Hoping to energize the voter coalition that elected and re-elected Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton returned to Charlotte Sunday to offer support and a listening ear to an African-American community that’s hurting and angry following the police shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott.
Clinton’s first stop was Little Rock AME Zion, a historic black church where nearly 400 congregants at the 11 a.m. service appeared surprised and buoyed by the appearance – unannounced ahead of time – of their “special guest,” as Pastor Dwayne Walker described her.
Standing at the pulpit, Clinton mixed Bible verses with headlines about black men who have been shot by police and others in recent years – including Scott, whose death sparked days of nationally televised protest, some of it violent, in uptown Charlotte.
“It has been 12 days since Mr. Scott was shot and killed. Twelve days since his wife, Rakeyia Scott, watched her husband die, and seven children lost their father,” Clinton said. “We don’t yet know all the details about the shooting, but we do know this community and this family is in pain.”
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Clinton also spoke about the killings of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge and Philadelphia. “The families of fallen officers have been dealt a great blow, and they deserve our prayers as well,” she said, drawing murmurs of approval from the pews.
The day’s emotional peak came when Clinton talked about the toll on children and invited Zianna Oliphant to join her up front. Zianna, 9, is a fourth-grader who spoke tearfully at last week’s City Council meeting about black children losing their fathers and mothers.
Clinton put her arm around the girl and held her close as she spoke. Zianna “should be thinking about happy adventures,” Clinton said, but “instead, she’s talking about graveyards.”
Clinton had planned to be in Charlotte a week ago but postponed her visit after Mayor Jennifer Roberts asked that she delay the trip in the aftermath of the Scott police shooting on Sept. 20.
The shooting of Scott, an African-American father of seven, happened after police said he repeatedly refused to drop a handgun after they confronted him in his car, where they said they observed him in possession of marijuana. Family and neighbors said Scott posed no threat to officers, and that he was a victim of ongoing violence against African-Americans by law enforcement.
A few days after his death, Clinton urged the city of Charlotte to publicly release the police video. In a tweet, she wrote: “Charlotte should release police video of the Keith Lamont Scott shooting without delay. We must ensure justice & work to bridge divides.”
And at last Monday’s debate, in response to a question about the Charlotte shooting and one by a police officer in Tulsa, she called for more police training to restore trust – along with legislation to end what she called “the gun epidemic.”
On Sunday, she again called for action, including more training of police on how to de-escalate tense situations that can lead to fatal shootings.
Clinton did not mention her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, by name. But she was clearly referring to him when she criticized people “who want to exploit people’s fears, even if it means tearing our nation even further apart. They say that all of our problems would be solved simply with more law and order, as if the systemic racism plaguing our country doesn’t exist.”
“Of course we need safe neighborhoods,” she added, “but we also need justice. And dignity. And equality. And we can have both. This is not an either-or question for America.”
Later Sunday, the North Carolina GOP released a statement that cast the visit as her bid to “persuade voters from the Obama coalition who have clearly been unenthusiastic about a Clinton presidency.”
Though most of the talk Sunday struck religious and moral tones, Clinton’s reason for being back in the biggest city in this key battleground state had everything to do with the Nov. 8 election. Though pollsters and pundits say Clinton can win the White House without carrying North Carolina, most agree that Trump must have the state in his column if he hopes to get to 270 electoral votes.
So, with state polls showing Clinton and Trump neck-in-neck in North Carolina, her campaign is investing heavily in TV ads and time – Sunday was her fourth visit to Charlotte since July – to try to deny Trump a victory here.
But some of the same surveys have indicated that black voters and young voters – two key parts of the Obama coalition – aren’t as enthusiastic about Clinton as they were of the president.
The Obamas are doing their part to try to change that. The president appeared with Clinton at a Charlotte rally in July; the first lady will speak up for her at noon Tuesday at the Charlotte Convention Center.
And on Sunday at Little Rock AME Zion, there were also appeals to go to the polls.
Robin Bradford, a Little Rock member who marched in the aftermath of the Scott shooting, told the congregation before Clinton took the stage that “we can’t all march, but we got to vote.”
And Pastor Walker, who informed his flock that there were voter registration cards at every entrance to the church, ended the service with a rousing sermon about what he called “The Undecided.”
“The worst decision you can ever make in life,” he said, “is the decision you decided not to make.”
Meredith Bolden, 22, a churchgoer who sat in a back pew with the press covering Clinton, said the Democratic candidate’s words spoke to her.
“She was very assertive and was very clear in understanding what we want as a black community,” said Bolden, a former supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s opponent in the Democratic primary. “I’ll vote for her.”
After leaving the church, Clinton’s motorcade stopped outside Mert’s, a popular soul food restaurant in uptown and, on Sunday, her meeting place with nine young African-American leaders in Charlotte.
The meeting was closed to the press, but journalists were allowed to stay for her opening remarks to the leaders, who come from the black church, Johnson C. Smith University, the Urban League, black radio and nonprofits.
“I want to make sure I understand … what you think we can do together to deal with these systemic problems, systemic racism, and lack of opportunity,” she said, invoking some of the same words, like “systemic racism,” that are used by young black activists.
The group met with Clinton, a former secretary of state, for more than an hour, said Dennis Reed, founder and CEO of “Inspire the Fire,” a nonprofit that reaches out to kids through the arts.
“She spent more time listening than speaking to us,” said Reed, 32. “She knew that, in order to create lasting change, you need to not only talk to prime ministers and presidents but to people on the ground who are trying to make change in their own small way.”