The little boy sprints from the patio to the memory garden. His white Nikes glide across the grass, and short braids flop on a summer evening. He’s in the backyard at his grandma’s house in west Charlotte, off of Freedom Drive.
Five miles away, people are lining up for another night of protests for Black lives. It’s Thursday, the seventh day of demonstrations here. They’ll hold cardboard signs and walk through Charlotte’s streets, saying names. Someone almost certainly will have one that says “Justin Carr.” It’s the little boy’s name; it was his father’s name.
“Where’s your daddy, Justin?” his mother, Tanae, asks.
“In the air,” the little boy says in soft voice. “Daddy lives in the air.”
“What do we take to your daddy when we go see him?” his grandmother, Vivian, asks.
“Flowers!” he says.
Little Justin Carr is three years, seven months old.
Big Justin Carr died three years, eight months ago.
Carr was shot while standing with hundreds of other protesters outside the Omni Hotel in downtown Charlotte on September 21, 2016. It was just after 8 p.m. that Wednesday, and the bullet still cuts a cruel path through his family and this city.
People near him dropped to their knees and tried to stop the bleeding. Officers ran toward him. The people didn’t know whether to trust the police or not. Many protesters believed the cops pulled the trigger. It had been that kind of summer, the summer of 2016, that would make a crowd think that. Lots of other names were added to the cardboard signs that year, from Philando Castile to Alton Sterling to Keith Lamont Scott.
I was 15 or 20 feet away from Carr when he fell to the sidewalk along Trade Street. “They shot him!” people shouted in the chaos. Nobody noticed the man sprinting away with the gun. Surveillance video shows Rayquan Borum, who was arrested and would admit to the crime the next day, running past my left shoulder and out of the screen.
Prosecutors said during Borum’s trial that he was aiming at police. Whatever the case, hundreds of people were in that crowd, but for some reason the shot found Justin Carr, a 26-year-old who’d parked his car at the hotel, a truck driver who was on his way to work the third shift that night, a Charlotte-loving man who would cut vacations short just to be home to watch the Panthers play, and a father-to-be whose girlfriend was eight months pregnant.
Vivian Carr, Justin’s mother, doesn’t spend much time asking why. It only happens when Lil Justin, as she sometimes calls her grandson, says he wishes his daddy could be here.
To her, he’s still all around. When she looks at that little boy sprinting back and forth in her backyard, she sees him. Lil Justin has his dad’s mouth, his eyes. “His forehead!” Lil Justin’s 10-year-old half-brother D.J. interjects. D.J. is Tanae’s son from a previous relationship. “And he’s athletic,” D.J. adds. “Just like his dad.”
Inside Vivian’s home, the living room has pictures on every surface. There’s Justin in his Cam Newton Panthers jersey. There he is with his nickname, “Jroc.” There’s a glass statue with his name etched in it: “Justin Carr. July 21, 1990 – September 22, 2016.”
In Vivian’s house and in her yard, you can see how he keeps her company still. She moved here 19 years ago, when Justin was a boy only a few years older than the one running around now.
Justin’s favorite part of this home was the stairs. They’d never lived anywhere with stairs before. Sometimes when she’s alone and it’s quiet, Vivian still hears her son running up and down them, up and down.
Vivian’s phone’s been ringing again these past two weeks, as protests developed all over the country, including in Charlotte, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
On Saturday morning, May 30, she woke up brokenhearted to the images from Beatties Ford Road. She saw the videos of tear gas and flashbangs, the last sights and sounds her son knew of this world. Nobody should ever leave here like that.
“Good Morning!” she posted on Facebook before 6:30 a.m. that day. “I ask that if (you’re) protesting do it with meaning and do it Peacefully. … This right here brings back horrible flash backs of the night I was called September 21st 2016 about my Son being shot at the Keith Scott protest. My Son wanted to stand with his people and protest for Justice! But unfortunately he was killed!”
It’s taken time, but she now embraces her role in this. She absolutely wants Justin to be included with the names in the chants, wants his name written in chalk whenever someone writes one of the others. That they were killed by police and he was killed in the crossfire from another protester isn’t important. He died as part of the movement for justice, she says, and that’s what matters.
In fact, in some ways it makes him the most symbolic victim. If the rallies over the past two weeks have proven anything, it’s that Black or white or brown, young or old, we are a country caught in between the next officer and the next Black person.
Justin Carr did nothing wrong. One minute he was standing in a crowd, an ordinary follower to everybody there but everything to his family, and the next he was on the sidewalk.
Last Saturday, after seeing the images from Beatties Ford, Vivian put her phone down and took a walk. She went to Freedom Park and wandered around the big pond there to think about Justin and God.
