Near the end of Monday’s Charlotte City Council meeting, a note was passed to the mayor and council members sitting at the dais. It told them that as soon as the meeting was over, they should exit to their right. That’s where the police would be waiting.
The crowd in front of them was angry. It had been angry for hours on Monday night, and for days since last week’s shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. Now, as council members tried to speak, audience members yelled. They stood with fists raised. “Shut your goddamn mouth,” a man shouted toward the front.
The council and mayor stood to leave.
“Hang on,” District 6 council member Kenny Smith said. “I’d like to speak.”
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Smith was mad, and he was scared. For almost three hours, the council had faced the full sting of the community’s anger. Smith, a white south Charlotte conservative, had often been singled out.
He’d been told he was smirking. His family had been threatened. It was enough that police decided later to send an unmarked car to spend the night near his home.
“Coming into this night, I may have misjudged some of y’all,” he said back to the audience. “I think I have been misjudged tonight.”
He continued, over the crowd.
“Some of y’all gave me a ration of sh--,” he said.
The crowd laughed. The room got quieter. Smith tried again. He said that he wanted to help fix what brought them here tonight. He was Republican, but political party didn’t matter. They had to do it together.
“I heard your anger,” he said. “I have three kids. I heard your damn anger.”
Then he stood up and walked toward the crowd. As council member Vi Lyles started speaking, Smith met a black man at the first row of seats. They hugged, and Smith reached for his business card. Then he did it again, a couple steps higher.
He found some who had singled him out earlier. He told them what he had tried to say on the dais, that he’s a conservative from a part of town where people are angry at the demonstrators, but that those constituents and those demonstrators need each other if we want repair.
“I told them we needed to talk,” he says now.
It’s a simple thought, maybe a little quaint. It’s also true.
But let’s pause a moment for some cynicism. It’s no secret around the Government Center that Smith might someday like to be more than a City Council member. Maybe this was a political maneuver, you think, a way for a Republican to look better in a Democrat-heavy city. After all, there’s been a lot of that kind of maneuvering this week.
I can tell you that Smith didn’t pitch this story to me. He worried it might get in the way of the dialogue he wanted to start.
But no matter what you think, you should also see this: That moment you most want to retreat to safety might be the moment you most need to reach out.
Because without that, no one will reach back.
That’s what’s happened to Kenny Smith this week. He’s heard from five people he handed his card to in Monday’s crowd. He’s set up lunch so far with one of them, Adrian Millner, who told me Thursday that he watched Smith “take a beating” Monday night. Millner, who works in accounting in Charlotte, liked the councilman’s response.
There’s no set agenda for their lunch. Police shootings will surely come up, and probably more. Maybe those talks lead to more talks. Maybe they get someplace concrete.
But that’s not why Millner called.
“I called because I wanted to get to know him,” Millner said. “And I wanted him to get to know me.”
There’s only one way to really do that.
Peter: @saintorange; firstname.lastname@example.org