CMS officer finds, questions man who sent racist message to new superintendent

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools police officer says he questioned but did not arrest a 72-year-old man who sent a web-based message with a racial slur to Superintendent Earnest Winston this week.

It’s the most-recent instance of a racist message sent to black leaders in Charlotte in recent days.

Police are already reviewing copies of a threatening letter that were mailed to black elected leaders in the county, city and school district. That letter, which was almost two pages long, said “Black Democrats should be tarred and feathered and run out of town” and sent “screaming to the concentration camps.”

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Both cases should be investigated by the FBI, says Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP.

“Racism is real. Hate is real. And Charlotte is not in a bubble,” Mack said. “Under federal law, it’s a violation for you to send threats.”

Early Wednesday, school officials flagged a message as potentially threatening and notified CMS’ police officers, said Charles Jeter, a CMS spokesman. A CMS officer, accompanied by a Cornelius Police Department officer, had a brief conversation with the man who wrote the message but they say he did not commit a crime so he was not arrested.

Still, Jeter said, “It’s as vile as it gets ... Not only did he admit that he did it but he (told officers) he’d do it again.”

The message, sent through the “Let’s Talk” messaging platform on CMS’ website, was addressed to Winston and other district officials, according to a copy of the message that CMS provided to the Observer. The message was sent anonymously by a person claiming to be a parent or guardian of a student in CMS. But, Jeter said, the school district identified the man via email address and IP address, which tracks computer activity on the Internet.

“Do you really think you deserve to be superintendent of schools?” it read. “Can you honestly say you are not a racist bigot?

“Just remember Winston, karma is a ‘one-eyed b----’ and I hope she comes for you in the very near future.”

The message ended with a racial slur, repeating in all caps, spelled out: “One last thing: N----- N----- N-----.”

Man told police: ‘Leave’

The sender lives in Cornelius, where CMS operates four schools. Jeter said the district does not consider the man to be a direct threat to students or teachers at CMS schools.

The Charlotte Observer is not naming the man because he was not charged with a crime. The Observer emailed the man Friday but he did not respond. A phone number listed for him was disconnected.

When police arrived at the man’s apartment in Cornelius on Wednesday, they “conducted a knock and talk,” according to an emailed report that Jeter provided to the Observer.

“The subject immediately admitted that he was the one that sent the message and felt like this was within his right to do so ... After a brief conversation the subject asked that I leave his property and stated that this only makes matters worse. I took this to mean he probably would continue voicing his opinions in this manner,” the emailed report states.

“I had no choice but to end my conversation with him and leave his property,” the CMS police officer wrote.

CMS’ officer told the man “that any emails or message in the future that rises to the level of a criminal offense would be pursued with criminal charges.” The school district’s police department also created “an intelligence file on the subject,” the officer wrote.

Free speech not ‘free pass’

The difference between free speech and an illegal threat is a fine legal line.

On the American Civil Liberties Union website, for instance, a post about U.S. court cases and freedom of expression states that while a threatening phone call would not be “constitutionally protected” speech, other forms of hate-filled speech are protected.

“Speech can be suppressed only if it is intended, and likely to produce, ‘imminent lawless action.’ Otherwise, even speech that advocates violence is protected.”

One local pastor and anti-racism activist says law enforcement and courts are not the only answer.

If police can’t charge a person who sends a racist message, prominent black and white community leaders still must stand up and speak out, says Ray McKinnon.

“In a non-violent way, the community must repudiate what he said ... His First Amendment right doesn’t give him a free pass. We also have the right and the obligation to push back,” McKinnon said.

Both McKinnon and Mack say they’ve read comments on social media this week that claim the letters sent to local officials were an “inside job” or not “real.”

“That is what we call white-washing,” Mack said. “They do not want to believe that black people are being harmed.”

McKinnon added: “It’s easier for people to come up with a conspiracy than it is to face the reality that we aren’t who we think we are. To face reality means we have to do something about it.”

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Anna Douglas is an investigative reporter for the Charlotte Observer. Previously, she worked as a local news reporter for The (Rock Hill) Herald and as a congressional correspondent in Washington, D.C., for McClatchy. Anna is a past recipient of the South Carolina Press Association’s Journalist of the Year award and the Charlotte Society of Professional Journalists’ Outstanding Journalism Award. She’s a South Carolina native, a graduate of Winthrop University, and a past fellow of the Dori Maynard Diversity Leadership Program, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. Anna has lived in Charlotte since May 2017.