We sit down at a picnic table in a park across town. It’s Sunday, May 31, the day after another night of brutal protests. Some 30 people were arrested Uptown the night before. More tear gas. More terrible memories.
We tiptoe into the conversation, a few questions and one-line answers about her weekend and work and the protests. Then I ask, “Was Justin an easy baby?”
She bursts with a big laugh.
“No,” she says, shaking her head.
As soon as Justin learned to walk, she says, he was running. As soon as he learned to climb, he was falling. Vivian was a regular at the hospital. Broken collarbone, broken arm, cut on his eyelid, or staples in his head — “Justin was just being Justin,” she says.
He was born on July 21, 1990, the youngest of three boys, and the newest member of a very big Charlotte family. Vivian’s grandmother had 11 children, and just about everyone still lives in the area, most of them in north Charlotte and Concord.
Vivian worked at a hosiery mill in NoDa at the time Justin was born. She would walk to “the sandwich shop with the twin brothers,” as she calls it, or Brooks’ Sandwich House, and eat the livermush sandwich for breakfast. (One of those twins, Scott Brooks, was murdered this past winter while opening the store.)
When Justin was about four years old, Vivian moved to a home off of Beatties Ford Road with her new fiancée. The man was from the country, and he brought all the thrills of rural life to the city for the boys — a trampoline, a Go-Kart, chickens, a goat, even a potbellied pig. Vivian’s friends called her fiancée the “animal man.” She couldn’t stand all the clucking and the oinking, but Justin ran wild there, and she loved to see him happy.
He shared a bedroom with his brother Ellis, who’s a year older than him. They fought every day as boys. Kenneth, who’s three years older than Ellis, would put his hand on Vivian’s shoulder when she’d had it with the two younger boys. “Don’t let ’em get to you,” Kenneth would tell her. “This is just what they do.”
They tested every inch of her patience. One Easter morning, she dressed Justin in a yellow jacket and Ellis in a light blue jacket. She sent them next door to her mother’s house while she put on makeup for the service. Within a few minutes, her mom called to say the boys were fighting in the backyard in their church clothes. The yellow and light blue jackets were covered in mud.
Each time after a fight like that, she made Justin and Ellis stand and hug each other. They hated that.
Vivian says Justin had attention-deficit disorder from an early age. He had more energy than he knew what to do with. Kenneth was always a great singer — he even made it to American Idol’s Hollywood round in 2013. Justin wasn’t a natural, but wanted to be like his big brother. So when he was about five, Vivian let him join the kids’ choir at church. At the first practice, Justin got to clapping so hard to the music he fell off the riser.
When Justin was 11, Vivian, who was by now working for the Red Cross, broke it off with the man with the potbellied pig and moved with her three boys to the home with the stairs off of Freedom Drive.
Justin and Ellis kept fighting and hugging, fighting and hugging. One time she went to Washington, D.C. to visit family and left Kenneth in charge of them. They put hot dogs on the stove and went out to discuss who’d cut the grass and who’d trim the edges. That, too, led to an argument between Justin and Ellis, which led to a “small fire,” as they reported it to their mother. Vivian came home to find black marks throughout her kitchen.
Justin always liked a girl named Tanae in his class. They dated for a time early in high school at West Meck. One Christmas, he asked his mother to drive him over to her house so he could give her a box of Air Force Ones. It was love like that.
Still, they were teenagers, and they broke up and dated other people. Tanae gave birth to D.J. not long after high school.
As Justin grew up and his dreadlocks grew longer, two things happened: He became more of a ladies’ man, Tanae says, shaking her head; and he had more frequent encounters with police officers. He would come home and tell his mother that they were messing with him.
Justin’s energy caused him trouble at school, too. His mother took him out of West Mecklenburg and transferred him to Kennedy Charter for his senior year. She says he never was in trouble for fighting or anything violent, “just clowning.”
One day she was at work when someone from Kennedy called to tell her to come get him. He apparently walked past the main office and saw it was unmanned. So he opened the door and ran into the intercom room and started making announcements.
Kennedy’s administrators sat her down and said, “Justin’s a good kid. Justin’s funny. He’s got some good jokes. But he doesn’t know how to stop.”
He didn’t mature until after high school. He came home one day a few years ago and told Vivian he wanted to be a truck driver. He had big plans. His brother Ellis — the one he always fought with — would join him, and they’d start their own business together. Carr Brothers, they’d call it.
Justin earned his CDL. He took a job driving for Bojangles, delivering chicken and biscuits throughout the southeast. Vivian says he loved that job because everywhere he stopped, he ate. But he missed home on those long trips.
He was always this way — a Charlotte boy and no other kind of boy. Panthers fan. Hornets fan. He didn’t see why anyone would live anywhere else.
He found a job driving for a company that allowed him all local routes. The one trade-off was that he had to work the night shift.
