It was one year ago this week that the death of Charles Smith rocked a Savannah neighborhood. Crowds gathered in West Savannah that day and there were weeks of protests as the community demanded answers about Smith’s death at the hands of a Metro police officer. News 3 revisited that neighborhood to see how the anger over Smith’s death affected the community and what if anything has changed there.
Charles Smith died after being shot while trying to escape from an officer’s car. A G.B.I. investigation revealed Smith had a gun that hadn’t been discovered in a quick pat down following his arrest. The officer who shot him was found to have used justifiable force by a Chatham County Grand Jury – but the reverberations of that incident that day and beyond will never be forgotten.
Video of Charles Smith – wanted on multiple warrants – being arrested in a small Augusta Avenue convenience store show the moments leading up to the shooting that took his life. Alderman Van Johnson remembers that day, “We were actually sitting in a council workshop and there were police officers in there and we had gotten word that there was an officer involved shooting in west Savannah on Augusta Avenue – that it was possibly a fatality and that there were a lot of people gathering and very upset.” Alderman Johnson represents the neighborhood and headed there immediately, “I got down here and it was pandemonium you know to come down and see a young man lying in the middle of the street and hundreds of people very upset, very angry, you know police officers that were very concerned on both ends of the spectrum, very hot day I remember…I heard about a hundred different accounts of what occurred that day – everything from the officer standing over him and saying I’m going to kill you and shooting him to you know the guy running away and the officer shooting him – again – I didn’t know what to believe.” But he urged everyone to give the G.B.I. time to figure it out, “It was a powder keg waiting to explode and fortunately it did not.”
As the investigation dragged on – regular marches and rallies were held in the neighborhood. “We made a conscious decision for our police to be conspicuously inconspicuous – during the rallies and demonstrations – the police were all over the place – you didn’t see them – because the goal was that we wanted them to have their anger, we wanted them to express their anger – we wanted them to use their constitutional rights of freedom of speech – freedom of assembly. If they wanted to march we wanted to support them in that,” says Alderman Johnson.
But not everyone supported the protests…in fact – the Neighborhood Association President Ron Williams says many protesting didn’t actually live in West Savannah, “How can you tell me what we need out here when you don’t live out here? I live out here – I walk these streets every day…they came looking for a fight – but I welcomed them and I told them they need to come back you know – come back and see what you can do for the community – not come and try to destroy this community.” Alderman Johnson agrees, “The reality is that a lot of people that were out here – they were trying to push a national issue – they were trying to take their Ferguson frustrations, and their Trayvon Martin frustrations and be able to exemplify that here in Savannah.” They prefer to concentrate on the good things happening in the community…groundbreaking for a new elementary, plans for a new grocery store and Augusta Avenue revitalization projects to name a few. Others we spoke to on the streets talked about the need for more and better paying jobs here. Alderman Johnson says, “We’re all a better community because we’ve learned how to care a little bit more – how to be engaged a little bit more and again it just turned focus on this community that’s coming back.” A focus they hope to turn from negative images like this to positive ones as they move forward says Williams, “West Savannah is going places and since the world is looking at us – then it’s time for us to shine and we don’t want the wound opened back up you know – we want positive things – we are positive people and we’re not going to let anybody come in here and destroy what we’ve got going – they can come out here and protest all they want – but that won’t divide us.”
The Augusta Avenue revitalization plan – passed in 2012 – several years before the Smith shooting -put in that sidewalk just over a year ago and continues to move forward. Williams says he’s been told there are plans to hold a March and vigil in the neighborhood on Friday – the one year anniversary of Smith’s death.