SC State Senator Marlon Kimpson: Making Change Happen From the Ground Up
On a Saturday in early April last year, 50-year-old Walter Scott was pulled over by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager for a broken tail light. Scott, according to his family, was not concerned about the tail light. Instead, he was worried that after Slager ran a background check, he would go to jail yet again for owing thousands in child support. So, after Scott parked the car, he jumped out of the driver’s seat and ran. Slager, who is white, pursued Scott, who was black, and shot him in the back multiple times, killing him. Had an onlooker not captured the incident on his cell phone camera, Slager might never have been charged with murder, as he now is.
The toxic blend of outrage and helplessness that had visited other parts of the country in the aftermath of the death of a black man at the hands of a white police officer had now visited North Charleston.
One person who was not helpless was Marlon Kimpson, an attorney and state senator whose constituency includes North Charleston. He went to work assuring that the confluence of circumstances that led to the shooting could not be repeated.
Unpaid child support is an ongoing problem in South Carolina. After Scott’s death, MSNBC reported that one of every eight people incarcerated in the Palmetto State got there because they are behind on child support payments.
Kimpson said child support laws need to be punitive, but also flexible. “We should work to make sure that we aren’t putting people in jail who could otherwise be out working and providing for their children.”
Incarceration for overdue child support is a vicious cycle, a cycle in which Walter Scott, like many others, was trapped. Parents who are owed the money count on it for their income. But, when a father is in jail he is not drawing income, so he can’t pay child support and the whole family loses. Finding a job is even harder after incarceration, and if someone can’t find a job, that makes keeping up with payments very difficult. When you consider this is the predicament Scott found himself in and couple it with the fear that people of color have of police, it’s little wonder he fled.
Among Kimpson’s constituents, Scott’s case was hardly unique. Both mothers and fathers in his senate district routinely contact Kimpson over child support issues, the former because of non-payment and the latter because the payments are too high.
After Scott’s funeral, longtime South Carolina Rep. James Cleburne encouraged Kimpson to see what could be done about the child support crisis. Kimpson went to work with the Department of Social Services (DSS), Charleston County officials, the clerk of courts and judges to come up with a solution. The response was an amnesty program called Reconciliation Day which allowed those who were past due on child support to come forward for a limited time without fear of arrest. Forty-four people did so and cleared their records after settling on a payment plan.
“We aren’t doing our children any favors by having parents that are afraid to be seen and afraid to go out and get a job,” Kimpson said. “We need to make the system better and still hold people accountable.”
Kimpson, who won office in special election in 2013 and is up for re-election this year, absorbed criticisms for being soft on “deadbeat dads,” but still would like to see Reconciliation Day expanded to the state level.
But, Walter Scott’s death was the result of much longer-standing forces than flawed child support laws. Scott’s death was a reflection of the frayed, and in some cases nonexistent, relationship between police and the people they are suppose to protect and serve.
Though he spoke highly of law enforcement leadership in Charleston and North Charleston, saying they’ve done a good job of “reaching out to the community,” Kimpson knew there were problems at the street level. He said, “I got too many calls complaining about harassment from police officers. You may get one call, you may get two, but when you’re seeing a consistent pattern of complaints…” Kimpson didn’t have to finish the sentence. The refrain is all too familiar to most any black person.
“There is no doubt that people of color have different experiences with law enforcement,” Kimpson said matter-of-factly. “That’s a fact. The data bears that out. But I counsel people to comply whether the search or seizure is lawful or not. Unfortunately, we have to have the resolve to tolerate the unbearable situation and then when we are in position of safety register the complaint.”
Kimpson challenged “stop and frisk” policy of local police departments. He also secured a grant of $275,000 that funded body cameras and projects designed to improve relations between police and the community.
One of the sad ironies of the Scott case is that a few months before the shooting, Kimpson and another state senator, Gerald Malloy, had filed bills in the state legislature calling for mandatory police body cameras. The bill got little traction. But in the days after Scott’s death, North Charleston’s mayor Keith Sumney—not waiting for the legislature to act, issued a directive requiring body cameras for the city’s police force, a portion of which were paid for with the grant Kimpson had worked to secure. Later in 2015, South Carolina became the first state to require all police to wear body cameras while on duty.
If all Kimpson had done in 2015 was help pass body camera legislation, reform child support and improve relations between local police and the community it would have been a remarkably productive year.
But slightly more than two months after Scott’s death, horrific violence once again visited Kimpson’s district, again drawing the eyes of the nation.
A 21-year-old white supremacist, seeking to start a race war, walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Calhoun Street in Charleston, the oldest such church in the South, and shot nine people to death during a prayer service. Among the dead were Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and Kimpson’s friend and colleague in the senate.
The response of the church’s parishioners and the Charleston awed a nation. Lesser acts of violence have spurred civil unrest and violence. Kimpson did his part to make sure that did not happen in Charleston. He was a visible presence on the streets, making sure order was maintained but also being available to his constituents. He explained:
“We had just pulled together after Walter Scott. I knew the fabric of the community was not in a good place. I knew it was a sensitive and emotional time for my constituents and I needed to be visible to provide the leadership that the district needed in a time of crisis. It was important to me to take the pulse of the community to give me direction on what I needed to do as an elected official to assure people their government is going to be responsive. They are my bosses and I check in with them on a daily basis.”
Commitment to public service was ingrained in Kimpson at a young age. He grew up in South Carolina’s state capital of Columbia, about two hours north of Charleston, in a predominantly black neighborhood. Both his parents were public school teachers. His father eventually worked in the administration of former governor Dick Riley and insisted that the family be active in the community. “I’m proud of that upbringing and it does inform who I am as a state legislator,” Kimpson said.
Being a legislator means he can shape the future of the state as a whole and prevent massacres like the one at Emanuel Church from ever happening again.
That’s why he filed five gun reform bills for the legislative session that began in January. Kimpson is in a state where passing such laws is a long shot at best, which he acknowledges. “Progressive legislation in the state of South Carolina is an uphill fight, but that doesn’t deter me,” he said. “The body camera legislation was an uphill fight. The confederate flag removal bill was an uphill fight. We’re used to uphill fights. We’ve won a few.”
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