The church parking lot filled up. Visitors gathered, anxiously, inside of the crowded sanctuary. As I tip-toed in, the usher whispered “standing-room only.” I found my place along the wall. I waited. Death had taken another one. Surely the minister would say “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to celebrate the life of…” But this was no funeral. Rather, we were here to discuss Charlotte’s 49 homicides.
It was mid-July at a public forum in West Charlotte. CMPD Chief Kerr Putney appeared on stage donning his crisp police uniform and larger-than-life persona. He sat next to the host – a man with a booming radio personality but slender figure. The contrast between the two would become even more evident as the discussion began.
“Self-imposed genocide,” WFAE host Mike Collins levied towards the chief. “No fear of the law, no respect for self or others and prison is where they are supposed to be,” he said, re-stating a comment from another panelist. He did not mince words about black-on-black homicides and the murderous young black male. I’ve heard other people make this argument before (but mostly in private). The person is to blame for these murders.
The chief replied. “We are acting like a lot of systems haven’t failed black people.” In fact, “there are a lot of variables” that explain why the homicide rate is so high, he said. It is not just “demographics” (young/black/male) but “social, economic and educational” factors, too. Moreover, “when you lose confidence in everything that you’re told should be protecting you . . . you lose hope and you get desperate.” As a result, people are “handling minor conflicts with violence” because we’ve failed them. The system is at fault.
As I listened, my mind slipped back to “S-Town,” a podcast about Alabama’s poor white folk who felt resignation about being marginalized by the system. I imagined two S-Town folks responding to today’s topic. “If the system don’t care for me, then I don’t care for it,” says No. 1. No. 2 responds: “Well the system can’t pull no trigger, that’s on you.”
So who/what’s to blame, Mr. Collins’ person or the chief’s system? Well, I believe they both count. We’d never understand the problem (or find solutions) if we didn’t accept both arguments. We cannot focus solely on the person and ignore the system that created him. If you want to understand “how to make a murderer,” then look at the system he or she grew up in.
Quick illustration: Mascots represent universities. “Norm the Charlotte 49er” is the mascot for UNC Charlotte. Without UNC Charlotte, however, Norm is just a random costume. Likewise, to separate the person from the system is to suggest that these murders are just random acts of violence. They are not. These murders are a product of our failed schools, mass incarceration, family dynamics and unaffordable housing.
Ultimately, Charlotte’s murders were committed by persons made by a system that we created. Thus, to stop the murderers, we must address the system. If not, the system will continue to produce more murderers.
Romain is an assistant public defender and adjunct professor at UNC Charlotte who serves in a volunteer capacity at numerous local nonprofits.