Charleston City Council’s Surprising Conversation

On May 23rd, during the Citizens’ Participation portion of the Charleston City Council meeting, members of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM) spoke about the need for the city to hire an external auditor to investigate racial bias in the police department. At CAJM’s Nehemiah Assembly in April, we highlighted this issue in more detail and asked elected officials from Charleston and North Charleston to respond. Several Charleston City Council members attended that Assembly and made a public commitment to support the hiring of a qualified external auditor. CAJM had invited each city’s mayor and other elected officials to attend, but no white elected officials showed up. (Optics: less than ideal.) So now CAJM members have begun attending City Council meetings and making our case to all the [white] elected officials who had not attended our Assembly. After the third time we did this, on May 23rd, one of those council members spoke up, complaining that he felt “disrespected” by our organization and wondering whether he and his colleagues should continue to allow this kind of participation, which he described as an “orchestrated assault on City Council.”Screenshot 2017-05-29 13.45.33

What followed was fascinating–a spontaneous exchange between black and white members of City Council that lasts about 40 minutes. (You can watch it all online on the City’s Youtube channel. CAJM members’ comments start about 36 minutes into the meeting, and council members’ responses begin at about 50 minutes.)

While attempting to gather my thoughts about what that discussion meant, I wanted to be sure I understood, literally, what was said and who said it, in response to what. So I ended up doing my own little transcript of the conversation, in case anyone else wants to read it while watching the video, or to reread it again to make sure you just heard what you thought you heard.

I hope to say more about the conversation soon. To me, it provided interesting context for what Mayor Tecklenburg has asserted in recent months–that there’s no bias in our city’s police practices, that the Illumination Project, undertaken by the city’s police department, amply demonstrates that, and that anyway, the city is already doing the audit that CAJM is asking for. The conversation also shed some light on how the city chose the firm it hired to do a performance assessment (or an efficiency audit, or something) of potentially all departments in the city, and how that endeavor was related to an investigation of racial bias in policing. I’ve been studying city records to try to figure out what the city asked this firm to do and how the firm promised to do it. More on that later, I hope.

But even without any further information, the May 23rd City Council meeting sheds light on the history of our city, in which whiteness has prevailed over nonwhite citizens’ lives, in which privilege often overpowers democratic ideals, and in which people who benefit from this arrangement continue to tell themselves that the arrangement happens naturally and cannot be altered. These conditions are at work in many other American cities, probably in most of them. I’m just focusing on this one because I live here, and because I know we can do better.

City Council of Charleston SC May 23 2017

dum spiro spero

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