Charlotte, It’s Too Soon to Talk About Healing
Three weeks after the Keith Scott shooting and ensuing Charlotte protests, are we making steps toward real progress, or are we just doing things the way Charlotte always has?
I WAS STILL REELING from the execution of Terence Crutcher the night before in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Images of a police officer shooting him while he slowly walked back to his vehicle stuck in my mind. I couldn’t stay focused at work that day, couldn’t wait to get home. But as I pulled up to my house in University City I received an alert on my phone about a police involved shooting in College Downs, just a few miles from my driveway.
“Oh God,” I said. “Not another one.” I had no information at the time, but for some reason I believed something about this would not play out like the average officer-involved shooting. I couldn’t even bring myself to read the news story. It wasn’t long after I gave my children hugs and greeted my wife that I turned on the television to see the story being covered by local news. A man had been shot while sitting in his car, they said at first. My discomfort rose. Conflicting stories about the incident began surfacing almost instantly. The news showed the raw emotion of the family of a man named Keith Lamont Scott, screaming into cameras and cellphones that he was unarmed and disabled. This alone is enough to spark the deep-seated anger and lurking distrust for police within the black community. We are a people who hear regularly that violence isn’t the answer, but then also hear regularly that someone with our skin color is the victim of deadly force by police. The inherent contradiction is both glaring and enraging.
By nightfall, Charlotte erupted with fury, despair, and protest. The righteous indignation of so many spilled onto the streets of a city where many thought it could never happen. Police appeared in riot gear and launched tear gas canisters to disperse crowds. The unrest was on display in front of the nation with news channels seizing the opportunity to capture the visuals. Protesters channeled their discontent through peaceful assembly, while others displayed their anger through the destruction of property and attacks on police. Distressed residents gave release to their frustrations, while many Charlotteans looked on in horror, struggling to reconcile this display with the image of a progressive “new south” city.
The days that followed were a mix of tragedy and inspiration. After a second straight night without sleep, I was exhausted Wednesday morning. I was also flat-out mortified. I couldn’t muster the energy for a productive work day. So, I explained my disenchantment to my employer and called off. I spent Wednesday thinking about ways to make a difference and committed to a meeting at Little Rock AME Zion Church in the early evening. I showed up late, only to find the meeting absorbed into a larger peace rally that began at Marshall Park. A diverse crowd of easily 200 to 300 people shouted and chanted “No Justice, No Peace.” I spotted many friends and former students among the group all standing in solidarity. It was peaceful, but filled with a palpable agony. After spending some time on the church grounds, someone shouted, “Let’s go to the EpiCentre!” The crowd left, but I elected to head home, still disjointed. An hour or so later, 26-year-old protester Justin Carr’s life was taken in front of the Omni Hotel, tear gas filled the uptown streets, and rioters exploited the opportunity to plunder. What was on television was a complete contrast to the scene I had left. Yet another heartbreaking moment in series of several that week. The governor declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard.
The next few days seemed like an effort to offset the troubles of the first two. Thursday and Friday nights were nights of direct action, well-coordinated marches, and an overwhelmingly peaceful and colorful accumulation of advocates for justice. On Saturday afternoon, I took my own children into center city to join people of every race, gender, and age to demonstrate against police brutality, lack of accountability, and failed leadership. We called for the release of tapes, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police made some of the footage available to the public later that day. Drum majors for justice held signs and marched to the beat of calls for institutional change. Something tangible shifted in the atmosphere of Charlotte that week. You could almost touch it. Organizers effectively galvanized this moment into a legitimate uprising with demands and a strategic plan.
Weeks later, the questions are being debated in living rooms and barbershops and in a public discussion hosted by the local public radio station: Where does Charlotte go from here? How do we proceed as a community so clearly divided? Billboards urging “Peace. Love. Unity.” sprang up throughout the city as elected leaders spoke of doing things the “Charlotte Way.” After an impassioned City Council meeting on September 26, council members issued a joint letter calling for togetherness, assuring disgruntled residents they’d been heard, and invoking the “spirit” and “culture” of the Queen City. I understood the sentiment. It’s natural for people to want to draw close and call for peace during times of trouble. Even I wanted a return to some sense of normalcy. But for me, these efforts feel premature and misguided.
It is far too soon to talk about healing, I believe, because without repentance there can be no remission.
Now, we’re three weeks, two presidential debates, and a hurricane after Scott was killed, and Charlotte appears to be doing what is easy to do, by assuming a passing recognition of a problem and token efforts to restore trust will suffice for real systemic change. By doing so, we are wrong. We assume that as time passes, tempers will subside. That if we apply enough makeup, we can cover the bruising. Again, we are wrong. These problems will not be solved over cups of coffee. This anger cannot be appeased by conducting listening sessions and community conversations. These fears cannot be comforted by promises to do better in the future. No, this fire will not be easily doused by calls for a singular, unified Charlotte in the face of the exact opposite. No amount of hand-holding, free hugs, or prayer vigils will restore disenfranchised communities that have repeatedly been on the wrong end of regressive policy. We need to change systems and shift the dynamics of power. In other words, it’s going to be really hard.
