It’s easy to say – and show – how Charlotte stood strong 10 years ago.
Two Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers were ambushed by an insane man at Timber Ridge Apartments. Officers Jeff Shelton, 34, and Sean Clark, 35, never had time to get their guns out of their holsters.
Both officers died quickly. The killer never spoke a word afterward, including to his attorneys. No motive, they surmised. Just death, for death’s sake, leaving behind two shattered families, a broken police department and a city stunned to a stop.
Shelton and Clark were shot late on March 31, 2007. Days later Charlotte started to stir again with the singular mission of honoring them. There were two funerals. Two days. Both ceremonies held at a mega-church in south Charlotte with room for the thousands who wanted to attend; each burial held afterward, miles away.
As the procession of cars left the church for the grave sites – this happened both afternoons – crowds lined the long route as it moved sadly across the county. Flags were waved. Children saluted. Street corners were filled with people from all walks of life, from Charlotte neighborhoods north, east, west and south. People were eager to wrap their arms around two fractured families and a hurting police department to let them know they were not alone.
TV stations broadcast these images live, but the most important eyes watching belonged to those in the procession, looking out the car windows.
“We have a lot of memories,” Bob Clark, Sean’s dad told me this week, “Feeling support from people is still one of the strongest.”
Would Charlotte respond with such unified strength if, God forbid, this happened again now? I want to think it would. But with riots against the police department this past September still fresh in the mind, it’s a question worth asking.
Another question as we look where we are 10 years later, is posed on behalf of 28-year-old Stephen McMickens, who still lives at Timber Ridge. Ten years ago, he was a teenager staying with his mom in this high-crime area that, generally speaking, didn’t like police. He was the only person who ran toward the white officers to try and help.
Stephen and I also spoke this week. He is the one who brought up race.
“I never saw their color,” he said. “My thing is, we all know what it’s like to lose somebody. No matter if the person has on a badge or not, when they take it off they’re still a human being.”
Stephen says he only saw two men in need and was – his words – “drawn to them.”
Would that happen in our current environment? And if Stephen ran to save police today, would you hear the story as a black 18-year-old running to help white men? Or would you hear it as a more simple, life-lesson headline as reported then, about a kid running to help wounded officers?
“Those officers made a difference,” Stephen said. “They helped a lot of people. I feel like we shouldn’t let their memories go out like that. Officers Clark and Shelton need to be celebrated.”
Stephen’s right. This week, 10 long years later, we should celebrate and remember Sean Clark and Jeff Shelton. But we should also honor them – by living the way we showed we could in the newness of their loss.
Grantham is a news anchor for WBTV News. WBTV will air a a 30-minute program on officers Shelton and Clark on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.