“The police just shot my daddy four times for being black... ! My daddy ain’t do nothing. He ain’t got no (expletive) gun...! He in the damn car reading a (expletive) book.”
As Lyric Scott’s rage over her father’s death reverberated across America in a viral video posted on Facebook live, the narrative of a city that prided itself on racial conciliation and community was being rewritten.
Another black man killed by police, this time in Charlotte.
Within two days, the city would become known for an explosion of violence set off by the shooting death Tuesday afternoon of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott as he waited for his son to arrive on a school bus. On Saturday, at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., President Obama would reference Charlotte together with Ferguson, the city in Missouri that has become synonymous with racism and police brutality in the United States.
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“I understand. I sympathize. I empathize,” Obama said. “I can see why folks might feel angry and I want to be part of the solution as opposed to resisting change.”
As people in Charlotte reacted in disbelief at the mayhem on the same streets that the city proudly showcased during the Democratic National Convention four years earlier, the Rev. Robin Tanner of Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church articulated a sentiment shared by many:
“Tuesday night did not begin on Tuesday night.”
As in every other big city in America, despite Charlotte’s showy skyscrapers, professional sports teams and the can-do image it so eagerly cultivates, the lives of many African American residents are defined instead by poverty and hunger, guns and drugs. Upward mobility for Charlotte’s poorest is more difficult than in any of the country's 50 largest cities, according to a study by Harvard University and the University of California-Berkeley.
In the neighborhood where Scott lived, between Old Concord Road and University City Boulevard, a third of residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to 17 percent citywide. The median household income is $32,313, compared to $53,274 citywide.
“Why not Charlotte?” said Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a vice president for Novant Health who helps lead a task force on poverty formed because of the study. “When a people are feeling powerless and oppressed over a long enough period of time, it is not one event. It’s unfortunate but it was bound to happen.”
For 51-year-old Aaron Harris, hearing about the shooting in Charlotte – four days after seeing video of police shooting an unarmed black man with his hands up in Tulsa, Okla. – was the galvanizing force to join his voice to those seeking to be heard Tuesday night. For the first time, Harris, the son of a police officer, who makes his living as a mechanic technician, marched with protestors facing off against police.
“Me, as a black man, you don’t know what a cop is going to do. Is this the time they’re going to shoot me? It’s like we’re being ignored when we are crying out for help.”
‘I know there is distrust’
“He got out of the car with a book. I saw the book.”
From her second-floor balcony, Taheshia Williams watched as the encounter between Scott and police officers unfolded about 100 feet from her apartment at The Village at College Downs complex on Old Concord Road.
Williams told reporters she saw a black book fall to the ground as Scott got out of the the car. She said he didn’t have a gun.
What Williams said helped frame the account of events that most of America first heard. Scott’s daughter gave that same version in her hour-long Facebook post.
Protesters repeated the message: A book, not a gun.
That stood in contrast to the police account. Chief Kerr Putney said officers saw Scott with a gun when they went to the apartments to serve an outstanding warrant on someone else. Despite “loud and clear verbal commands,” Putney said Scott refused to drop the gun.
Brentley Vinson, 26, an African American officer, fired the fatal shot. Putney said his use of deadly force was justified. He said investigators recovered a gun, not a book.
Putney blamed the violence in Charlotte Tuesday and Wednesday nights on a false narrative. "It's time to change the narrative,” he said, “because I can tell you from the facts that the story's a little bit different as to how it's been portrayed so far, especially through social media."
But for four days, Putney refused to release the police dash-cam and body-cam, heightening the tension between protestors and police. It wasn’t until Saturday that the videos were made public. He acknowledged the distrust but said the footage would “not create absolute certainty.”
“We as a community have some work to do,” Putney told reporters. “I know there is distrust. We have been working on that diligently for quite a while now. But obviously there’s more work to be done.”
Opening old wounds
While the focus remains on sorting out the details of Scott’s death, former state Sen. Malcolm Graham views the tragedy and the unrest that followed as “an unfortunate wake-up call” about broader, more profound issues.
“We have to find a way to rebuild trust within our community,” Graham said. City leaders insist the shooting and the ensuing unrest is “not who we are,” but some see it differently. “It goes back to the Jonathan Ferrell case,” Graham said. “That wound is still open.”
Ferrell was unarmed when he was shot 10 times in 2013 by CMPD Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick. Their encounter came in the middle of the night. Ferrell had wrecked his car and pounded on the door of a nearby house, prompting the homeowner to call 911. Kerrick, responding to the call, said the former college football player ran toward him and refused orders to get on the ground.
