One after another, leaders of the 30 congregations in the Charleston Area Justice Ministry went to the mic at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in North Charleston Monday night and made their commitment to bring pledged numbers of members to CAJM's April 18 Nehemiah Action Assembly.
Fifty, said one leader. 75, said another, 100, said one more. On and on it went: 150, 200, "everybody in our congregation."
When all the commitments were made, it was clear that the CAJM had a good shot at producing a Nehemiah Action that would pack the main sanctuary at Mount Moriah with about 2,300 congregation members. The main purpose of the Action is to demonstrate to the community - in particular local public officials - the Ministry's determination to carry out a biblically backed direct action program of social justice in racially disparate regional Charleston. ("Nehemiah Action" is named after the biblical prophet who prayer to God was undergirded by a commitment to justice on Earth.)
As the evening wound up, the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, senior pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, mounted the pulpit and told the rally:
"In four years we have done the impossible. We did it with people who knew that the impossible could happen if the people showed up....What we are about to do is what I prayed we do the first time we came to the [Nehemiah] Action: To hit the issue head on - racism should be made an outlaw in Charleston."
Beyond Catfish Row talked with a CAJM organizer about the Ministry's recent string of accomplishments in its direct-action initiatives to end racism in Charleston, and what it will be doing as move moves forward from the April 18 Nehemiah Action. CAJM doesn't like to single out organizers, so we're not identifying whom we interviewed for this Q & A:
CAJM's School-Based Arrests and PBIS and Restorative Justice Committee met last week with the Charleston County School District's Strategic Education Committee on the high rate of minority student arrests and suspensions. What was the result of that meeting? Are you encouraged?
CAJM's committee made a 15-minute presentation on PBIS [Positive Behavior Interventions and Support] and Restorative Justice as best practices to reduce student suspensions and arrests. The county school district had committed to implement Restorative Justice in five schools back at the Nehemiah Action in 2014, and to date it is only being used in one school. With over 50 CAJM members present, we reminded School Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait, as well as school-board members, about their public commitment. With over 1,000 arrests occurring in school over the past year and a half, and with black youth representing 85% of those arrests (even though they only represent 42% of CCSD's collective student body), our students and our community don't have time to wait any longer. We were absolutely encouraged by the meeting and expect firm steps forward in the coming weeks, but know we must continue to pay attention and hold our school district accountable for the commitments they have made.
CAJM's 2016 strategy is putting a focus on police stopping motorists for minor infractions. You have detailed widely disparate numbers of police stops of blacks in proportion to the percentage of the population in Charleston, North Charleston and Mt. Pleasant. CAJM says it cannot accept these numbers. What do you doing in response?
In November of 2015, over 600 CAJM members gathered together and collectively voted to address "Racial Discrimination" in our community. The stories from our listening process led leaders to immediately narrow that topic to "Racial Discrimination in Police Practices," and more specifically, investigatory stops. These are stops which occur for usually minor things (i.e. the frame around the license plate covers the words "South Carolina," the tag light is too dim, the window tint is too dark, etc.) with the intent by the officer being to "investigate" further, with the hopes of identifying a more egregious potential crime, such as drugs, an outstanding warrant or an unlicensed weapon. North Charleston an Charleston lead the state in the number of stops that do not result in a citation or an arrest (a common sign of high levels of "fishing") and the racial disparity is very wide (for example, North Charleston's population is 47% African American, yet African Americans make up 65% of these stops). CAJM recognizes the need to address the policy and practice of investigatory stops, while also addressing the deeper problem of eroded community trust and a lack of transparency and accountability within our law enforcement agencies. In both North Charleston and Charleston, we will ask for a change in when and how investigatory stops are used, and we will advocate for the establishment of an independent and external police auditor's office in our community. This office would have total and unfettered access to data and personnel, would produce regular public reports on their findings in regards to auditing policy and practices, and would be overseen by a board of citizens representative of the local community. This is proven to increase transparency and accountability as well as build trust with the community. Just as important, increased trust also increases our police officers' capacity to do their jobs effectively and safely. Both our community and our law enforcement officers deserve better policing practices.
Mayor Tecklenburg will attend your April 18 Nehemiah Action. What's the significance of that? What will the Mayor's attendance mean for the Nehemiah Action, especially shaping what goes forward?
While I can't speak to Mayor Tecklenburg's personal motivations, we believe that he committed to attend because he recognizes how many people the Charleston Area Justice Ministry represents. He spoke of addressing community-police relations during his campaign and after the election, and we believe he can be a strong leader in this area. There is always an expectation for public officials to attend the Nehemiah Action. There is nowhere else such a large group of citizens' gathers to address serious community issues. The attendance of elected and appointed officials at Nehemiah Actions demonstrates a commitment to their constituents as public servants.
How many congregations are part of CAJM? What indicators do you see of your progress in fighting for social justice through a strategy of direct action?
We now have 30 covenanted member congregations and organizations (the YWCA officially covenanted recently), and we expect to have three to four additional congregations covenant before the end of summer. We have a proven track record of gaining commitments from public officials to move forward on addressing serious community problems as well as a record of good follow-up to ensure our public officials fulfill their commitments. More individuals than ever are committing to be a part of the Justice Ministry and that is mirrored in the financial ownership that individuals and congregations/organizations have over the work of their Justice Ministry.