By Barney Blakeney
The 20-year sentence given to convicted former North Charleston policeman Michael Slager for the 2015 killing of Walter Scott sets a new precedent in the saga of Black victims of police brutality in America. But it wouldn’t have happened if Feidin Santana had not courageously come forth with the video recording of the incident.
Police and city officials already had erected the ‘blue wall’ around Slager when, unexpectedly, Santana’s video recording was produced. After the April 4 shooting, Slager told authorities he and Scott had struggled. And in fear for his life, he shot Scott – five times in the back. First responders never refuted Slager’s version of the incident despite the obvious. And days after the controversial shooting forensic investigators still had not produced evidence to challenge Slager’s story. But civil rights leaders who questioned Slager’s version of the incident had become aware of a video recording that showed Slager taking aim and firing eight shots at the fleeing Scott. When they produced the video, Slager’s tale unraveled. Egg-faced city officials immediately withdrew their support of Slager, who then was arrested.
Last week Slager was sentenced to 20 years. That’s never has happened in South Carolina in the case of a white police officer shooting a Black victim under questionable circumstances. Although other police shooting incidents have been captured on video, the event captured by Santana provided almost undeniable evidence Scott posed no threat to Slager.
Still a jury in December 2016 failed to arrive at a verdict in Slager’s state murder trial. It took a federal judge to hand down a sentence after Slager pled guilty to federal charges to violating Scott’s civil rights. Judge David Norton said the video evidence clearly showed Slager committed second degree murder and sentenced the policeman accordingly.
Santana is being hailed as a hero for coming forth with the video. The then 23-year-old Dominican Republic native happened on the incident as he walked to work about 9:30 a.m. He realized he was witnessing a dreadful situation and had the presence of mind to use his cellphone to record it. But it took exceptional courage and sense of justice to make the recording available to the proper authorities.
As soon as the video became public Santana began receiving death threats. “People use videos and social media in some nonsensical ways,” said Rev. Nelson Rivers, national vice president of Religious Affairs and External Relations for the National Action Network. “But Santana used his video literally to bring justice at his own peril.” Santana had reason to fear retribution from police and racists, Rivers said. Yet he not only came forward with the video anyway, he stood fast through all the court proceedings. He returned to Charleston for some of those events from his home in the Dominican Republic traveling at his own expense.
North Charleston Branch NAACP President Ed Bryant said Santana’s sense of justice and righteousness was evident from the beginning. He asked for nothing in return and seemed only to want Scott’s family to know what really happened and to get justice for their loved one. His testimony during both the state and federal trials were without malice and definitive, Bryant said.
Rivers said Santana’s conduct throughout the ordeal was an example of the fearless faith he and the members of the Scott family have shared. “Santana could have quit any time. He was facing death threats and knew that what he was doing could lead to deportation or affect his family negatively. He could have asked what would happen if he came forward with the video. Instead, he asked what would happen if he didn’t. A lot of people wouldn’t have done that.”