred just a week before the anniversary of the blazing 1861 Battle of Fort Sumter off Charleston’s coast that ultimately split the country in two. The history is not lost on observers, but there’s a sense that the state’s black political machine is going about this in a much smarter way.
The Walter Scott tragedy could serve as an opening for expanded clout in the nation’s 10th-fastest-growing state. South Carolina Republicans seem a bit nervous—hence the sudden rush to sign on to the Kimpson-Malloy body-camera bill. The state might be solidly red in presidential elections—President Barack Obama won only 44 percent of vote in 2012—but it’s almost 5 percentage points more blue than it was in 1996. The demographics are changing, and the state, with its odd combination of a black Republican senator and Indian-American governor, has no choice but to embrace the browning.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.