This past year was supposed to be an awakening.
43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott was shot to death in the parking lot outside his apartment by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer one year ago today, on September 20, 2016.
The protests that ensued were unlike any that Charlotte has experienced in recent memory. They represented the bubbling over of long-simmering issues that until then had been pushed to the side by a booming city. Charlotte leaders unilaterally described them as a wake-up call that would spur meaningful change.
But on this sad anniversary, how much has really changed?
Yes, there is evidence that Charlotte is different today than it was a year ago. Inequality and opportunity are on the civic radar like they never before, even more prominent than they were after a major national report ranked Mecklenburg dead last in economic mobility.
But there’s also plenty to stoke criticism that Charlotte is a city that loves to commission reports and form committees but has trouble following through. Few tangible changes have come to fruition — and in some cases, Charlotte is right back where it started.
“Charlotte, I love you, but you exemplify why I don’t believe in scared straight interventions,” wrote Justin Perry, the co-chairman of OneMECK, in a reflection on the anniversary. “Last September, you temporarily were scared after briefly losing your most precious addictions: money and image. But like many first-time quitters, after being discharged from the detox of protests, you didn’t work your program.”
A new conversation
The protests certainly succeeded in getting people talking — including among segments of Charlotte’s population who hadn’t considered issues of inequality before.
Thousands of people have gone to hear historian Tom Hanchett speak about how Charlotte came to be a segregated city. They’ve learned about redlining, about how the predominately African-American Brooklyn neighborhood of Second Ward was razed, about how neighborhoods like Myers Park and Elizabeth had explicit covenants on property deeds black families from moving in. They’ve learned of the difficulties large swaths of the community face in accessing opportunity, and how that system came to be.
“All that stuff is news to a good segment of the population,” former N.C. Teacher of the Year James Ford said on a recent episode of The Charlotte Podcast.
This year, Charlotte’s power players openly used words like “segregation” and “poverty” and openly admitted the city’s faults. The “can do” nature of Charlotte began shifting toward “we haven’t.”
Despite it being mostly talk, this talk has given people a baseline of knowledge that they did not have before.
“Is the educational part enough?” Ford said on the podcast. “No. It is not. But it’s a prerequisite.”
For some people, it was a remedial class. But it could pave the way for more effective action going forward.
A new seat at the table
These conversations have allowed a new category of people a seat at the table in civic decisionmaking.
A half-decade ago, protest groups like Occupy Charlotte did not land their arguments in the city’s mainstream. The activist group that gained prominence last September — Charlotte Uprising — has been much more successful gaining access to power.
The outcomes of civic decisions might not always go their way, but at least they have a seat at the table.
That figurative seat at the table of civic discussions could soon translate to an actual seat behind the dais of local government.
One of the key figures of last September’s protests, Braxton Winston, was one of four Democrats running for an at-large seat on the Charlotte City Council to win a primary race — and unseated a sitting council member running for re-election.
Winston called on Mayor Jennifer Roberts and CMPD Chief Kerr Putney to resign at a council meeting last September. He has an inside track to a seat on that same council in November.
Where is the action?
Whether these changes in attitude and discussion will be enough to translate to meaningful change is yet to be seen. So far, they largely haven’t.
After the protests, the City Council pledged to accelerate the creation of 5,000 units of affordable housing. Nearly a year later, the council held a special meeting to discuss strategies on how to accomplish that goal. The headline from that meeting? That the type of affordable housing the city has focused on doesn’t even reach the people most in need.
Likewise, city leaders also pledged a review of CMPD policies. Both Scott and the officer who shot him are black, and the officer was not charged. Whether the city’s police force does enough to de-escalate volatile situations is still an open question. A year later, recommendations are only now beginning to trickle in.
Will Charlotte be able to demonstrate more tangible change by the next September 20?
As Perry, the OneMeck founder, put it in his reflection: “The question remains: Do we have to feel more pain to hit bottom or can we raise our bottom by fighting together against the addictive systemic enablers of white supremacy, separate and
unequal schools and housing, disproportionate suspensions and arrests, and serial displacement of residents?”