In the two weeks since a police shooting cast Charlotte’s racial and socioeconomic issues into the national spotlight, there’s been an unprecedented amount of soul-searching on the part of Charlotte’s civic leaders.
Last Tuesday, a 43-year-old black man named Keith Lamont Scott was shot and killed by a police officer near his home in north Charlotte. Police said they observed him with marijuana and a gun before the confrontation.
Protests unlike anything Charlotte has seen in recent memory immediately broke out, leading to the hospitalizations of numerous police officers, at least 95 arrests or warrants, and the fatal shooting of one of the demonstrators on the pavement outside the Omni Hotel by another protester.
In those two weeks, two things have become clear:
The protests and riots that roiled the city weren’t just about the shooting. They were more about deep-seated issues of economic disparity and imbalance of power that have festered in Charlotte for the past decade.
And there’s little chance that things in Charlotte will ever be the same.
In interviews with the Agenda, Charlotte leaders repeatedly referred to the events of the past week as an “awakening,” and almost universally say that they’re committed to making change happen.
More than 200 community and business leaders signed on to a statement committing themselves to listening, responding and acting quickly. Signatures came from everyone from executives at Bank of America and Wells Fargo to the local barber association to Pastor Steven Furtick at Elevation Church.
“There are rare moments in a city’s history that are as dramatic as what we’re experiencing collectively,” said Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners. “The way that we respond to this is going to be really shaping to the city that we become.”
Still, in a city that’s known for being very good at creating task forces and launching committees, but not always as good at following through, there’s a real undercurrent of concern that things will go back to business as usual.
“There is an old guard interest in trying to get back the status quo as quickly as possible, calm everybody down, restore a false sense of unity and get back to the veneer of how we perceive ourselves,” said Justin Perry, co-chairman of OneMECK, an organization pushing for more diversity in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
“Unfortunately for that status quo, there’s a large amount of energy that’s frankly tired of it, and it’s not going away.”
‘It’s jolted our collective conscience’
Charlotte used to relish being mentioned on the national stage, like when President Barack Obama lauded the city’s community colleges during a State of the Union address.
Charlotte touted its success as a New South boomtown, with gleaming skyscrapers, Fortune 500 headquarters and swarms of creative young professionals filling apartment towers one after another. It made list after list of best places to live, start a business or raise a family.
This week, Charlotte was used as an example of racial discord during the presidential debate, alongside Ferguson and Baltimore. Charlotte is more accustomed to comparisons to Austin, Nashville and Denver. Not those.
“It’s jolted our collective conscience,” said Ray McKinnon, pastor at South Tryon Community United Methodist Church. “It’s made people think, ‘Something is actually going on, and something is actually the matter.'”
Much of that goes back through the city’s history. As Charlotte came into its own in the 1980s and 90s, the city was led by a group of (primarily white, male) corporate titans like Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl and First Union chief Ed Crutchfield. They were able to get big, positive things done, and made the city what it is today. But it certainly wasn’t inclusive decision-making.
To be sure, problems of economic or educational disparity weren’t invisible over the past 10 years. But remnants of the top-down leadership style of decades past have still been in place. People living a different economic reality haven’t had a true seat at the table.
“I think a lot of the conversations to date have been either in the pandering mode or one sided,” said city councilman Kenny Smith, a Republican who represents south Charlotte. “I think that there’s a reluctance of a lot of my constituents to recognize or understand that a portion of our community has been left behind and that there’s a deep-seated anger in that community.”
The protests have made clear that style of leadership is no longer working.
“The realities that a lot of backroom deals among small groups of people that benefit small groups of people are being exposed now,” Perry said. “The facade that we have sold ourselves on is being exposed.”
Charlotte was a ‘powder keg’
Part of that facade was bolstered by the way Charlotte weathered the Jonathan Ferrell case, a test of racial tensions in Charlotte that was similar in many ways to the current situation, but with much different results.
In 2013, Ferrell, who was African-American, crashed his car in an east Charlotte neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning, and startled neighbors as he banged on a door asking for help. When police responded, a white officer, Randall Kerrick, shot and killed Ferrell as he ran toward officers.
Kerrick was arrested the same day by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department — then under the leadership of former Chief Rodney Monroe — and put on trial for voluntary manslaughter. The case ended in a hung jury with an 8-4 vote for acquittal. Charlotte ended up paying financial settlements to both Kerrick and Ferrell’s family.
To be sure, there were protests after the hung jury, and after Attorney General Roy Cooper announced that the state would not pursue another trial. But they were subdued.
“It gave a false perception that we have our poor people and we have our black people under control,” said OneMECK co-chairman Perry.
But even then, there were discussions in the black community that things weren’t right and could end up in something like what Charlotte has seen.
“Right now, we’re sitting on a powder keg,” Perry said he recalls saying to a friend.
Police shootings in other cities like Ferguson, Cleveland, North Charleston and Baton Rouge played a role in rising tensions. But there was plenty at home contributing as well.
“All the data was there that showed the potential,” McKinnon said. Two widely cited studies emerged in the past few years outlining the economic disparity in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
Mecklenburg County came in 99th out of 100 in a study looking at the impact of future salaries of low-income people based on where they grew up, placing behind only Baltimore County in Maryland.
And Charlotte ranked dead last in a study of economic mobility among the 50 largest U.S. cities.
Those data points are reflective of an uncomfortable truth widely known in Charlotte. There’s a wedge of affluent people in south Charlotte with high incomes, quality schools and comfortable lifestyles. And then there’s a crescent of low-income, primarily minority communities that rank significantly lower in just about every indicator of quality of life.
Return to the status quo?
Those issues are complicated and have yet to be resolved. And Charlotte leaders say the protests after Scott’s death will be a catalyst for taking steps to address them.
“There will be enough people holding the feet to the fire of our elected officials,” McKinnon said. “We’re not going to be able to return to the status quo.”
That’s by necessity, Perry said. “Until we address the root, we’re going to stay on the same powder keg that we’ve been on,” he said.
There are a lot of people who “obviously have zero interest in a quick Band-Aid and going back to the way things are,” Perry said. “This is not a one time, ‘everybody’s got it out of their system’ kind of thing. … The status quo of the past 20 years is finished in terms of being unchallenged.”
The momentum appears to be there.
CMPD has made significant strides in the past few years in connecting with the community. The department’s “Cops and Barbers” program has gotten wide-spread attention and current Chief Kerr Putney, who is black, has spoken movingly about his own history with distrust with police.
The conversation may be broader now.
“There are a lot of community leaders in Charlotte that are coming together and seeking to further understand: What did we just learn? What are our gaps in understanding? And what’s our path forward?” said Michael Smith, the Charlotte Center City Partners leader.
Several city leaders cited the same examples of “low-hanging fruit” that could be addressed quickly.
One of those is strengthening the Citizens Review Board, which has some oversight powers in complaints of police misconduct. The board can’t compel people to testify, however, and doesn’t conduct its own investigations. Instead, it relies on what CMPD’s internal affairs division puts together.
There will likely also be a renewed focus on affordable and public housing, particularly in finding ways to create more mixed-income communities instead of the largely segregated city Charlotte is now.
Expect police policies and procedures to also be on the table.
“What we’ve got is a tragic situation that can bring about a healthier community,” Perry said. “This was a long time coming. Stop trying to fight against it, own it, and ask what we can do to make it different.”