In his long career as an accomplished journalist working across the American South, Steve Crump has come face-to-face with hatred and bigotry.
The Emmy-winning journalist spent time reporting on the Ku Klux Klan in which he, a black man, interviewed members of the organization, people who by their very membership profess to hate him due to the color of his skin.
For all that, though, Crump, 59, told The Washington Post that he’s never felt the blunt hatred he did in Charleston, S.C., on Oct. 8.
Crump, who works for WBTV in Charlotte, was in Charleston working on a story about cleanup following Hurricane Matthew. Along with his camera crew, he was filming near the southern tip of the peninsula when he came across a young white man, he and later police identified as 21-year-old Brian Eybers, holding an iPad, apparently producing some sort of “citizen journalism,” as Crump put it.
The man, watching the WBTV crew, was narrating his story into the tablet when Crump caught wind of what he was saying.
“He basically said, ‘There’s a black guy here. No, wait a minute, he’s a slave. No wait a minute, he’s a ‘n-word,’ ” Crump told The Post.
Added Crump, “I went from 0 to 60 in an instant, just like that. I just turned to [my cameraman] and said, ‘We need to get this guy on tape.’” (The result can be viewed above, with offensive language bleeped.)
Charleston’s racial history, like that of other Southern cities, isn’t pretty, and recent events have only reinforced that. The Gullah population, descendants of enslaved Western African peoples in the Lowcountry, can be seen selling handwoven baskets to wealthy white patrons in the city’s palm tree-lined French Quarter, where high-end restaurants from celebrity chefs like Sean Brock collect tourist dollars by the fistful.
That disparity is difficult to miss in the Holy City, so named for the many steeples dotting the skyline.
Crump and the young man were near the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist but Mother Emanuel AME Church sat only 10 blocks away. It was there, in June 2015, that Dylann Roof was accused of killing nine black worshipers. Crump stood in that church, hours later, blood still drying. He stood there again a year later, to cover the wretched anniversary.
After the shooting, the family members of those slain chose to follow scripture by offering forgiveness, an act that turned the city of Charleston into a “disarmed powder keg,” Crump said.
Naturally, all of this raged through Crump’s head as he stormed toward Eybers. After all, Crump, a great-great grandson of Kentucky slaves, spent his career considering race relations.
As Dennis Milligan, WBTV’s news director, told the Charlotte Observer, “You could safely call Steve the leading civil rights reporter in town with his documentaries and daily stories.”
Crump told The Post that in the moment, he faced a simple but difficult question: “Do you respond to it, or not? Do you let it stand?”
Given the city’s recent history, he decided he couldn’t let it stand.
“Say that a little bit louder,” Crump said to Eybers on tape. “Come on, what did you just call me?”
“I called you ‘Sir,'” Eybers said, eyes shaded by glasses. He sat on the ground near the cathedral, wearing a white T-shirt with the logo for the band Sublime, shorts and a purple hoodie wrapped around his waist, along with a pair of Nikes and black crew socks.
“You did not call me ‘Sir,’ ” Crump shot back. “You called me in the n-word, right?”
At which point Eybers said, “I believe I did call you the n-word.”
When asked to spell it, Eybers obliged with an eerie calm.
“N as in Nancy, I as in indigo, G as in grant,” and so on.
When Crump asked what gave Eybers the right to call him that, the young man cited the Constitution of the United States. Crump pushed further, his microphone pointed at Eybers as if it were any other interview. He asked if the young man felt superior.
Eybers pushed his sunglasses off his nose, revealing his eyes.
“Yeah, this one does make me superior,” he said.
The video continued, with Eybers continued to layer insult after insult atop one another, all aimed at Crump’s skin color.
“You’re a f‑‑‑ing idiot,” Eybers told Crump, chuckling. “You’re ignorant, so you really are a n‑‑‑‑‑, then. You’re acting niggardly.”
“What are you?” Crump asked.
“I’m Caucasian,” he said.
“And does that give you a right —” Crump began.
“It gives me every right I f—ing need. You don’t give me the right. God gave me the right. I was endowed by my creator,” Eybers said as he coaxed a flame from a lighter and held it up to an unknown item in his hand.
“And I’m not?” Crump asked.
“I can’t have the same lifestyle you have?” Crump said.
“No, you can’t,” Eybers said. “Because I don’t want you to.”
Finally, after Eybers asked whether Crump is a Roman Catholic, the newscaster climbed into his van and called the police. Eybers stood in front of the van and continued to light the unknown item.
He again called Crump the n-word.
Finally, police arrested Eybers, who smiled as he was guided into the back of a squad car.
He has been charged with disorderly conduct and possession of drug paraphernalia, specifically a glass crack pipe, police told the Charlotte Observer. It’s unclear if Eybers has a lawyer or had entered a plea. He has a court date on Friday.
“I’ve been around hate groups, that kind of thing . . . but it has never been this level of volatility,” Crump told The Post. “I’ve interviewed members of the Klan face to face, and they’ve never stooped to that level of vulgarity”
Days later, when considering his reaction to the Eybers’s insults, Crump paused on the telephone. He had just driven back into Charleston to attend Eybers’s court hearing on Friday morning.
“I’m on Meeting Street right now, and in about three stop lights, I’m going to be by Shell gas station, and behind the gas station is Mother Emmanuel Church,” he said quietly. “Were those people in that church allowed to live up to their full potential, or were they cut short because of someone’s personal judgment call?”
That’s one reason he felt the need to document Eybers’s racist tirade. To Crump, racism is far more complex than skin color or a simple stereotype, and seeing it might help explain some aspect of the generally inexplicable.
“Is it about white, black, privileged, stereotypes?” he asked, voice still low. “To an extent, but it’s like pulling the onion skin back. In order to get to the center of it, it’s a very layered perspective.”
To that end, he hoped Eybers receives “whatever help or counseling” he might need “to help him turn a corner.”
“This young man has some issues,” he said. “I’m hoping at the end of the day, there will be a workable outcome.”
Added Crump, “I hold no malice.”
“As I walk down the street and see the church where those nine people gave their lives, I think about what the survivors said: There’s a level of forgiveness that you have to understand.”