Everything was falling into place. He was making good money, staying close to home, and he was dating Tanae again. One spring day in 2016, they called Vivian and said they were having a baby.
“Oh, my first granddaughter!” she responded.
“Mom I want a boy!” Justin said.
A few weeks later, he cried at the ultrasound where he heard his son’s heart beating.
While the world raged that summer, Justin thought about his family. He started looking at houses in Concord. He picked up extra shifts. He wanted to be ready; Tanae was due in late October, and he knew life wouldn’t be the same after that.
On September 20, 2016, a CMPD officer shot Keith Lamont Scott at his apartment complex near UNC Charlotte. The district attorney would later clear the officer, saying the shooting was justified. That mattered little that night, and that week.
Black people throughout Charlotte were done. A year earlier, they’d marched after a judge declared a mistrial in the case of an officer who fired 12 shots at Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed young Black man, killing him. But the shock of the case’s outcome almost left those demonstrations numb.
This time, protesters went straight to the site. They watched as a flatbed truck loaded up Scott’s vehicle. They clashed with officers in the street that ran past the complex. They made their way to Interstate 85 and blocked traffic by starting a fire on the highway.
The next day, September 21, Justin Carr saw the news. He called family members and asked them to join him at a planned protest that night at Marshall Park. It was scheduled to start in the evening, leaving him plenty of time to make it to his shift at work.
He called Vivian, who said no. He asked Tanae, who said the same. “They’re not doing it right,” she remembers telling him. He called his brother Ellis, who didn’t answer, which he regrets to this day.
Justin told Tanae that he would just go to work. But at some point after their conversation, another friend said he’d join them. Justin parked his gray Dodge Dart in the parking lot of the Omni and walked the seven or eight blocks to the park. Pink clouds settled over the protesters at sunset.
The protest was peaceful as advertised. But as it broke up, the crowd split into two groups — one followed the organizers in a march around the courthouse. The other blazed its own path toward the center of the city. Vivian doesn’t know which group Justin was with, but she remembers him calling her while he marched.
“You should’ve been here, Mama!” he said. “It was peaceful.”
He told her he was walking to get his car and on to work.
A few minutes later, the two groups convened near the Epicentre. Some people climbed the steps. A few water bottles rained down. Police in riot gear showed up. A unit went to seal off the front door of the Omni, where a manager in a suit stood with a worried look on his face.
I’ve covered more than a dozen protests now in Charlotte, and I wouldn’t have believed this before the first one, but officers with shields attract protesters. The crowd pushed forward toward the door. To this day, Vivian believes Justin was just trying to get to his car to go to work.
At 8:29:50 p.m., a flashbang went off in the crowd. People scattered and screamed. About 10 seconds later, at 8:30, surveillance video shows an orange burst. Police say it was the blast from Borum’s gun. As I walked around the corner, I looked back toward the door of the Omni. The worried manager was still there, and medics were thumping on a man’s chest, trying to resuscitate him.
As medics rushed Carr to Carolinas Medical Center, now Atrium, Justin’s friend called the only family member he knew — Kenneth, who was living in D.C. at the time.
Kenneth called Vivian and told her to go to the hospital. He started his car and made the six-hour drive immediately. Vivian called Tanae. She didn’t answer.
Tanae has a side business doing hair, and she had a client that night. Her phone was in her room face down. After she finished with the appointment and washed her hands, she turned it over.
Eight months pregnant, she grabbed her keys and went to the hospital to meet Vivian.
An hour later, at 9:33 p.m., the City of Charlotte tweeted, “ALERT: Fatal shot uptown was civilian on civilian. @CMPD did not fire shot.”
An hour and nine minutes after that came this: “CORRECTION UPDATE: Civilian who suffered gunshot wound during protests is on life support, critical condition, not deceased.”
By then, Vivian was in a private room being asked several odd questions by officers, she says. “Did Justin have any enemies?” she recalls. “No!” she shouted at them.
“They was acting like Justin, well, we were the bad people,” she says.
Eventually, doctors let her in the room with him. Justin was non-responsive when she saw him. But she held his hand for hours. She told him to be strong, to keep fighting.
Doctors pronounced Justin dead the next morning.
Vivian hugged Tanae and said, “My son passed away. Just make sure that you give my grandson life.”
Here’s what life immediately after Justin looked like:
Kenneth stayed up all the next night in Vivian’s garage writing the obituary and program for Justin’s funeral. He made it a football-themed event, a nod to his brother’s love for the Panthers. Vivian was the quarterback, Kenneth was the wide receiver, Ellis was the running back. And Justin was the position-less “Most Valuable Player (Honorable).”
Vivian and her sons had to go pick up Justin’s car from the parking deck where he was murdered.
