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In polite Charlotte, ‘Bless your heart’ meets ‘F--- all y’all’ as protesters upend status quo

Audience members show support for speakers at the Charlotte City Council during time for public comments, mainly concerning last week's Keith Scott shooting, at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center on Monday, September 26, 2016.
Audience members show support for speakers at the Charlotte City Council during time for public comments, mainly concerning last week's Keith Scott shooting, at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center on Monday, September 26, 2016. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Here in Charlotte, our conversations about racial wrongs and social justice usually unfold as earnest, polite affairs.

Not so at Monday’s Charlotte City Council meeting. One of my colleagues has rightfully dubbed it the night “Bless Your Heart” met “F--- all y’all.”

An audience member hurled that verbal firecracker at Mayor Jennifer Roberts and Charlotte City Council members during a raucous public comments period in the council’s first meeting since the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.

Roberts wanted to give the community a chance to vent after a long week of unrest and protests sparked by the controversial shooting.

And boy, vent they did.

Speaker after angry speaker called for resignations. The mayor’s, the council’s, Police Chief Kerr Putney’s. People hooted and cat-called from the audience, raining abuse down on city leaders they accused of ignoring their problems and harassing them with police power. Roberts struggled to keep control of the room, pleading over and over for quiet.

We are trying to hear you, she kept saying.

She was Polite Charlotte, whispering in the face of a Category 5 hurricane.

One man, in his turn at the speaker’s podium, branded the mayor and City Council as “devils.” Their time as the oppressors of poor and minority people has reached its end, he told them.

He turned the old “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” protest chant in an ominous new direction.

“Hands down!” he called out.

“Shoot back!” a contingent in the audience called back.

It amounted to a direct threat – chilling amidst the dialed-up emotions surging through the city right now. It was impossible not to think of the fatal ambush attack on police officers in Dallas this summer.

Charlotte’s leadership was surely appalled. This was not a Polite Conversation about a Tough Social Problem. This was a wall of raw, churning rage shoved in their faces by the people who don’t show up for the Polite Conversations.

Make no mistake, threats against government officials are not OK, as I trust the authorities warned the “Hands Down! Shoot Back!” guy. Violence only begets more violence.

I watched a livestream of the meeting. White people watching online wrote comments expressing outrage at what they were seeing and hearing. One man suggested the best way to communicate with the “Hands down! Shoot back!” guy was with the business end of a gun.

It all left me sad for this city, and anxious about what lies ahead.

But if we really want to have a meaningful conversation about poverty, about economic mobility, about policing and criminal justice, the people who turned that City Council meeting upside down Monday need to be a part of it.

They didn’t have Ph.Ds like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They didn’t come wearing their Sunday best, as John Lewis and other civil rights protesters did the day they became legends staring down Alabama troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Their rage mirrored the rage of some of today’s Charlotte protesters, who have been dropping F-bombs like confetti during demonstrations. The folks facing the City Council weren’t just asking to be heard, they were demanding, in the strongest language they could muster, that their concerns be addressed.

Many of you surely want to turn away, to change the channel, to chastise them for embarrassing Charlotte. But they are raising real issues, in their own raw, authentic voices, that the city’s movers and shakers have been having polite discussions about for decades.

The people who shouted and chanted in the City Council chamber Monday night cannot and will not be tuned out.

We kept saying we wanted a conversation about race and poverty and social mobility. Well, here it is.

Your move, Charlotte.

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