CLEAR AS DAY
The Man Who Watched Walter Scott Die
How an immigrant from Santo Domingo shot a video that changed America.
Feidin Santana stood along a third-floor hallway at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York the other day, a shy smile on his face, bewilderment from the arrival of sudden fame swirling in his head because he used his smartphone on a sunny South Carolina Saturday morning to make perhaps the 21st-century version of the Zapruder film.
Santana is 23, in the United States not quite two years from Santo Domingo, where his family still lives. The other day, in the hallway, he looked like any of millions of the young in tan pants, blue shirt, light jacket and black sneakers, his smartphone in a coat pocket.
“I was on the way to work,” he said. “That’s the way I always go. And I was on the phone talking.”
He has a job as a barber in North Charleston, South Carolina. And he was talking about his daily route to the shop, a walkway alongside a fence and a path where there are no homes or businesses and hardly any people.
“I was just walking and talking when I saw the police and the man,” Santana was saying. “I heard the sound of the Taser and I see the man on the ground so I got off my call and walked over closer to where I could see more better and I turned on my camera on my phone.”
What Feidin Santana saw next and what he recorded has now been seen by nearly everyone in America who does not live in a cave. It is a film clip of cultural dynamite, the last seconds of life for a black man, Walter Scott, 50 years old, who was killed at the hand of a man wearing a badge, Michael Slager, a North Charleston police officer, who shot eight rounds at Scott as he ran away from someone he feared, a white cop.
“He was trying to get away,” Santana said. “He was running away. I think he was running from the Taser. Then the police officer stood there and he took out his gun and he just shot him. Just kept shooting his gun. He shot him in the back.”
On Santana’s film, Michael Slager assumes a pistol range position, a two-hand grip on his gun, a sight on the target, the running Walter Scott, and squeezes off those rounds with the precision of someone conducting a routine qualifying test. When Walter Scott finally falls to the ground, Slager approaches the victim with the slow stroll of a man walking up the 18th fairway. Then Slager, sudden urgency in his step, jogs back to where he began shooting to pick something up off the ground.
Santana, at some risk to his own safety, kept recording. Kept getting closer too. He films the arrival of a second cop. He films Slager returning to Scott’s body to drop an object thought to be a Taser, which might have bolstered his story that Scott grabbed the weapon from Slager and caused the police officer to fear for his own life. A potentially credible defense for a shooting.
Scott, of course, was dead on the ground. Santana went to work. The news came on and when Santana heard the initial reports he knew what he heard was not what he had seen. He sought to tell police that he had the evidence of what actually occurred but got the distinct vibe this was not something they wanted, so he wondered what to do next.
“I was saying to myself this was not what happened,” he said, standing in the hallway last week, three days after The New York Times broke the story about Feidin Santana’s film.
“I was scared for myself and my family,” he was saying. “I have a wife and a family back in Santo Domingo and now they were scared for me, too.”
So Feidin Santana became one more person who suddenly viewed police with some apprehension. And what he filmed quickly and predictably became one more step—a huge one, too—in the increasingly wide gulf between many African Americans and police departments employed to protect and serve all of us. Those few seconds of video, proof that Walter Scott was a homicide victim, has done more to widen the gulf between communities of color and those who wear a shield than a death in Ferguson or another in Staten Island or Cleveland.
This time it began with a broken taillight. Slager had stopped a car being driven by Scott because the taillight was out; either a revenue stop aimed at collecting a fine for the North Charleston coffers or a harassment stop. Either way, a dumb way to use the time of any cop. These things hardly ever occur in largely white, suburban areas of this country. And only rarely does it happen in big cities where cops are more professional, better trained and busy doing real policing.
But there’s another issue, an ugly aspect of life in the United States, especially in some big and medium-sized cities in the Midwest and Northeast: huge sections of urban America remain segregated by a cement wall of currency, not intent. Income discrepancy between blacks and whites remains a vivid reminder of inequality driven by income or lack of it. A lot of minority families simply cannot afford to buy a home or rent an apartment in places where decent jobs are available. A lot of white families and their children end up living in neighborhoods that resemble Helsinki, Finland, never knowing—really knowing—a black or Hispanic family. We are a nation inching closer and closer to going through our days knowing others just like us, only us.
Michael Slager shot and killed Walter Scott. And the damage he did to those in other police departments across the land is deep and will linger and it infects even those who have been in America for a short time.
“I was scared after I shot that video,” Feidin Santana said the other day. “I’m still kinda scared.”