Praying for justice in Charleston

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) — Deacon Thad Miller closed his barbershop for the evening and sat in a worn leather chair by the front window. He was exhausted. Not just by the day’s work, but also the topic of conversation gripping his city.

Residents in Charleston are struggling under the weight of two racially charged trials. Jury selection is scheduled to resume Monday in the trial of Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who confessed to killing nine people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. The trial of Michael Slager, a white former North Charleston police officer charged in the shooting death of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, 50, started about a month ago.

The trials are taking place simultaneously in courthouses directly across the street from one another. Charlestonians, especially those in black communities, are watching the trials with a mix of skepticism and cautious optimism.

“One thing I did not understand is why they had both trials around the same time,” Miller said. “I just thought it would be too much on people from Charleston.”

In this small city, a few have personal connections to the victims. Some, like Miller, are particularly attentive.

Leaning forward in his chair, the balls of his feet pressing against the checkered tile floor, he recounted the story of a boy he adored.

Miller, 66, thought of Tywanza Sanders as a son. Miller stood as the best man at the boy’s parents’ wedding. He employed his mother as a hairstylist and watched Tywanza grow up around the shop.

By the age of 26, Sanders had become a barber, too. He still called Miller “Mr. Thad.”

Sanders was one of nine people killed on June 17, 2015, when Roof allegedly opened fire at a Bible study at the Mother Emanuel church in downtown Charleston.

A month before the attack, Miller offered Sanders some advice: “Whatever you do, you stick with your momma, because your mom is going to be the one that takes care of you.”

Sanders’ body was discovered alongside his mother, Felecia Sanders, who survived the ordeal by laying in his blood and playing dead.

Miller, a deacon at a small Baptist church, struggled to understand how such a bad thing could happen to one of God’s children.

“When this thing happened on this night, that was devastating,” said Miller.

At the same time, Miller is watching the Slager trial. Like others, he is frustrated by what he views as biased policing in the black community.

“When you look at it, a police officer is somebody who’s supposed to protect you from everything, anything,” Miller said.

Many Charlestonians are confident that Roof will be convicted of the 33 charges he faces, including federal hate crimes and firearms offenses. The question is whether he will be sentenced to death, a punishment sought by the US Justice Department. Meanwhile, some believe Slager, who faces a murder charge in state court, will be acquitted because, as they see it, police officers — especially white officers — are a protected class.

Residents know the nation is watching their city — and its reaction to the verdicts.

‘Injustice’ from the start?

Miller’s barbershop is a safe space where black men talk openly about politics and race above a clipper’s buzz.

“They’re going to let this guy walk,” Joseph Singleton, a 59-year-old carpenter shop supervisor at The Citadel, a military college in Charleston, said about Slager. “I haven’t seen them prosecute a policeman here yet. ”

Singleton, who stopped by for a haircut after work, said 9th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Scarlett A. Wilson has successfully prosecuted many defendants.

“But let’s see how well she does against — I call it one of her own people — a cop,” he said.

Singleton knows the Scott family. He served in the Marine Corps with one of Scott’s uncles in the 1970s.

Walter Scott was killed on April 4, 2015, during a routine traffic stop for a faulty brake light. For unknown reasons, Scott attempted to flee on foot. Slager fired eight shots, striking Scott five times. Three of those bullets hit him in the back.

Slager has told investigators Scott did not comply with his demands and tried to grab his stun gun. He has said he looks forward to clearing his name in court.

The case drew national attention after a witness video emerged, capturing the incident in vivid detail. Rights activists across the country decried the shooting as yet another instance of police brutality against black people.

The North Charleston Police Department fired Slager. A grand jury indicted him on a murder charge on June 8, 2015, days before Roof attacked Emanuel AME Church.

Slager faces 30 years to life in prison, if convicted.

The jury tasked with deciding his fate includes six white men, five white women and one black man. Jessie Parks, 33, a freelance editor in Charleston, believes the jury’s racial makeup is “an injustice.”

“Charleston is so gentrified that even the damn jury is gentrified,” said Parks, who is white. “So, we’re going into this trial from a standpoint of injustice from the get-go.”

Heather Hann, 43, who is also white, said if she was on the jury, she would certainly convict Slager, based on the video evidence.

“From my perspective, it seems like the officer was 100 percent guilty,” said Hann, a shift supervisor at a coffee shop. “And I do think the nation, if they get it wrong on that trial, should pay attention to that.”

There is speculation that any verdict short of guilty in Slager’s trial may spark protests and even riots similar to those that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, following the officer-involved deaths of unarmed black men in police encounters. However, the Rev. Joseph A. Darby, first vice president of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP, doesn’t believe that’s likely.

