Experiences With South Carolina Law

04/14/2015 02:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

When South Carolina leads a national story, it's usually because of a horrible hurricane or racial incident. There hasn't been a major hurricane lately in my hometown of Charleston, but North Charleston recently became the focus of national and international attention when a white police officer named Michael Slager shot an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, five times in the back as he fled after being stopped for a broken taillight.

Since police investigations in South Carolina and many other states almost always exonerate the officer in a questionable situation, it was almost unprecedented for Slager to be arrested and charged with murder shortly after the shooting. However, because of the now-famous video taken by a passerby, I don't credit South Carolina law enforcement for their prompt action. The video appears to show Slager taking target practice on a black man's back, turning the "smoking gun" cliché into something literal. Were it not for the video, an internal police investigation might have exonerated Slager because he initially claimed to fear for his life during a struggle with Scott.

More typical is the incident with Mario Givens, another black man in North Charleston, who accused Slager of excessive force in 2013. Givens was awakened during the night by a loud knock on his door. Slager pushed open the door and saw Givens clad in a T-shirt and boxer shorts. Givens raised his hands above his head, but Slager tased him anyway, dragged him out of the house, threw him on the ground, handcuffed him, and put him in a squad car. Givens was accused of resisting arrest, but eventually released without charge because the arrest turned out to be one of mistaken identity.

Mario Givens later filed a complaint, and the department opened an internal investigation. Several witnesses confirmed Givens' story to the police, but they were never contacted. When Givens went to the station six weeks later to inquire about his complaint, he learned that a senior officer had investigated the case for a couple of weeks and that Slager had been "exonerated." Slager consistently earned positive reviews in his five years with the North Charleston Police.

Some blacks may view such incidents as "situation normal," and many whites like me are no longer surprised when we hear about police maltreatment of black citizens. Local civil rights leaders periodically call for independent citizens review boards. Sometimes the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) is brought in to investigate. SLED is an independent state law enforcement agency, kind of like a state FBI, but many who don't trust police officers also don't have much confidence in SLED.

I once had my own unpleasant experience with SLED, but let me emphasize that it was nothing like the ordeals countless blacks have had when dealing with law enforcement officials.

In 1990, I learned that the South Carolina Constitution prohibits atheists from becoming governor. With the help of the ACLU, I challenged this unconstitutional provision by running for governor as a "candidate without a prayer." My best chance to get on the ballot was through the United Citizens Party (UCP), a black-led civil rights group formed in the 1960s and relatively inactive at the time.

UCP leaders were sympathetic with my cause, but most of them were deeply religious and a bit uncomfortable nominating an atheist. The UCP presidential candidate in 1988 had been Lenora Fulani, and she became enthusiastic about the possibility of my revitalizing the floundering UCP in South Carolina with a constitutional victory. When Fulani talked to UCP leaders, they agreed to nominate me.

Not everyone welcomed my candidacy. The South Carolina Election Commission suggested there might be "irregularities" in the way I had obtained the nomination of the United Citizens Party, and voted 3-2 to recommend that SLED investigate. The following day, the Charleston Post and Courier ran an uncomplimentary editorial about my alleged misdeeds, "Panel Wants Silverman Inquiry." Neither the election commission nor the newspaper offered me an opportunity to defend myself against any charges, though I had informed SLED of my willingness to cooperate and provide appropriate documentation.

After hearing nothing for eight weeks, I called SLED. They said their inquiry was nearly complete and that my input would not be needed. A few days later, the election commission announced that SLED had found irregularities and I wouldn't be allowed on the ballot. When I called Reverend Fred Dawson, head of the United Citizens Party, and asked what had happened, he told me that SLED investigators had badgered him about his support for an atheist and he didn't want any trouble. So feeling pressure by SLED, Dawson claimed he hadn't understood the document he signed that gave me the party nomination, though I had witnesses who could have proved otherwise.

Edmund Robinson, my ACLU lawyer, said I had a legitimate grievance, but he advised me to move on because my legal case would not be jeopardized if I campaigned as a write-in candidate. I also didn't want to further embarrass the embattled African Americans in the UCP. I lost the election for governor, of course, but I eventually won a unanimous South Carolina Supreme Court decision in 1997, allowing atheists in South Carolina to run for public office.

Perhaps some South Carolina officials congratulated themselves in 1990 for finding a way to harass two disliked minorities (African Americans and atheists) at the same time. Then again, I don't know because nobody in power was talking then. Times may have changed in South Carolina, but clearly more change is needed.