One Year After Keith Lamont Scott: What We Can Do
The ‘work to do’ never ends
Such a strange experience, sitting there in the atrium of the Levine Museum of the New South and casting my memory back a year to the near-chaos in the darkness on Old Concord Road, outside the apartment complex where a police officer fatally shot Keith Lamont Scott. The museum has turned the events of that night, September 20, 2016, into an exhibit upstairs, “K(NO)W Justice K(NO)W Peace,” and it’s great. But the shooting seems too fresh, too raw, for a museum exhibit yet. Dianne English of the Community Building Initiative, speaking at the museum Tuesday night, likened the date to a “check-in,” like the anniversary of a heart attack or cancer diagnosis, a day when you take stock, confirm that you’re still alive, and ask yourself how you’ve changed and whether that change was for the better.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think my state of mind has improved much. I just got back from the Levine, which hosted a Breaking Bread dinner and discussion, the latest in a series. This one was about the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and the year that’s passed. The organizers put people in groups of seven or eight at tables and presented a series of six speakers, many of them on the streets a year ago, who delivered short speeches and asked questions for the small groups to discuss: What are you doing to ensure that Charlotte is a healthier and more equitable place for all? How can we improve police-community relations? How can we collectively meet our challenges and embrace our opportunities?
Sitting at one of the tables, I had to admit to myself that I hadn’t the vaguest idea. I’m not altogether sure “we,” whoever “we” are, can collectively hang a clothesline at this point in the nation’s history: We’re fragmented, tribal, addicted to skewed or manufactured versions of reality, shooting each other (always, always shooting each other); in Charlotte, we’re coping with news of yet another homicide. The President, speaking before the United Nations, threatened to blow North Korea off the map. Health insurance for millions of Americans is once again bouncing around the Coliseum, trying to avoid the lions. Campus cops shot a kid dead at Georgia Tech. A judge acquitted a white cop who shot and killed a black man in St. Louis, which erupted in a similar fashion as Charlotte a year ago, but worse.
The conversations started. The folks at my table shared their memories of that night, about seeing Charlotte on television and not recognizing it as “their” Charlotte, and their realization that there were other Charlottes they’d always missed. As for answers to the above questions, those weren’t likely to come from 10-minute discussions; maybe that was the point, to hammer home how hard they are. Early on, I realized something else. I felt jumpy, on edge, possessed of a deep, corrosive, what’s-the-point pessimism. I didn’t like the feeling. It was nothing I wanted to hold onto, nothing I wanted to transmit to anyone else (though I surely did), and certainly the wrong frame of mind to consider questions about how Charlotte can “move forward” a year after the city shook itself down in a way few expected it ever could.
The speakers’ questions touched off some others that I kept to myself. A year ago, on the night of the Scott shooting and first round of demonstrations, I wrote that the unrest was inevitable in a city with a neglected underclass less likely to work its way out of poverty than in any large city in the country. I still think that’s true, but I wonder what might have been different with a miniscule adjustment of happenstance.
Would the demand to “release the tapes,” the body and dashboard camera footage of the Scott shooting, have been as ferocious and urgent if not for the immediate release of much clearer footage in the Terence Crutcher shooting in Tulsa four days before? Would the demonstrations have spun out of control the first two nights if not for the widespread belief, later proven false, that Scott was unarmed and holding only a book? How different would the demonstrations have been if a CMPD officer hadn’t shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell three years earlier, the charges against him dropped after a hung jury? Or if police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota hadn’t shot and killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile over the summer of 2016 and under circumstances far more questionable than those in the Scott case? How much of the rage on the streets of Charlotte last September wasn’t about Scott at all? Why haven’t the three fatal shootings by CMPD this year unleashed similar demonstrations? Just how culpable were media in adding oxygen to the fire, and if so, which media? Are those questions answerable, and would the answers matter?
The questions merged with the dissonance of seeing a Charlotte Uprising leader and a CMPD commander—squared off on opposite sides outside police headquarters less than a year ago—seated at separate tables, dining on Mert’s Heart & Soul catering and engaged in an organized public event at a museum, as if they were actors in a panel discussion of an Oscar-nominated movie. (Maybe that perception came from the jitters.) Maybe it’s a sign of a maturing city, one that can accommodate such disparate voices in the same program, in the same room, without tearing itself apart.
Or maybe they, and I, and all of us, are united in at least one significant way—nobody knows the right answers to any of the questions. “We’re in a race with no finish line,” said English, the first of the six speakers Tuesday. “With human beings, we have an essential problem, because we are ornery people.” I’ll second the motion, and I’ll try to do a little better tomorrow. Can any of us do anything else?