They had to turn in the keys at his work. When they showed up, his coworkers led them into a room where they had a surprise baby shower planned.
Ellis kept wondering whether things would’ve been different if he’d answered that call. He gave up on earning his CDL for a while, gave up on forming Carr Brothers trucking business. Now it’s a reality, but it took time.
Tanae still had to raise D.J., who was seven then. She would cry in the shower and in the closet so that he wouldn’t see her. “I think he could smell my tears, because he would always find me,” she says.
They had Justin’s funeral on September 28. The next day, Vivian went to D.C. with Kenneth to get away.
In late October, Tanae went into labor. Vivian was there, and so were Tanae’s parents.
Big Justin Carr never liked his name. In the fifth grade he asked his mother to change it to Burgess. Where he got that, she doesn’t know. He’d planned to name his unborn son Sy’Mier.
But after his death, Tanae had another name in mind. Justin Sy’Mier Carr was born on October 28. His mother had an outfit for him to wear home from the hospital. After she put it on him, the nurses attached a pin to it. On the pin was a picture of his father.
Last Tuesday evening, Vivian pulled out a purple mask and wrapped it around her nose. There was a protest Uptown, and this time she was going.
She grabbed a sign with Justin’s picture on it. A family member made them for the murder trial of the man who shot him, but guards didn’t allow them in the courtroom.
For more than two years after Justin’s death, activists maintained that police killed him with a rubber bullet. That theory stuck with Justin’s family. Even if they didn’t believe it, they didn’t not believe it. It was only after the trial in 2019, after seeing the evidence against Borum, after wondering why he kept looking back at them and glaring during the proceedings, and then after the guilty verdict, that they accepted his role.
Now, more than a year after the trial, Vivian finally had a place to take the signs. The NAACP and Kidz Fed Up had arranged a big, peaceful protest in Uptown.
Vivian wanted to join a walk Justin started four years ago. Tanae still isn’t ready for it, she says. She’s not sure she’ll ever be.
For Vivian, it was something like therapy. As she held the sign up high, she could hear him calling her again, “You should’ve been here, Mama! It was peaceful.”
He shows up like that. On November 20, 2017, a person with three children and six grandchildren sat down and penned a handwritten letter to Vivian, to say thank you. Justin was an organ donor, and the letter writer had received his liver.
In cursive letters, the person wrote that their youngest grandchild is seven years old, and, “thanks to your gift, I am able to take a part of her life and see her grow up in a loving and stable home. … I hope you will find some comfort in knowing that part of your loved one lives on.”
Somewhere out there, another person has Justin’s lungs. And somewhere else, another has Justin’s heart.
In the crowd last Tuesday, Vivian had his face on a stick. A few people noticed. One asked her to speak. She took the mic and told the crowd what she said in the Facebook post, that if you’re protesting, “do it with meaning, and do it peacefully.”
Not far from her, a young Black boy held up another sign that read, “At what point do I stop being cute … and start being a threat?”
Lil Justin is tapping on his “Damma’s” shoulder, telling her to play the song again.
It’s Thursday, two nights after that protest, and he’s dancing to TikTok videos made to Drake’s “God’s Plan.” As far as his “Damma” — he’ll get the “Gr” down someday — is concerned, dancing is better than what he was doing just a minute ago, throwing a soccer ball at her television.
Tanae sits in the chair across the room. All she can see is the dirt stain on his pants from when he fell outside in the memory garden. She hasn’t spoken about Justin publicly, but agreed to for this story, just no pictures. Just about every other post on her Instagram is either a picture of big Justin with a message to say she misses him, or a post of Lil Justin to say how proud she is of him.
Big Justin Carr used to sit in this living room and laugh with his friends deep into the night, laugh so loud that his mother would have to call downstairs and tell him to stop. It drove her nuts, but she misses that laugh now.
And now here’s Lil Justin, crawling all over her until her eyes roll, dancing to the Drake TikToks until her ears can’t take it anymore. Looking at him, this indisputably adorable boy, we all know why people are in the streets.
Ay, Ay, the song goes, and the little boy snaps his head back with each Ay.
I only love my bed and my mama, I’m sorry, the song goes. Lil Justin buries his head in the couch cushion laughing at that line.
The kneeling. The hundreds of thousands of people kneeling and raising their fists at once, in places all over the world. “I wish Justin was here for that,” Vivian says, “so he can see what he was fighting for is coming.”
Ay, Ay. Lil Justin tosses his head back to make sure we’re all still paying attention.
Those cardboard signs. They aren’t for the people whose names are on them. They’re to remind us what we want to be, and who we want to be, now that those people are gone.
If you’re writing Justin Carr’s name on one this week, Vivian would love that. But she’d also want you to know the person behind the name, and to think about which Justin Carr you’re really marching for.