It requires no effort to sit from a position of relative comfort in affluent neighborhoods in the southern and northern edges of Mecklenburg County and condemn the worst parts of the protests. The riots, burning, and destruction of property are indeed reprehensible, and pointing that out as the fruit of the problem is no monumental task. But identifying the root proves more difficult.
The unrest seen in Charlotte and Baltimore and other places around the country in recent years is simply the boiling point reached from years of benign neglect and dereliction of duty by both leadership and residents. They are nothing more than a rerun of past episodes from American history.
In the late 1960s, there were uprisings in cities all over the United States. President Lyndon B. Johnson formed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also known as the Kerner Commission), an 11-member bipartisan commission to study the underlying causes of unrest. President Johnson was convinced the disorder was caused by communist agitators. He was wrong. The commission report instead identified white racism as the primary culprit:
“Despite these complexities, certain fundamental matters are clear. Of these, the most fundamental is the racial attitude and behavior of white Americans toward black Americans. Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II. … The police are not merely a “spark” factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a “double standard” of justice and protection—one for Negroes and one for whites.”
That was 50 years ago, but it reads as if it was written in 2016. President Johnson ultimately dismissed the findings and the recommendations. And some people wonder why we are still dealing with the same issues.
The shooting of Keith Lamont Scott should not be viewed in isolation, just as the community reaction was not in response to this one case. These instances constitute a pattern of mostly unarmed black men killed by police across the nation—a pattern that goes back decades. When we make the conversation about good vs. bad or black vs. white police, we miss the point entirely. The issue is less about individual actors and more about the systems of racial inequity that continue without fail. It is our systems that treat blacks differently and inferiorly.
In fairness, CMPD has been forthcoming in the past about implicit racial bias within the department. They have even been community partners in Race Matters for Juvenile Justice—a collaborative effort to reduce disproportionality and disparities in the court system—requiring officers to participate in anti-racist training. I’ve personally engaged in Dismantling Racism workshops in a room of majority police cadets prior to their graduation. I was surprised when one of the white senior officers who had previously been through the training opened up to the group by saying, “Racism is real folks!” He pointed to me and declared, “The reaction he gets from a white lady when walking in a parking lot at night is not going to be the same as me.” He was being truthful and his candor was refreshing.
Despite all these efforts, though, the department still has racial gaps. According to a recent UNC study, black drivers are more likely to be stopped, and twice as likely to be searched or experience use of force by CMPD than their white counterparts. For small offenses such as possessing less than half an ounce of marijuana—the amount authorities say Scott possessed—Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police arrest blacks at nearly three times the rate as whites. If you want to understand the anguish in the black community in Charlotte, you really need to understand those numbers. This is the world I enter every time I back my car out of the garage and head to work. No matter how educated, respectable, or articulate I appear to be, no matter how many essays I write or books I read, I’m still more likely to get pulled over and searched than the editor of this magazine.
We can’t heal yet, Charlotte.
We can’t heal until more people in this community, especially leaders, confront these realities that are now laid bare. We need to admit that no matter how far we’ve progressed, a system of white supremacy still prevails in our fair city’s institutions. I’m not talking about racial slurs or Nazi propaganda. I’m talking about a fixed order that treats Charlotte’s white residents in a superior fashion to its citizens of color. To acknowledge this, we must resist the temptation to take disparate outcomes—one officer shooting one man, or one black person achieving success—and chalk them up to mere personal responsibility. We’re individuals, yes, but we’re individuals within a social structure. We need to be truthful and commit to deconstructing these arrangements. Otherwise, calls for peace and harmony will be rendered mute if the intention is to unify around disparity.
I’m encouraged by the likes of former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl and former mayor Harvey Gantt, who’ve implored Charlotteans to do more than “mouth platitudes” but really wrestle with systemic racism. We can start by calling it by name, instituting accountability measures that actually have legal teeth, granting marginalized communities decision-making power instead of just programs, and making substantial investments in the areas we claim to value. This involves every sector from housing, education, criminal justice, and public works. The City Council could start immediately by strengthening the powers of the Citizens’ Review Board by resourcing it to conduct independent investigations and lowering the standard for a hearing to probable cause instead of preponderance of evidence. This would serve as a preventative measure and endear them back to the community. We need to audit all of our systems for racial equity and correct our course. Only then can we begin to heal. We can’t focus on getting along until we prioritize getting it right.
James E. Ford is the Program Director at the Public School Forum of North Carolina. He is also 2014-15 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and 2014 Charlotte Magazine Charlottean of the Year. James is a writer, lecturer, educational consultant, minister and activist.