Former Ranger staffer returns after covering year of hate, violence and tragedy
By Tiffany Anne Bermea and Jerico Magallanes
After a year photographing shootings, protests and funerals, a former Ranger staffer returned to the college with a newly defined understanding of the media.
“National media dilutes the message,” Paul Zoeller of the Charleston Post and Courier said Feb. 1 in an opening session of Black History Month titled, “Charleston: Grace Through Tragedy.”
Zoeller referred to his experience compared to the coverage produced by national media outlets before an audience of about 200 in the auditorium of McAllister Fine Arts Center.
Fellow journalist Christina Elmore agreed, describing how the media circus surrounding Charleston in the wake of shootings of Walter Scott by a police officer and nine members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church left her “drained.”
Zoeller and Elmore described Charleston’s history with the Black Lives Matter movement and how Charleston wanted to have a local framework established and ready to react after the Aug. 9, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer.
In January 2015, folllowing the shooting of Scott in Charleston, the local Black Live Matter group went into action.
Zoeller and Elmore said they took pride in the productive manner of the protests in Charleston, unlike protests in Ferguson.
Zoeller said members of Black Lives Matter were “angry with no actions taken,” yet they maintained orderly protests.
“Within a matter of days, you’re seeing all this take place,” Elmore said as she speaks about black lives matter. “There was a different tone to how things took place.”
On a daily basis, there were many protests going around because the community didn’t want what happened to disappear. Elmore says that the protests became very aggressive and the more it amped up, people began to block traffic.
The city of Charleston didn’t want to deal with all the protests going on, so they decided to take action and take it to court. The board wanted a citizens review on the peoples’ perspective instead of having it “swept under the rug.”
Throughout, the journalists felt a special obligation as members of the hometown media to provide coverage the national media was incapable of.
After the story of Walter Scott, both Elmore and Zoeller thought that they were done. “This is it, this is probably the biggest story we’re going to cover this year and probably for the rest of our careers,” Elmore said.
After the June 17 shooting at a Bible study at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Elmore shared how “everyone was in shock” with the occurrence of another race-driven tragedy in Charleston.
Among the distraught, Zoeller shared how powerful it was to witness the surviving family members be so quick to forgive the shooter Dylann Roof during a bond hearing within 24 hours of the shooting.
“He went there for a reason, he went there to make a point, he wanted to start a race war,” Zoeller said about about Dylann Roof’s manifesto. Roof debated on shooting these people because he began to start to like the people at the church.
Elmore said that she felt almost relieved that she wasn’t out on the streets that night, because Roof was targeting African-American people and he was on the loose at the time.
Zoeller shared an image of nine Palmetto roses, woven from sweet grass to sell on the street and particular to Charleston, symbolizing the fallen from the shooting.
It was published as a special wraparound issue from the Charleston Post and Courier.
The pair also told of a single Facebook post that went viral and attracted 20,000 to a march over Cooper River Bridge. The march was held in commemoration of the church shooting.
Elmore and Zoeller attended the funerals for the nine victims even through all the rain and humidity. They said it was funeral after funeral.
Zoeller showed a photograph of a casket being carried out one door and crowds entering another for the next funeral.
“It was like a revolving door of funerals, it was very sad to see that,” Zoeller said.
The next series of stories that Elmore and Zoeller covered the controversy over the Confederate battle flag. The flag had previously been removed from the state dome but still flew on the grounds of the statehouse and a lot of people wanted the flag to come down, too.
People from all over the state showed up in Columbia as they watched the senators sign the bill removing the flag.
They were in one of two groups: protesters, such as the Black Panthers or supporters of the flag, such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Elmore quoted a man who said, “Thousands of people have died over some history, the flag that flies, and to think that nine people can bring about a change to that and do what they couldn’t do before.”
To end the year, an historic flood washed through the state leaving disaster in its wake.