Charlotte’s Rising Murder Rate: A Discussion

The chief of police is holding his tongue no longer, and other issues


Published:

The panel from WFAE’s public conversation Tuesday at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. From left: WFAE’s Mike Collins, CMPD Chief Kerr Putney, Gemini Boyd of Project BOLT, City Councilwoman Julie Eiselt, Judy Williams of Mothers of Murdered Offspring, and Damian Johnson of No Grease Barbershops.

Tom Bullock/WFAE

WFAE held a public conversation Tuesday at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on Beatties Ford Road, as a special episode of “Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins.” The subject was Charlotte’s unusually high homicide rate this year.

A few of what management consultants refer to as “takeaways”:

You may have already surmised this, but the Charlotte-Mecklenburg chief of police has quit holding his tongue. Kerr Putney has always been a candid sort. Now, in post-Keith Scott Charlotte, he’s just letting it rip.

We’re at 49 homicides for the year, on pace for 95 in 2017, the most since 1993. After about 40 minutes of mostly careful conversation about this—its causes, effects, potential solutions, and meaning, Putney clearly lost at least some of his patience, in a way that’s worth quoting in full.

“I can’t say this enough. We keep acting like one of these conversations is going to be the little nugget that we missed. They don’t exist. What we need to be doing is modeling what we want our kids to emulate ...

“Here’s the other thing, and this is tough. We’re going to have to have people who have a lot of influence give up some of this authority and power and allow some of the people who don’t (have influence) have a seat at the table, as a brother said. I’m not asking you to tutor or spend some time with kids you’re afraid of.”

His voice rose. “What I am asking you to do is fund those who are willing to do the work. … I’m not gonna say, ‘Kumbaya’ and ‘Let’s overcome everything.’ What I’m gonna say is, if you have financial means, support the work that needs to be done that changes these outcomes, and then you get out of the way and shut your mouth. ... If all you can contribute is money, do so. I don’t need your opinion, though.”

Get out of the way and shut your mouth.

Damn.

Putney wasn’t done, either. Collins tried to break in. The chief wouldn’t let him.

“I’ll be this specific. I had this same conversation with people talking about, ‘Chief, what are we going to do to prevent more riots in Charlotte?’ I said, ‘I’m in a bank. Give people opportunities to have jobs that you normally wouldn’t hire.’” This drew applause from the crowd, mostly black, of about 150. “And they did. And the first 30 are going through right now, who are getting the opportunity that they otherwise would not have had.”

Again: Damn. There’s always a certain politesse that accompanies these “public conversations.” Hell, Charlotte’s honed the practice to a dull edge. It’s the performance segment of “the Charlotte Way.” At least one public official has obviously decided he’s had about enough of that. About time, too.

Collins asked Putney and guests plenty of questions that boiled down to: What are the root causes of this problem, and why now? At least in Charlotte, the causes include the continuing legacies of redlining and Urban Renewal, plus an effective resegregation of public schools, coupled with nationwide phenomena: the widespread availability of guns, the erosion of black families through federal and state drug laws, and the globalization that’s crippled the manufacturing sector. It’s no one thing, and none of those is a secret.

Yet, lately, there’s something else, a miasma in the air. Judy Williams of Mothers of Murdered Offspring, the Charlotte victims’ rights organization, noted that she’d taken part in conversations like this back in the ’90s; same questions, same prescriptions, same outcomes. But the violence of the ’90s was an easy thing to figure out. Crack was behind most of it. This is different. The standard CMPD line is that young people are increasingly resolving minor conflicts with guns. OK, but why?

Putney and some audience members touched on it: a kind of hopelessness that compels people who own nothing but their own self-regard to defend it with their lives precisely because it’s all they have. “If you see that you have no opportunity to better your situation, you become desperate. Hopelessness is one of the worst things you can bestow upon a kid,” Putney said. “You get desperate, and you think you’re the only person you have that’s going to defend you. We act like that is hard to understand, and it’s not.”

What’s even more chilling is what seems to be a growing realization, especially among minorities, that their despair is a justifiable reaction to a system that has deliberately oppressed them on racial and class grounds since the founding of the nation. It certainly doesn’t help that the successor to the first black President is someone who embodies white privilege, and who’s inspired a resurgence of open, unapologetic racism.

“To me, it’s a system that has been designed at some point in America that put us in this place,” said panelist Damian Johnson of No Grease Barbershop—whose friend and colleague David Lindsay was murdered three weeks ago. “And if we don’t come up with a system to change that, then we’ll be talking about this 10 years from now.”

An audience member was even blunter. “The very essence of America is poisonous to us,” said DeWayne Gissendanner. “I don’t think America has the will (to change) when it pertains to black people, and black men in particular.”

Good luck trying to “solve” that.

Putney, almost as an aside, mentioned something that made audience members gasp: that states base prison construction on the reading level of third-graders. In other words, children who don’t test at grade level for reading by then are far likelier to end up in prison, and it’s a reliable enough indicator for states to plan prisons accordingly.

Unfortunately—or fortunately—that doesn’t appear to be true, in North Carolina or elsewhere. Nonetheless, it’s been cited numerous times by public figures from Hillary Clinton to Colin Powell. Check out these debunkings by Politifact, FactCheck.org, and The Washington Post.

The night’s moment of deep awkwardness:

Collins was trying to pin down whether the homicide spike, which isn’t exclusive to Charlotte, revealed any patterns. Williams and Johnson had joined Putney on the dais. “All over the country, this is principally black-on-black,” Collins offered, then slowed his cadence and intoned: “This is like self-imposed genocide.”

Silence. Then a few audience members groaned.

Putney seemed stunned. “Well, um …”

Collins interjected, “Strong word, I’m sorry, but ...”

“Yeah, it is a strong word,” Putney said, “because we’re acting like a lot of systems haven’t failed black people in particular.” This drew applause. “We’re acting like we just arrived at this issue, and now in 2017, ‘Oh, my gosh, let’s do something about it,’ because of what’s going on.” The moment passed. The conversation reset and continued.

But during the audience Q&A session after the panel discussion, a young black man named Charles Vakala stood up and directed a question at Collins: Do you realize how offensive some of your questions have been tonight? (Vakala didn’t specifically mention “self-imposed genocide” in his question to Collins, but he later told me that the statement had especially bothered him.)

“Probably not,” Collins said. The audience applauded again. “Are you applauding him or me?,” Collins asked, laughing.

Vakala asked Collins if he’d be willing to talk about it one-on-one. Collins said he’d be happy to, and the two had an amiable chat after the event.

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