COLUMBIA, S.C.— A celebration of life brought on by tragedy brought people to the sanctuary of Second Nazareth Baptist Church on June 3 to lay to rest a Black child whose life was senselessly taken well before his time. Pain, sorrow, anger, and weariness at the loss of life have a family grieving, and a community and city on edge struggling to make it all make sense.
For the boy’s mother, his funeral is not the end; it’s the beginning of her quest for justice. “This is just the beginning, ‘Justice for Cyrus,’” Nicole Carmack vowed in remarks at the service for her slain son, Cyrus Monroe Carmack-Belton, killed by a Columbia, S.C. merchant on May 28.
The grieving mother spoke touching words in the form of a letter she previously wrote to her youngest boy who lost his life before he could receive it.
“Dear Cyrus, the great, you are the youngest of my sons, my three kings. You came into my life in the most surprising way. However, on February 6, 2009, at 12:13 p.m. you arrived—six pounds and 11 ounces,” read Ms. Carmack. “When I looked into your eyes I finally saw myself, a son who looked like me, finally.”
She described Cyrus as “one of a kind” who inspired her to be more understanding and compassionate. He was “confident,” a “prankster” full of “unique humor” and was her “sunshine.”
“The greatest gifts I’ve ever received, has been to bring sons into this world, that God entrusted my body to nurture and protect a growing fetus that morphed into a beautiful baby boy,” Ms. Carmack said of Cyrus. She named him after a great Persian king and liberator of people, she told the packed church.
“I will miss you my sunshine, that infectious smile and unique laugh. Thank you God for entrusting me with your precious child by lending him to the world to teach us and shine his bright light upon us,” read Ms. Carmack.
Disregard for Black life
The virus of racism, disdain, disrespect, raw hatred, and disregard for Black life robbed the world of 14-year-old Cyrus when an Asian business owner squeezed the trigger of his Glock 30, fatally shooting a bullet into his back. A family, who only days earlier was celebrating the milestone of Cyrus’s eighth-grade graduation from Summit Parkway Middle School, now mourns.
The shooter, Rick Chow, 58, falsely accused the teen of shoplifting bottled water at his Xpress Mart Shell gas station, which store security cameras disproved, according to Richland County Sherriff Leon Lott.
The authorities said camera footage showed Cyrus placing bottled water back into the storage cases, not taking anything. Police reports obtained from the Sheriff’s Department by The Final Call said Mr. Chow and his son chased Cyrus down the street. The middle schooler fell while running and got up to continue moving away from them when Mr. Chow shot him.
According to the police report, Mr. Chow and his son, whose name was redacted, saw a firearm that was near Cyrus on the ground. In press briefings, Sherriff Lot said there was no indication the firearm was ever used or played a factor in the incident.
Mr. Chow turned himself in the next day and is charged with murder and non-negligent manslaughter and remains in the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Columbia. By press time a bond hearing date had not been set. Mr. Chow faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder.
In video remarks about her findings, Richland County Coroner Naida Rutherford detailed what happened and her ruling that the death was a homicide. “He did not threaten this owner in any way that we can tell. We don’t see any defense wounds on his hands like there was an altercation of any sort,” Ms. Rutherford disclosed in a May 30 Facebook Live to the community.
“No, he did not shoplift anything from that store. I want to be very clear about that,” she said. “The video footage that we have seen shows him picking some items up, not stealing them, and then he politely and quickly placed the items back where he found them,” said Ms. Rutherford.
“We want justice for this young man. Even if he were shoplifting, no one deserves to be shot in their back,” she said.
In empathetic words to Cyrus’s parents as a mother with a son his age herself, the coroner, who is a Black woman, said she couldn’t imagine what they are feeling.
“Cyrus went into the store to get drinks. It could have been your loved one who walked in and didn’t come home. It makes me emotional. It makes me angry. It makes me upset,” she said.
According to the autopsy, there was no evidence Cyrus threatened Mr. Chow in any way that they could tell.
Community leaders and activists expressed what happened wasn’t an accident. For generations, the Black community has experienced being racially profiled and shot down like wild prey. The act was nothing short of cold-blooded murder and a continuation of America’s sordid history concerning Black people, they argued.
“For me it represents the latest installment of Black traumatic infliction and the tragic devaluing of Black humanity,” said Dr. Harry Singleton, professor of African American Studies and Religious Studies at the University of South Carolina.
