Walter Lamar Scott, a black man shot in the back by a white police patrolman, was borne to his grave Saturday inside a flag-draped coffin escorted by motorcycle police from that same officer’s North Charleston Police Department.
In an emotional memorial service at a church crammed with 500 mourners, no one mentioned the name of Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager, charged with murder in Scott's killing a week earlier. But the pastor who led the impassioned service condemned “the act of racism and hatred in that officer’s heart.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that Walter’s death was motivated by racial prejudice,” the Rev. Dr. George D. Hamilton told mourners. “You have got to hate somebody to shoot them in the back. This hate came because Walter was an African American.”
The pastor’s words brought some mourners to their feet. There were cries of “Right! Right!” and “Amen!”’
The service crystallized simmering resentment in the black community of North Charleston, S.C., which is 47% African American, since Scott was shot April 4 as he ran from Slager after a traffic stop. Residents said the type of petty offense for which Scott was stopped — a broken brake light — symbolized persistent racial profiling of blacks pulled over for years for minor or nonexistent violations.
Slager, 33, whose wife is eight months pregnant, on Saturday was at a county prison, a few miles from the church. The eight shots he fired at Scott’s back figured prominently in the service.
Hamilton called the shooting “a hideous crime” compounded, he said, when Slager handcuffed the dying man instead of trying to save his life.
“Why would a cop handcuff a dead man anyhow?” he asked, drawing shouts of approval from the mourners.
“This officer is a disgrace to the North Charleston Police Department,” the pastor went on.
But Hamilton warned against condemning all police, adding, “He is a disgrace to all the outstanding police officers who put their lives on the line to protect citizens of this area. We will not indict the entire law enforcement community for the act of a single racist.”
Of good officers, he added: “We thank God for them.”
Officers from the Charleston County Sheriff’s Department and the Summerville Police Department helped provide security at the service. They were greeted cordially by mourners, even after the officers helped church officials deny entrance to more than 100 people who failed to get inside a church filled beyond capacity.
Hamilton told mourners that Scott’s death was not in vain because it has prompted what he called “a new consciousness” about police profiling and excessive force against blacks in North Charleston and across the country.
The violent death of Scott, 50, might bring a new day when “every African American doesn’t need to be afraid when they are stopped by the police,” the pastor said.
Few mourners had not seen the video, taken by a bystander, that showed Slager firing at Scott as he ran across a grassy lot. Slager was arrested and charged Tuesday, after the video was turned over to state law enforcement officials. He was fired from the department.
Like many residents and civil rights leaders here, Hamilton said the shooting would have gone unpunished if not for the video taken by Feidin Santana. Hamilton said God had brought Santana to the shooting scene to expose to the world the truth about Scott’s killing. The video sparked anger and prompted calls for justice, but there has been no violence and only a few demonstrations.
The funeral service was held at W.O.R.D. Ministries Christian Center, where Scott was the first member of his family to attend, singing in the choir. The Scott family sat at the front of the church, where Scott's body lay in a coffin draped with an American flag.
After the service and viewing, mourners gathered outside to discuss the shooting, which has dominated conversation here. Scott, a father of four, was driving a used Mercedes-Benz to buy auto parts when Slager pulled him over in the parking lot of an Advance Auto Store in North Charleston.
The store is less than a mile from the officer’s rented home in the neighboring community of Hanahan, and only five miles from the Charleston home where Scott grew up. The two men were a generation apart, but both had served in the Coast Guard and lived in or near North Charleston.
Minutes after Slager took Scott’s driver’s license back to his patrol car, Scott suddenly bolted from the Mercedes and ran toward the vacant lot. The scene was captured by the officer’s dashboard camera.
After a scuffle in the grassy lot a few hundred yards away, Scott broke free. Slager aimed his service pistol and fired, striking Scott four times in the back, according to an autopsy report cited by lawyers for the Scott family. They say they intend to sue the city.
The video shows the officer hurrying from Scott’s fallen body to retrieve his Taser stun gun. Slager then dropped the weapon next to Scott’s body.
Slager had reported that Scott had accosted him and taken his Taser. Civil rights activists said Slager was planting evidence to buttress his false version of events.
Scott had been jailed three times since 2008, and members of his family say he likely fled because he owed $18,000 in unpaid child support.
Scott lost a $35,000-a-year job while serving time in jail in 2003, according to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, an African American Democrat from South Carolina who attended the service.
“He felt he had lost everything, and that sent him into a downward spiral,” Clyburn said. Scott was working as a warehouse forklift operator at the time of his death.
Rep. Clyburn said it was important to local residents that Hamilton, during the funeral, addressed racial profiling in connection with Scott’s traffic stop and shooting death.
“He would have been hypocritical not to speak to the issue head on,” Clyburn said.
After the service, eight officers from North Charleston, Charleston and the Charleston County Sheriff’s Department cranked up their motorcycles. They escorted the funeral procession to Live Oak Memorial Gardens in Charleston, where the spring grass was a deep green and the azalea shrubs in full violet bloom.
Scott was laid to rest in a blue casket adorned with images of Bibles. Each member of his family held a single yellow rose. There was no talk of the shooting or of racial profiling. There were only prayers, readings from Scripture, and the soft sobs of the mourners.