Peter St. Onge

Will this trial be a test for Charlotte?

A July prayer service in support of the Jonathan Ferrell family.
A July prayer service in support of the Jonathan Ferrell family. TNS

Today, we begin holding our breath. The Kerrick trial starts in earnest in Charlotte. Attorneys will begin arguing about police and guns, about a white officer and a black man. About us.

Today we begin preparing for a verdict. Not only one that decides the rest of the life of former CMPD officer Wes Kerrick, or one that brings peace or pain to Jonathan Ferrell’s family.

It’s one that may be a test for Charlotte.

City leaders have been thinking about this for a while now. They don’t know what will happen in court the next few weeks, or what might follow it outside. But in the past year, they’ve watched Ferguson burn and Baltimore unravel. They know everyone will be watching us now.

We’re a year removed from Michael Brown and Ferguson, and in that year there’s been a wave of attention on blacks dying at the hands of police. A handful of officers have been arrested. Kerrick, who was arrested before all of them, will be the first to go to trial.

Each is a different case in a different place, but Americans and their media like to speak in shorthand. So Kerrick, to the viewing and reading public, will be a test of whether a police officer can get convicted these days for killing a black man.

Add to that all the recognizable layers of race that will come into play in the next few weeks, like a white man arguing that a black man made him fear for his life.

Add to that this happening – the shooting and the trial – in a Southern city.

No one is sure how that will play out inside the courtroom. Or outside.

But here’s what we do know:

Charlotte has done most everything right since the September 2013 night Kerrick tragically shot Ferrell.

Our police chief decided within hours that Kerrick should be arrested.

Our city leaders have engaged with communities across the city. They’ve showed up at rallies and panels about race. They’ve been to neighborhoods to talk about the relationship between police and minorities.

In part, all of that was to prepare for the trial and its aftermath. But it also was part of something different, something bigger.

I’ve been talking with community leaders the past few weeks about the Kerrick trial. They’re anxious, yes, because who knows what chasms a moment like this might expose?

But they’re also confident. The reasons will surprise you, maybe.

One of those leaders, a white conservative, talked to me about the quality of black leadership Charlotte has compared to other cities he knows. He said that most – he named David Howard and Michael Barnes in particular – don’t accentuate divisiveness to further themselves politically. They know we’re a flawed but good city. They want it to be better. They set a tone.

Another leader, this one black and liberal, talked about how a half-century ago, the white Charlotte business community started conversations about upward mobility for blacks. There’s still a lot to accomplish, he said, but Charlotte has a long history of confronting these issues together.

“This city,” he said, “has been preparing for the Kerrick trial since the 1960s.”

So today, we hold our breath.

But we hope.

We hope for justice, whatever that might be.

We hope we’re the Charlotte we think we know.

Peter: pstonge; @saintorange