He said four bottles of water are comparable to a human life only when it is a Black life. “So, at what point do you not stop and say, that we have beyond a chronic problem recognizing the humanity of Black people if you’re non-African people?” asked Dr. Singleton. “But get to a point where you realistically deal with the situation in its systemic nature, as saying that racism has not abated in this society in terms of how African humanity is depicted. That’s what we’re looking at analytically,” he explained.
He largely blames a prevailing narrative since slavery that America’s greatest threat is young Black men and a view some immigrants have bought into, whether Asian, Indian, or European. “They have bought into this narrative because it’s so prevalent in American life—that Black men are dangerous,” Dr. Singleton reasoned.
Couple that view with the proliferation of handguns in America, and some immigrants have adopted a right to shoot Black men and ask questions later. “It becomes particularly difficult now, because that narrative has also been extended to say that we now live in a post-racial society,” Dr. Singleton said, “while still living pragmatically in a racial worldview.”
Sheriff Lott acknowledged Mr. Chow had run-ins with customers before, but was also quick to resort to “post-racial jargon,” by saying Cyrus’ killing was not racial.
“You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say on the one hand, this store has had run-ins with Black people … and at the same time, promote a post-racial ideology and say this was in no way racial,” argued Dr. Singleton.
Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) is the state’s lone Black congressman and in a statement said Cyrus’s family should be celebrating his completion of the eighth grade and heading to high school instead of mourning him at his funeral.
“This tragedy should have never happened. The criminalization of Black men and boys and the historic trend of painting them as aggressors have time and again led to deadly and heartbreaking circumstances. Cyrus Carmack-Belton has since been declared innocent, but his supposed crime of shoplifting a bottle of water should not have cost him his life. I pray justice is swift,” the congressman’s statement read.
History of problems at the store
Some activists want the store and its long history of incidents and disrespect shut down. A video has gone viral of a recent incident showing Mr. Chow in a brutal altercation with a young girl inside the store. The chaotic scene showed him fighting, with his gun visibly on his hip, body slamming what appeared to be a teenage Black girl.
Although there was no indication of what led up to the violence, according to the Richland County Sheriff, there is a documented history of past situations at the store going back years. Some involved gunplay and shooting on Mr. Chow’s part. Richland County sheriffs were called numerous times over the years. He was never charged because they deemed he acted in self-defense.
For example, in October 2018 police reports provided to The Final Call documented Mr. Chow’s shooting Alex Aguilera in the leg for shoplifting a $6.49 can of Easy Off and for striking Mr. Chow in the face after being confronted. An older 2015 report documented Mr. Chow accusing a woman of stealing a case of beer and a bag of boiled peanuts, which he took back after a physical altercation. As the woman drove off, Mr. Chow shot six rounds into her passenger window and jumped in his car to chase her.
“The community has been supporting that store. They make money off the community. But this guy, apparently, even from what the sheriff said, has been a bad character for a long time,” said Rev. Nelson Rivers III, vice president of Religious Affairs and External Relations for the National Action Network (NAN).
Rev. Rivers said if it were Blacks running a store in a mixed community or White community, they would never be able to accost and disrespect customers like Mr. Chow did. They would have been put out of business, he argued. “But because the majority of traffic was us where he was located, racism and hatred were tolerated,” Rev. Rivers said.
The question is where do we go from here concerning the tension between the Asian entrepreneurs and the Black community? “We should not have to wait for a tragedy to have the necessary conversation,” Rev. Rivers said.
If they respect our money enough to take it, they must respect our humanity to deal with us before they get the money, he argued.
He advocates entering “economic equity covenants,” requiring money to be invested back into the community, Black people are hired, community-based organizations are regularly supported and a code of conduct toward customers is agreed to.
Exposing the hidden hand
White supremacy is the ultimate culprit behind the lingering Black-Asian tensions. White supremacy undergirds the unsavory Hollywood images of Black America marketed to Asia and other parts of the world, which contributed to the Black and Asian wedge.
Tiffany James, the head of the National Action Network of Columbia, sees the need for the mindset of White supremacy to be dismantled.
“Because that’s exactly what this was,” she said. “You don’t have to be a White person to embody White supremacist ideals.”
“White supremacy takes no breaks. It attacks us in the classroom … the streets … our neighborhoods… the boardroom, whether you’re wearing a suit or a hoodie, it attacks us from all angles,” said Ms. James, adding, “We need to attack it back by all angles.”
As far as public policy, Ms. James said South Carolina needs to pass the Hate Crimes Bill. During Cyrus’s funeral, she said she’s reminded of George Stinney, the 14-year-old that was falsely accused of murder and executed by the state in 1944. There were hate crimes then and hate crimes now—but still no hate crime bill. “If the state of South Carolina saw us as human, we would have a hate crime bill by now. Passed, signed, sealed, and delivered,” she said.
