Turning outrage into action: The coalition of congregations working to dismantle racism in policing
Almost a year on from the racist massacre at the Tops Grocery store in Buffalo, WBFO is exploring ties with another community that has suffered in similar ways. A team of WBFO reporters visited Charleston, S.C. There, in June 2015, a white supremacist gunman entered Mother Emanuel AME church and murdered nine Black worshipers. We examine if there is anything Buffalo can learn from Charleston’s journey toward healing and hope in the eight years since that attack.
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In the months after the racist massacre at Mother Emanuel AME, a group of churches, two mosques, and a synagogue were determined to offer more than just thoughts and prayers. Instead, they joined together to tackle racism in the Charleston-area’s most prominent institutions: the police departments.
“We joined together to advance social justice,” says Reverend Jeremy Rutledge, Senior Minister at Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, a majority white congregation that describes itself as liberal and progressive. The church is a member of this coalition of congregations, called the Charleston Area Justice Ministry. The collective includes around 40 groups. Most have a religious affiliation, but some do not.
“I think what's so unique about the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, is that it is interfaith and multicultural. It's very evenly distributed between our Black congregations and our white ones,” Rutledge says.
“I think what's so unique about the Charleston Area Justice Ministry is that it is interfaith and multicultural. It's very evenly distributed between our Black congregations and our white ones."Rev. Jeremy Rutledge
Each year since 2012, the Charleston Area Justice Ministry chooses an issue that is negatively impacting people in the area, and they mount a social justice campaign to try to make it better. The ministry is an affiliate of the Direct Action & Research Training Center (DART), and follows the center's direct action process, a model that has been replicated in ten states across the U.S. First, the collective selects the focus of the campaign by holding listening sessions in the community.
“We just start with the question, 'What keeps you up at night?'" says Rutledge of the listening sessions.
The next stage of the direct action process is to create a shortlist from the community's top concerns shared in those sessions. Then, justice ministry members vote to select the year's campaign from the shortlist.
And after the racist shooting at Mother Emanuel AME on June 17, 2015, the members voted to campaign for racial equity in policing; specifically, to tackle racial discrimination in police practices. According to Rutledge, the massacre at Mother Emanuel was not the only motivation to pursue a racial justice campaign.
“Walter Scott influenced that choice."
Horrifyingly, the attack at Mother Emanuel wasn’t the only killing with a racial element that was committed in the Charleston area that year. Just two months earlier, Walter Scott, a Black man, was murdered by a white police officer in North Charleston - a city that is separate from Charleston, but just 15 minutes away by car. A video capturing the crime shows the officer shooting Walter Scott in the back several times. The encounter started as a traffic stop.
“And so those things, those friends, were on our minds,” recalls Rutledge, solemnly. “All those vigils, all those funerals. I know there was a very strong sentiment in the justice ministry that if we didn't do this now, meaning take on the problem of racial profiling in policing, when would we ever do it? If not now, when?”
And the justice ministry set a clear, measurable outcome for their campaign. They asked the city for an independent audit into racial bias in the Charleston Police Department.
The group was immediately met with resistance.
But with nearly 40 groups, the Charleston Area Justice Ministry’s major strength lies in its representation of the many faiths, ethnicities, and perspectives that comprise Greater Charleston. So when their campaign came up against roadblocks, the network had the expertise to manage those obstacles in the form of members such as Reverend Joseph Darby. Pastor Darby has over 40 years of experience ministering at AME churches in South Carolina and is currently senior minister at Nichols Chapel AME in Charleston. As a pastor inspired by his minister uncles who were also involved in the civil rights movement, he has some idea of what it takes to overcome resistance to racial justice.
“Power does not concede power without demand. And I think that's still true, especially when it comes to matters of race. The South sometimes works by, I think, tacit kindness, but more often works by pressure and coercion,” Darby says.
Pressure and coercion is exactly what the collective of congregations applied. Persistently.
“Power does not concede power without demand. And I think that's still true, especially when it comes to matters of race."Rev. Joseph Darby
Reverends Darby and Rutledge, along with other justice ministry congregation leaders, asked people in their communities to go to council meetings to share their first-hand experiences of being racially profiled by the police. A tactic that took planning, “You only get one minute or two minutes, so you have to be pretty organized about this,” Rutledge notes.
Council meeting after council meeting, community members would wait until the public comment opportunity, and then give their testimony.
“We just wouldn't go away,” Rutledge says. “But every once in a while, this sustained pressure will cause something to shift.”
That shift happened when instead of the public telling their stories of racial profiling leading to traffic stops, the Black council members gave their testimony. Councilman Keith Waring was one such individual. He’s been on the Charleston City Council, which is non-partisan, for 12 years. Waring is adamant that if it wasn’t for the persistent public input from the justice ministry, that shift would never have taken place.
“Without public input or insistence, I should say, it would have been whitewashed,” he claims.
"Every once in a while, this sustained pressure will cause something to shift.”Rev. Jeremy Rutledge
The public input eventually moved Waring to ask this question in the chamber: by show of hands amongst the staff and council members, how many people had been stopped by the police in the area?
“All African Americans had experiences. Even our clerk of court who happened to be African American. None of the whites did,” Waring remembers.
After two years of sustained campaigning and organizing from the Justice Ministry, as well as the retirement of the police chief, the council eventually unanimously voted for an independent audit into racial bias in Charleston’s Police Department.
The final report from the audit was published another two years later in 2019, and the results reflected the testimonies given by the public in the council meetings; there were indeed racial disparities in traffic stops. And the Ministry’s campaign spread to North Charleston, but that campaign was also difficult, taking five years before their audit began.
And the work is not yet done. The push against racial discrimination in police practices still goes on in the Charleston area. But for Pastor Darby, the ministry has at least moved the needle.
“Charleston runs on what I call raging politeness. We talk a very good game, but we sometimes don't want to talk about the rougher edges of that game. Justice ministry managed to break some of that veneer of raging politeness and have some people who otherwise would not come to the table, come to the table.”
"Justice ministry managed to break some of that veneer of raging politeness and have some people who otherwise would not come to the table, come to the table.”Rev. Joseph Darby
When asked if there is anything Buffalo can take from his experience when it comes to social justice work, Reverend Rutledge stresses the importance of a network.
“I think one thing we have learned here in Charleston, is that building solidarity over time, not just in the immediate aftermath, or in the first year, but building sustained networks of care and solidarity, political action, that really cross the lines of race and class. For me, I, draw hope from our justice ministry, because it is all of us working together. And we are up against a lot, to be honest.”
The journey to change in the wake of the Mother Emanuel attack and the murder of Walter Scott has been slow and often painful for Charleston. But this story is perhaps a realistic example for us in Buffalo, a year after the Tops massacre, of the work that lies ahead.