Illumination Project Aims To Connect Communities After Shooting at "Mother Emanuel"

Jun 15, 2016

Tables of eight people discuss the issues between Charleston police officers and citizens at the International Longshoreman's Association Union Hall.
Credit Alexandra Olgin

In the year since the attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that left nine black parishioners dead, Charlestonians have been reflecting on race relations. The Charleston Police Department is nearing the end of a yearlong project to re-evaluate its relationship with residents across the city’s diverse communities.

At circular tables in a Charleston Greek Orthodox Church, several groups of police officers and citizens are talking about problems they've had getting along over the years. Facilitators like Charlotte Anderson manage the discussions.

She asks, “What are some of the big hurdles we are going to have to overcome?”

Anderson takes notes as people at her table throw out ideas like communication, accountability and apathy.

"We don’t care until something affects us directly," participant Abdullah Muhammed said as people around him nodded in agreement. 

That’s something that Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen had been trying to combat. The pro-active community policing focused chief had been thinking of how to engage people before things got bad like they did in other cities. Then the horrific shooting at the Emanuel AME Church happened. Later that summer the idea came to him.  

"I woke up about 3 o’clock in the morning and I just couldn’t go back to sleep because it was one of those things that I just couldn’t get it off my mind,” he said. 

Mullen went into the station and wrote for the next several hours planning what is now known as the Illumination Project.

"I want the community and police to have a better understanding of what it is like to walk in each other shoes," he said. 

The project has taken to the streets to get input from anyone who wants to share, which so far has been close to 700 people. According to voluntary evaluations at listening sessions, more than half the adult participants are white, a little more than a third are black and nearly 3 percent are Hispanic. Mullen admits he’s had some difficulty reaching a key group of people - like Abdullah Muhammed who goes by his preferred nickname Poppa Smurf.

"It had a wonderful amount of participants but it had all the wrong people," he said. 

Muhammed is a black man and former convict who now works for the city. He's someone the project wants to hear from and he has attended multiple listening sessions. Muhammed is excited by the idea of the project but he wishes project leaders would have included him more.

"You can make all the hypothesis in the world," he said. "But there is something about street life that doesn’t get talked about as something that’s lived."

Muhammed is quick to acknowledge that building good relationships with the law enforcement requires changing the culture of turning a blind eye to illegal activity.

“We [need to] start being responsible for our sons and daughters and make them aware that the activity could land them in two places," he said. "The cemetery or penitentiary.”

The original intent of the project was to improve police citizen relationships, but for many participants it has been a chance to interact with people different from themselves. Charleston native and project consultant Margaret Seidler said some of the revelations from these conversations have hit home.

"Through this project I’m understanding and learning how much i didn’t know about my community. How hard certain segments have had it. And how when you don’t grow up in that segment. You don't ever truly realize, you know it exists."

Project leaders will recommend changes to the police department at the end of the summer, but the Charleston Police Department isn’t waiting to start putting good ideas into practice. It is publishing the majority of it's policies online, developing new communication skills training and rotating new officers through schools.