History of Asian-Black tensions and efforts to bridge the divide
The actions of Mr. Chow retell past incidents across the country that led to boycotts and redirecting Black dollars away from these businesses.
Recalling altercations in Waxahachie, Texas; Chicago; Charlotte, N.C. and Brooklyn, New York, Cyrus’s killing reminds many observers of the 1991 slaying of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins. She was shot in the back of her head by Korean shop owner, Soon Ja Du in Los Angeles, as she tried to leave the store following an altercation with the owner. Ms. Du accused the Black teen of shoplifting, which was also disproven by security video.
The division is rooted in spiritual, psychological and social problems and challenges. Both the Black and Asian peoples are members of the Original family, as taught in the Teachings of the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Eternal Leader of the Nation of Islam.
The common enemy is ignorance of their connection and common root, explained Student Minister Abdul Malik Sayyid Muhammad, the Nation of Islam’s Western Regional Representative.
He has actively engaged in dialogue with the Asian community in Los Angeles. He said there is an opportunity to turn “tragedy to triumph” with the South Carolina situation. “If we stay out on the branches of the problem we will never look at the root of this problem,” said the student minister.
As a student of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, his teacher told him, whenever you see an atrocity, look for the silver lining because the media is now being used to “restimulate us” but “who’s going to go in there with the healing balm. …Who’s going to be the peacemaker?” asked Student Min. Abdul Malik Sayyid Muhammad.
In healing the rift, it must be noted the long, but little-known history of Black-Asian solidarity against oppression and structural racism, particularly in the late 1960s. Recent efforts for understanding and unity are occurring. In Los Angeles, activists, organizers, and faith-based representatives came together May 27 in an event themed “Under the Sky-One Family.” The initiative was organized by artist, educator and Nation of Islam member, Sister Amina Lei to bridge the Black and Asian divide. The event was the second since March and was one day before tragedy struck Columbia, S.C.
When Sister Amina heard about what happened to Cyrus, she was “heartbroken.” She is Chinese and her meeting brought together the Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous family in meaningful dialogue to build barriers of understanding with each other.
“My team and I were inspired … uplifted for what happened at our unity event,” she said.
Sister Amina said she was optimistic a good step forward toward something bigger was made in relations between the communities. Then she woke up to the news of an Asian shop owner fatally shooting a 14-year-old Black boy.
“I know the potential and what that will incite … the old wounds between the Asian and Black community,” she explained. According to Sister Amina, the issue of relations between the communities is complex and requires hard work to foster reconciliation.
Some are demanding boycotts and harsher charges for the shooter. “It’s twofold. We need to not only grieve, but we need to send a strong message about our dollar,” said former Columbia-based community organizer Chris Sullivan, who is now based in Atlanta. “The main tool that we use in our toolkit is sanctions in the form of boycotts,” he explained. What needs to come after this, he added is to, “organize our businesses.”
There is a coordinated effort of approximately 50 different leaders and organizations putting together an initiative. Included is for Mr. Chow to be charged with a federal hate crime.
The family attorney Todd Rutherford, who is also a State Senator, told The Final Call on June 3, he plans to take the case “all the way.” The first step was Cyrus’s family being able to grieve. “We are just beginning,” Mr. Rutherford said. “We will start looking at every opportunity we can to eke out justice out of this situation.”
He said there are continued conversations with the Sheriff’s Department and the Solicitor’s Office on the case. “A lot of questions are still unanswered,” he said.
One of the pressing questions from the community is the fate of Mr. Chow’s son. By press time the son remains free, and calls are growing for his arrest and charge as an accessory.
South Carolina is a “Hand of One is the Hand of All” state meaning someone can be convicted of a crime, although they were not the “principal” who committed the crime. The state would have to prove they knew a crime was being committed and participated and were present when the crime was committed.
“There’s a tipping point … being reached as a result of all of this violence against us,” said Craig Khanwell, an advocate for disadvantaged and marginalized communities in Columbia. “There has been no justice for us in response,” he stated.
Mr. Khanwell agrees with boycotting, but also with Black and Asian leadership engaging in forthright discussion about the existing tensions. “We need to let everybody know … mistreatment of our women and children will cease and desist,” he asserted.
In addition, a “counter conversation” among Blacks about not spending where they are under constant suspicion of boosting is needed, he added. “You don’t have to beg people to take your money,” Mr. Khanwell argues. “If we do that, collectively, we can shut these businesses down.”