By Tom Grubisich
Monday night’s big Nehemiah Action assembly in North Charleston could have been the perfect occasion, perfectly timed, for an honest discussion of controversial city policing stops of predominantly black motorists and the still-too-high rates of violent crime that drive those stops.
But this valuable discussion won’t happen because North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers have chosen to boycott the assembly. The annual event is sponsored by the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, whose 30 congregations of all faiths throughout the Tri-County region represent about 30,000 worshippers.
CAJM said the assembly, which will be held in the sanctuary of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, right in the heart of the city, starting at 7 p.m., would attract as many as 2,300 members of its congregations.
"My decision not to attend is I have no belief in CAJM's bullying tactics and their sheer disregard to treat folks with common decency,” Driggers said in response to the repeated invitations to attend the assembly from CAJM. “I have met with them in the past and every time, have been dismayed by the way I was treated and the way I have seen them treat others.”
Driggers is partially right – CAJM has overreached in its "direct-action" tactics in trying to get the chief and his boss in City Hall to come to its assembly. But despite CAJM’s heavy-handedness in talks with Driggers, he should have put himself above it and said he’d be at Mt. Moriah Monday night. (In fairness to CAJM, in previous discussions with Driggers on the high number of juveniles that his force was arresting in nonviolent incidents in public schools, Ministry negotiators had to cajole the chief into adopting a "risk assessment" that produced a significant reduction in arrests.)
The citizens of North Charleston need to hear why their police force makes high numbers of “investigatory” police stops of motorists – particularly black ones -- a major element of its fight against violent crime in the city. Following the trend nationally, violent crime has declined in North Charleston over the decade, but based on arrests for murder, rape, robberies and assaults, the city of 106,000 population is still one of the most unsafe communities in the U.S.
Mayor Summey, in his justification for not going to the CAJM assembly, made it clear, unintentionally, why he and his police chief should be at the event, which, by the way, will be attended by Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, who. amid the Summey-Driggers boycott, has confirmed he'll be at Mt. Moriah.
"I'm not going to change my mind," Summey said at Thursday night’s City Council meeting. "I would greatly appreciate it if these folks that are so concerned in their churches will go into their communities and witness to kids and gangs ... and fill up their churches with these people and our jobs will be a lot simpler. That's how they can work with us. Not tell us how to do our job."
CAJM says the police stops – one of which resulted in the internationally spotlighted police shooting death of unarmed North Charleston resident Walter Scott on April 4 of last year – make little impact against the rates of violent crime. What is Chief Driggers’ response? It appears that his force has eased up on the frequency of its investigatory stops. Will this easing up end the disproportionately high number of stops of black motorists?
It’s vexing questions like these that could have been productively discussed at Monday night’s assembly – but won’t because Summey and Driggers won’t be there. Instead, there’s likely to be a lot of hot rhetoric aimed at the city’s two top officials.
To a degree, the rebukes that will be delivered will be justified. But the Old Testament book of the prophet Nehemiah offers good advice on when punishment should end and reconciliation begin. In Chapter 9, Nehemiah catalogs the successive transgressions of the Israelites against their liberator and Creator, including those by his tribe of Judah. Addressing God, Nehemiah writes in Chapter 9, Verse 31:
“For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you gave them into the hands of the neighboring peoples. But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.”
Let’s hope that these words of reconciliation will find their place at Monday night’s Nehemiah Action.