In that case, CMPD took the unusual step of charging one of its own. But a jury deadlocked 8-4 for acquittal, and the voluntary manslaughter charge was dismissed. For some within the African American community, there lingered a sense that justice had not been properly served.
“The shooting this week reopened that old wound,” Graham said. Two other factors, he said, contributed: The recent police shooting of Terence Crutcher in Oklahoma and hundreds of years of racial and economic disparities.
“Once this settles down, the community of Charlotte needs to take a look at the man in the mirror and critique what we see,” he said. “We can’t just point to the PGA Championship or the NASCAR Hall of Fame or the Hornets and Carolina Panthers, all the things that bring us great pride and joy. We also have to take a look at those things that make us uneasy, that create tension in the community... Those things that we aren’t proud of, we tend not to talk about.”
“Don’t shoot him. Don’t shoot him. He has no weapon. He has no weapon. Don’t shoot him.”
Rakeyia Scott watched as her husband was killed. Though she has not spoken publicly, a cellphone video her attorneys released Friday show the excruciating moments before and after he was shot.
The attorneys told The New York Times that Scott was walking to her husband’s truck with a cellphone charger when police surrounded him.
Keith Scott was parked near the entrance to the apartment complex, where neighbors said he waited most weekday afternoons for the school bus. For the first time Saturday, Putney provided an explanation as to why the officers confronted him. Putney said they saw marijuana in his vehicle, and then saw a gun.
Rakeyia Scott, in her attempt to stop police from shooting her husband, shouted to them that he had a T.B.I. (traumatic brain injury), a consequence, her attorneys said, of an accident.
The fact that she filmed the encounter is telling, said civil rights attorney James Ferguson, who for decades has represented victims of police shootings. “That’s one more indication of the frustration and lack of trust among many in the African-American community with encounters with police,” he said. “The fact that she is recording it is not surprising.”
Ferguson suspects that “in her mind was that police shoot black men.”
“Charlotte has been through a lot, not just this week, but over the years,” Ferguson said. “Fifty years ago, when I came here, we were dealing with police shootings of young African American males. This has been happening for a long time.... When we see the the kind of reaction that we’ve seen over the last few days, we have to look at it in a broader context than the event that triggered it.”
It wasn’t until 1986 that the U.S. Supreme Court established constitutional limits on when police could use deadly force, ruling that officers must have probable cause to believe a suspect poses a threat of death or injury. The case involved an unarmed 15-year-old black burglary suspect in Tennessee, shot in the back and killed while climbing a fence to get away from officers.
In Charlotte in the 1990s, three unarmed African Americans were killed by white officers in separate incidents, prompting the city to establish a Citizens Review Board in 1997 to look into allegations of police misconduct. A 2013 Observer investigation found that the board reviewed 78 cases and sided with police in every one.
A database by The Washington Post shows that police have shot and killed more than 700 people nationally this year. Based on population, a disproportionate number of the victims were black.
“The numbers are alarming, the frustrations are growing,” Ferguson said. “You’ve got a younger generation that never expected that they would live in fear.... We have to understand that too often violence comes when problems go unaddressed in the community.”
A better day?
For Charlotte, the past week has been an upheaval. Protestors shut down an interstate, looted buildings, confronted police officers with curse words. Twenty-six-year-old Justin Carr was shot and killed outside the Omni hotel. Another civilian has been charged. Police officers were injured.
Wednesday night, in the midst of the chaos, a voice of hope emerged from the crowd, once again heard around the world, this time as CNN covered the protest live.
Toussaint Romain stood out in Uptown Charlotte in his white dress shirt and striped tie, a one-man barrier between police in riot gear and the shouting protesters. He is a lawyer in the Mecklenburg County public defender’s office. He is an African-American male, as are many of his clients. His message was simple:
“It's not an us versus them, cops versus black males, the extreme versus the other extreme. As long as we can really come together and realize we're all in this together, we together can make a change that will benefit tomorrow for all of our kids, for all of our futures.... ”
The videos that the world watched of three African-American women from Keith Scott’s neighborhood – his wife, his daughter, their neighbor – laid bare the anguish and divide. The video of the African-American lawyer restored a sense of hope for what can be accomplished when someone dares step into the gap.
“When you are voiceless and you feel like no one is listening, you can make the assumption that no one cares,” Garmon-Brown said. “You can see how we got to where we are. We have to be a city that has courage to do what we need to do and right some of the wrongs of our history.”
Now the city – indeed the world – has heard those voices.
The challenge going forward is this: Will Charlotte continue to be associated – as Obama did in his speech Saturday – with cities overpowered by racial discord? Or will Charlotte become the city that helps change America’s painful narrative?
Staff writers Ames Alexander, Karen Garloch and Gavin Off contributed.