You’ve Got To Pick Your Battles Cautiously

By Barney Blakeney

If you’re scared, say you’re scared. But there’s a difference between being scared and being cautious. I’ve always tried to be cautious. I take risks, sometimes unnecessary risks. But I’m always cautious. I’m tempted to thrown caution to the wind in my discussion of the recent hubbub over a race bias audit of the Charleston Police Department.

From the outset, I couldn’t understand why the Charleston Area Justice Ministry would go after the CPD over race-based policing. I know ain’t nothing perfect and every police department’s got its problems. But if I was going after a racist police department, it wouldn’t be the Charleston Police Department. In this community, North Charleston Police Department takes the cake for race based policing! Everybody knows that. Everybody knows when you drive through North Charleston be on your Ps and Qs cause them boys’ll getcha.

CAJM went after Charleston police about traffic stops. That’s important. But until North Charleston went off the grid after the Walter Scott murder, Charleston police’s traffic stop record wasn’t on the radar. I mean, if you’re looking for a problem, you usually can find one. But if it was me, I’d be looking at excessive use of force. That’s always been a problem with the NCPD and it used to be a problem with CPD. Reuben Greenberg put a stop to that.

When I first started writing for The Chronicle, I cut my journalistic teeth writing stories about police abuse in Charleston and North Charleston. I wrote at least one police abuse story per week. Every now and then I’d get a story out of Charleston County Sheriff Department. There were a lot of problems and every local police agency shared in the general perception that Black folks would catch hell when caught on the wrong side of the law. Sometimes Black people caught hell even when they called the law!

I think Greenberg changed a lot of that when he came to town in 1982. He was a tough cop and he expected his men to be tough. But he also expected them to be respectful. A cop who was determined disrespectful to a citizen risked suspension, demotion and termination. And Greenberg was a stickler for professionalism. He rewarded cops with higher education degrees. I think he set a standard for other local police agencies – even in North Charleston where the perceptions of the yahoo cowboy policeman persisted.

I think the same held true for Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon. I first met Al Cannon when he was chief of North Charleston Police Department. Like Greenberg, whom Cannon worked for a little while, Cannon was a stickler for professionalism. Still is. I think he took that with him to the sheriff department in 1988. Again, nothing’s perfect, but because of the leadership at both the Charleston Police Department and Charleston County Sheriff Department, I’ve seen some positive change occur. Obviously a lot more has to happen or Derryl Drayton of James Island wouldn’t be dead and Bryant Heyward of Hollywood wouldn’t be sitting in a wheelchair.

So it comes down to picking your fight. I think if CAJM wants to pick a fight with a local police department, it could pick a more offensive target than Charleston Police Department. And that fight certainly might be over something other than traffic stops.

Again throwing caution to the wind, I’m reminded that one local family is suing a police agency for wrongful death in the case of a man shot nine times by Dorchester County deputies who fired at him 26 times. Cops say the guy fired at them, but a gun wasn’t found near the guy after the shooting ended. Something in the milk ain’t clean, but I’m worried that people aren’t always after justice. Sometimes it may be about the bucks.

My point is Black folks have suffered for hundreds of years under injustice perpetrated against us by law enforcement. The laws of this nation never has applied to us, it’s been applied against us. For hundreds of years Black folks have been jailed, murdered and died, at the hands of law enforcement. The struggle for justice cannot be reduced to a personal test of wills and influence.

A friend said to me the other night he knew why I would support Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg in his position on a race bias police audit of the city’s police department. I was offended because I take this privilege seriously. I was more offended when recently another friend suggested I took money from a guy to write a story about redevelopment in the Ashleyville community. His accusation was so ludicrous it didn’t bother me. What I found offensive was that the guy’s attack was based on the fact that someone else in the story got more prominence than he!

When the people we choose, or expect, to lead our communities in the battles we fight for equal justice in our society become more consumed about getting credit and saving face, we always will be the losers. This thing is too important to make it personal. The struggle always must be about what’s right.

Now I ain’t got no problem with conducting a race bias audit. But I don’t need no audit to tell me things ain’t right. I’m just sayin’ if there’s gonna be a fight, dagnabbit, let’s fight for something that going to make a difference. Let’s fight for better public education, jobs, business and home ownership. I can think of a lot of things we need to push Tecklenburg to do. Pushing him into a race bias audit of the police department ain’t the first thing that comes to my mind.

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