WASHINGTON – It began as yet another sickening case of a black man gunned down by a white cop, shot dead as he ran away after being stopped for a broken taillight.
But something very different happened this time: The authorities got it right.
After a video surfaced of Officer Michael Slager’s vile actions, the mayor and police chief of North Charleston, S.C., acted swiftly late Tuesday, and Slager was charged with murder.
Even as the video of Walter Scott’s killing was exploding around the country, votes were being counted in Ferguson, Mo., scene of last year’s fatal shooting by a different white cop of a different black man, Michael Brown. In an unusually strong turnout for a municipal election, two new African-American members were elected to the Ferguson City Council.
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By coincidence, the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network opened its annual conference in New York on Wednesday morning, and though you wouldn’t call it a celebratory mood – there’s nothing to celebrate about that video – there was at least satisfaction on the dais that, for the moment at least, the arc of the moral universe was visibly bending toward justice.
“We’re all feeling some pain today, I would imagine. I certainly am,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told the crowd at the opening of the civil rights gathering. The video, he said, “is so disturbing and so painful, you can’t watch that as a human being and not feel pain. … When you see something that painful, it is tempting to feel despair.”
But the mayor counseled against despair. “It is propitious that even against the backdrop of the sorrow we’re feeling today, we get news this morning of elections in Ferguson, Missouri, that changed the composition of that city council,” he said. And “there is something powerful in the fact that officials in South Carolina acted speedily to address a tragedy. …They said something was fundamentally wrong, and they applied justice. That indicates something changing that not so many years ago would have been very hard to imagine.”
There was pain, for sure, at the Sheraton in New York’s Times Square, particularly when relatives of men killed by police gathered on the stage. “I just feel so alone without him,” said Esaw Snipes, sobbing. Her husband, Eric Garner, was killed on Staten Island last year by a police officer who put him in a chokehold. His offense: selling untaxed cigarettes. A grand jury didn’t indict the officer.
The widow told the gathering that, on Tuesday night, “I was in my room and I looked at the news … and I started crying, and my son came in the room and he’s like, ‘Mom? What’s wrong?’ And I said, ‘Eric, I just feel so alone.’”
Tuesday’s events – the charging of the South Carolina officer and the election results in Ferguson – show in an important way that victims of police violence are not alone and that a critical mass may have been reached in the movement to change policing practices. Lawrence O’Donnell, who like Sharpton hosts an MSNBC show, during one of Wednesday’s panels likened the Scott video to the videotaped beating of Rodney King, when “most Americans realized that that kind of conduct was possible.”
Ben Carson, the conservative presidential hopeful, told Sharpton’s meeting that “I was aghast at an execution that occurred without a trial in the streets of America. This is such a clear-cut case that I believe it’s going to give law enforcement in this country an opportunity … to demonstrate which side they come down on, and I believe that’s actually going to be a good thing.”
Sharpton, who led protests in the Garner and Brown cases, struck a conciliatory tone.
“The mayor and the police chief in Charleston did the right thing, and we commend them,” he said, later adding, “Who would have believed that a police chief in the Deep South would show more honesty and transparency than some of the big-city police chiefs?”
Sharpton’s solution: federal laws and standards for police. That will be a steep climb, but this week’s developments suggest things are headed in the right direction. Benjamin Crump, who had been the Brown family’s attorney, told the crowd: “You refused to go quietly into the night, and that’s why this morning we are proud to announce that history was made in Ferguson, Missouri, when your community came out to vote … and that is the legacy we can give to Michael Brown.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.