An October 5 charter bus trip to Atlanta should have been an enjoyable and pleasant experience for Shaw University students traveling to a financial leadership conference.

But their journey to “the city too busy to hate” took a surreal and racist-tinged turn when their bus became ensnared in the talons of a week-long drug interdiction operation in South Carolina.

All that was missing from the traffic stop were the hapless Shaw students woefully singing The Five Heartbeats’ “I’ve Got Nothing But Love For You Baby” while an armed South Carolina sheriff’s deputy used a drug-sniffing dog to search the bus and rifle through several students’ personal belongings.

“The bus driver received a warning, and nothing illegal or inappropriate was found,’’ Shaw University president Paulette Dillard said last week. “But that’s not the real issue. The real issue is why and how a minor traffic violation immediately turned into a drug search.”

Dillard’s remarks came during a press conference on the campus of the state’s oldest historically Black college. Dan Blue III, the school’s general counsel, announced the filing of an official complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice about the bus stop and requested an independent investigation into the incident.

The six-page complaint was mailed overnight on November 14 to Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney general for civil rights with the Justice Department. Shaw’s leaders want federal officials to determine whether the civil rights of the 18 students aboard the bus were violated by deputies with the Spartanburg and Cherokee counties’ sheriff’s offices.

While requesting an independent review of an “unfounded search,” the complaint highlighted three areas of concern: the “search and seizure” of the bus “under the pretext of an alleged lane violation,” a “violation of the student passengers’ reasonable expectation of privacy,” and “Operation Rolling Thunder,” a multi-jurisdictional, weeklong Spartanburg County law enforcement operation that takes place annually on Interstate 85.

In the complaint, Blue stated that on the day of the incident law enforcement officers stopped the bus “under the pretext of a minor traffic violation.” One of the officers, identified as “Sgt. Painter,” stepped onto the bus and told the driver the vehicle was “swerving real bad within the lanes and bumping the yellow line” before asking for his driver’s license.

After asking the driver where they were headed, where they were from, the ages of the passengers, and if there was anything on the bus that was not supposed to be there, Painter asked the driver if he could search the luggage compartment. The driver consented. Painter went to his patrol car and returned with a narcotics dog, Blue stated.

The dog, according to the complaint, “appeared to focus on a black bag.”

Maybe the poor K9 missed breakfast.

Painter searched the black bag “where he found a box of donuts,” Blue stated in the complaint.

Described by one local news outlet as a “blitz,” Operation Rolling Thunder resulted in 900 traffic cases and 38 criminal cases after a fraction of the motorists who were stopped for minor violations were also charged with drug and weapons offenses.

A sheriff’s office press release reported that deputies searched 144 vehicles, seized more than 18,300 grams of marijuana, along with 66 grams of heroin, and 2,633 grams of cocaine.

The deputies also recovered illegal mushrooms, LSD, ecstasy, crack cocaine, methamphetamine, stimulants, prescription medications, and other drugs.

Operation Rolling Thunder netted nearly $1 million in cash. The “more than $968,600 in currency alone in 2022,” Blue stated, “appears to create a perverse incentive for officers to trample the rights of innocent motorists in the pursuit of awards.”

During the press conference, Dillard asked if every vehicle stopped for a lane violation during Operation Rolling Thunder is searched for drugs by dogs and what was the probable cause for the search of the university-chartered bus.

“We need to ask the question why the officer on board the bus immediately asked the students if they were transporting some type of illegal or illicit content within their bags—something that, quote, ‘wasn’t supposed to be there,’” she said.

Blue, in the complaint, said the bus stop was reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s, with “armed police interrogating innocent Black students, conducting searches without probable cause, and the use of police dogs.”

Dillard said the unwarranted search “is a stark reminder that the fight for civil rights is still an ongoing necessity.”

“There is real harm done when individual rights are overlooked, ignored, or denied—and when it becomes commonplace to violate the civil liberties of innocent Americans traveling on an interstate highway,” Dillard said. “The harmful effects of eroding individual rights under the pretext of law and order are real—and they are rampant all over the country. But especially in this particular area in South Carolina, which has been called out previously for inequitable and discriminatory patterns of practice for disproportionate excessive searches and seizures of Black people without probable cause.”

Days after the traffic stop, Governor Roy Cooper’s press secretary, Sam Chan, told the INDY the governor shared “the deep concern of Shaw University leaders about the treatment and safety of their students.”

Cooper also asked the state’s public safety officials to discuss the matter with their counterparts in South Carolina “and express that concern,” Chan stated in an October 12 email.

On October 30, Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright defended the traffic stop and called Dillard’s claims that the incident was racially motivated “slanderous and libelous,” according to the The Post and Courier Spartanburg.

The sheriff’s office reported that there were 32 arrests during the operation; 315 of the motorists stopped were white, 308 were Black, 125 were Hispanic, and 55 were listed as “other.”

“Although Sheriff Wright presents these findings as proof of a lack of racial profiling, the numbers demonstrate that Black drivers are disproportionately targeted,” Blue stated in the federal complaint.

The Post and Courier also reported that during a press conference Wright shared body camera footage of the traffic stop indicating the bus driver consented to the search.

“After using a drug-sniffing dog, nothing illegal was found and the bus and its passengers were released after 10 minutes,” The Post and Courier reported.

According to the paper, Wright said a combination of factors prompted his deputies to pull the bus over: 20 students and school staffers aboard a bus with dark-tinted windows weaving in traffic.

“Although the passengers’ windows were tinted, the driver’s window was not,” Blue stated in the complaint.

Dillard was certainly not impressed or convinced of the rationale to bring a drug-sniffing canine on board the bus for a lane violation.

She noted that the university in 2020 launched the Center for Racial and Social Justice in the wake of watching George Floyd’s  murder at the hands of law enforcement officers who overstepped their authority and violated an individual’s rights.

“The Center for Racial and Social Justice was established to create awareness, to educate the public, and to demand accountability. That is what we are doing here today,” Dillard said.

“Let’s be clear . . . racism is about power and systems. And just because there isn’t a knee on someone’s neck doesn’t mean that no harm is being done. And just because someone greets you or smiles in your face doesn’t mean they are not still violating your rights,” she said.

Dillard added that in the aftermath of the traffic stop she’s learned how the incident has impacted the university’s students, their mental health, and well-being.

“I want our students to know that we hear you, and we’re going to stand up for you,” she said. “And no one—including law enforcement—has the right to tell you that your fears and your feelings of humiliation and dehumanization are not real or valid—because they are.” 

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