“I would imagine an acquittal would lead to a great deal of bitterness, a great deal of anger. I think a great deal of it would be suppressed, as is usually the case in Charleston,” he said.

“This is Charleston. We specialize in raging politeness down here.”

‘God will restore us’

The historically black Mother Emanuel Church is a glorious white building on a street named after John C. Calhoun, a slavery advocate and vice president to John Quincy Adams.

A sign outside in capital letters thanks strangers for their kindness.

Here, mention of Roof evokes sorrow in the hearts of a wounded congregation struggling to heal, yet hopeful for justice.

The trial is also on everyone’s minds.

At a recent service, the Rev. Brenda Nelson, a minister on staff, knelt in the pulpit and prayed for grace.

“Touch the heart of the defendant, God, because we know that you’re able to change hearts and change minds,” she implored. “Be with the judge, be with the defense, be with the prosecutors… because we just believe in justice to be done.”

Nelson also prayed for the families of the “Emanuel Nine,” as the victims are called. Among those who died was the church’s former pastor and state senator, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41.

Emanuel’s new pastor, the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, wore a black robe as he preached about restoration.

He told his congregation of the disappointment he and the victims’ families felt as jury selection originally scheduled for November 7 was postponed for the judge to address a defense motion concerning Roof’s competency to stand trial. (The judge on Friday ruled that Roof is competent.)

“It was a hard week,” Manning said on a recent Sunday. “We had prepared for this time but it did not come to fruition.”

His voice grew louder: “But God is still in the midst.”

“Yes, yes,” a congregant cried out from a wooden pew.

Manning continued: “I am just crazy enough to believe what God has said in his Word, that he still wants to restore each and every one of us.”

Nearing the end of service, the pastor encouraged the faithful to approach the altar. The choir sang: “I surrender all.” Manning instructed the dozens crowded in front to gently squeeze each other’s hands as they prayed for God to restore them.

‘Hoping that justice will prevail’

Manning said he and the victims’ families huddled in prayer before leaving the courthouse on November 7. “The only way we’re going to make it through this is through prayer and reflection,” he said.

Following the church shooting, the phrase “Charleston Strong” emerged. In part, it spoke to the city’s racial unity and perseverance after the tragedy, the local Post and Courier reported.

But Darby, of the NAACP, says Charleston isn’t “a paragon of racial progress.”

“Black schools are still suffering more than white schools. Gentrification is still raging. There’s still concerns about how policing is done in the region,” he said. “All of that was in place before Roof and Slager, and my suspicion is all of that is taking place after Roof and Slager.”

Roof said he targeted Mother Emanuel Church, a pillar of the black community since the 1800s, hoping to provoke a race war. In photographs taken before the mass shooting, Roof appears posing proudly with the Confederate flag and at sites honoring the Confederacy.

The photos sparked a national debate over the flag’s meaning. While some Americans said it stands for Southern heritage, others charged that it symbolizes the enslavement and oppression of black people. Less than a week after the church shooting, Gov. Nikki Haley called for the flag to be removed from the statehouse grounds in Columbia. She said the banner is outdated and belongs in a museum. The flag came down on July 10, 2015.

Jim Remillard, 69, a white retiree, said he doesn’t pay much attention to “divisive” debates.

“The black and white police problem is something that the media keeps dwelling on, finding all of those incidences and promoting the divisiveness between black and white all the time,” said the former sales professional.

“I’m kind of a guy that wants to believe in the inherent goodness of people, like those people,” he added, referring to the Mother Emanuel Church congregation.

Remillard said he’s hoping for justice in both the Slager and Roof trials.

Leah Suárez, a 35-year-old Charleston native and jazz musician, offered a different perspective on divisiveness. She says it’s due to racism and points to this month’s US presidential election and the number of hate crimes reported since as “a definitive statement of where we are” as a nation.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported more than 700 instances of intimidation and harassment against African-Americans, Muslims, immigrants, gays and other minority communities since Donald Trump’s Election Day victory. Critics say his triumph was due, at least in part, to a strategy of fomenting racial discord.

Roof and Slager committed the shootings long before Trump was elected president. But Suárez, who has Mexican-American roots, believes the cases are emblematic of “things that are affecting our nation right now, and have been affecting our nation” for a very long time.

“There is a Dylann Roof everywhere,” Suárez added.

Nevertheless, hope remains.

At Ebenezer AME, a few blocks from Mother Emanuel, the Rev. William Swinton Jr. said there is frustration among some, but also relief that the trials have begun.

“They’re hoping that justice will prevail,” he said. “And that our future will be one that is void of this kind of behavior, and that somehow the punishment of those who have done wrong may serve as a deterrent for others who may want to do similar acts.”