Life-long black residents in Charlotte say after years of “empty promises” they are distrustful of government leaders who seem unable or unwilling to fix systemic racial inequality.
“I grew up in Charlotte — from the projects to a high school in this area right here,” said Robin Massey, who attended a community gathering at Tom Hunter Park in the Hidden Valley neighborhood on Monday night to meet with local civic and church leaders.
Organizers held the event, along with four others simultaneously in the city, to meet with residents like Massey for conversation and to emphasize the need for greater accountability of elected officials in the wake of the March 25 deadly police shooting of Danquirs Franklin in Charlotte. Massey and many others who took turns speaking Monday and talked in small groups said they’ve lost faith in local government officials’ ability to help.
For years, community advocates have described “two Charlottes,” referencing the gap between white and black residents when it comes to wealth, housing, education and more.
While Charlotte has experienced historic growth in recent years, many community members say that economic prosperity hasn’t benefited all residents equally — even with black officials occupying some of the city’s most prominent elected offices.
The death of the 27-year-old Franklin, who was shot and killed by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer March 25, has led to peaceful protests in Charlotte this week centered on law enforcement. But at many of those events, black leaders say their concerns about racial inequity in Charlotte go far beyond policing.
Monday’s events were held on the same day police released a video that shows Franklin being shot. Before the video became public, city leaders last week began meeting with community groups, clergy and activists in a call for calm, promising Charlotte’s government has a plan to address concerns.
City Manager Marcus Jones said the inequities the city is grappling with go back decades.
“If we don’t as a city own that,” Jones said, “we’re going to be coming back here time and time again.”
Jones spoke at this week’s Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, which was founded in 1980 as a weekly meeting to discuss local issues most important to black residents. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney and Mayor Vi Lyles also spoke.
But Massey and others who are already part of grassroots efforts in their neighborhoods say they’ve heard “just talking” before.
“I want accountability. At these town hall meetings, I want a piece of paper at the end that says, ‘This is the plan. This is the date it’s going to be done. And this is the contact information for the person accountable,’” Massey said.
She’s doubtful, though, solutions will come from the City Council chambers or any local “official.” Especially after a deadly police shooting, when there’s national news attention on the city, leaders make “empty promises,” Massey said.
“Everything that happens in this city belongs to all of us, all of it,” Massey said. “You can’t just sit at home. It’s gonna take everybody.”
At another event Monday, held in Marshall Park, community activist Gemini Boyd called on clergy leaders to uplift members of the community because they’re not getting the help they need from elected officials. “I’m tired of us thinking we can go over to the government building to get help,” he said.
Charles Robinson, who helped organize Monday’s gatherings, says many of the top concerns are the same today as they were in 2016, when protests erupted in Charlotte following the death of Keith Lamont Scott, who was shot and killed by a police officer.
Then, the City Council promised in a letter to the community that the city would make reforms that went beyond just policing: they promised to create 5,000 units of affordable housing. They promised to create jobs.
Still, city officials say, Charlotte needs around 34,000 more affordable housing units to keep up with the demand.
Last fall, voters approved $50 million worth of bonds for the city’s affordable Housing Trust Fund, and the Foundation for the Carolinas is raising another $50 million in subsidies for affordable housing.
Mayor Lyles, during Tuesday’s breakfast forum, said some of the money has already been spent on affordable housing, including a $2.1 million project to help renovate a privately-owned apartment complex in east Charlotte.
But housing advocates have said the city needs to make more of an effort to help the city’s poorest residents. An Observer investigation last year found that while the city provided developers money for about 4,500 apartments and houses between 2002 and March 2018, only about 1,300 were affordable to households earning less than 30 percent of the area median income.
Lyles and others say more funding and more affordable housing solutions are on the way. Jones said the upcoming city government budget, which will likely be introduced in early May, will address concerns raised by the community. And Lyles says she’s pushing for more money to go directly to collaborations with community-based groups — something that could help alleviate a longstanding complaint that there’s a deep disconnect between official city programs and efforts of local and volunteer-run organizations serving minority neighborhoods.
Following a meeting between police and community members on Wednesday evening, Lyles said that cannot be solved through policy alone.
“It takes everyone working together,” she said. “All of this conversation and all of these people still here — that’s what’s going to make the difference. Everybody counts in this, whether you’re elected or engaged or involved or however.”
Having grown up in the segregated South, Lyles said she has a deep personal understanding of a lasting sense of inequity. But she also emphasized that more engagement must come from building a sense of greater community in neighborhoods.
“Laws and policies are words,” she said. “People make all the difference.”
Community ‘survival mode’
Black neighborhood leaders already have had success in grassroots efforts, said Gary Crump, founder of Men of Destiny, which serves youth through various programs. But the momentum can be limited in a city where safe, affordable housing is not accessible to all people and jobs paying more than minimum wage are hard to come by.
“Without jobs and housing, you go into survival mode,” Crump said.
Last summer, he began the MLK Field of Dreams garden for students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. Already, it’s been a positive force for teenagers who need mentors and hope, he said.
Like Massey, he’s skeptical of promises from city leaders and believes black leaders can influence more change through “community-based” efforts. For his part, he wants to expand the school garden program to be year-long and include more boys and girls, and Crump also runs a basketball program for young black men to play with Charlotte police officers. Massey, meanwhile, is starting her own non-profit organization to support local children whose mother or father is imprisoned.
At another event Monday, held in Marshall Park, speakers said black residents in Charlotte are often ignored and left behind and cannot count on fairness or solutions from government.
“(Charlotte leaders have) done a lot of talking about making progress. But we look at homelessness in this city, we look at the problems in this city, and the job creation problem in this city, and we look at the fact that we’re No. 50 in the country for upward mobility for black people. No, enough has not been done,” said Corine Mack, president of the NAACP.
“The same way you were intentional about keeping us oppressed, you have to be intentional about bringing us out of the oppression by giving us true equity.”
As demonstrators stood in a circle, with candles and incense flickering in the middle, Alexis Jackson was one of the last to take the microphone.
Jackson, who is Danquirs Franklin’s cousin, said that white Charlotte needs to open its eyes to the realities faced by many of the city’s black residents. Her rent has gone up $300, she said, and she could use a job, an internship, any opportunity someone in the crowd might have for her.
“This right here has woke me up to my community,” Jackson said. “Let’s keep it real: It’s not easy being black, whether you got money, you’re middle class, or you’re poor.”
And her cousin’s story, she told the crowd, proves that point.
Franklin was born with cocaine in his system, but he nonetheless beat the odds and graduated high school as a straight-A student. He played basketball with police officers and co-wrote a book. He was a success story, yet his life was cut short anyway.
“Y’all wasn’t at the funeral when my mama cried,” Jackson said. “Danquirs changed lives. He changed mine.”