The unrest of the past week in Charlotte should be nothing unexpected, and systemic racism is to blame
Two years ago this month, I wrote my first piece with the Niner Times. It ran in print under the headline “Ferguson Here.” That article explored racial re-segregation in Charlotte, and the militarization of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in the wake of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. In it I spelled out just a few of the parallels between Ferguson and Charlotte, ending with a warning:
“If we don’t want the unrest of Ferguson in our streets, we can take a higher road. We can value the lives of black youth like Jonathan Ferrell and Michael Brown and millions more just like them; we can mitigate the systemic aspect of racism by raising the minimum wage, fighting gentrification and displacement and combating poverty; and, finally, we can be honest with ourselves about what the DNC left Charlotte—military-grade weapons—and begin the necessary scaling down of our militarized CMPD.”
Needless to say, Charlotte didn’t listen. I was a sophomore at the time, and it was my first article, so I can’t say that I blame anyone in city government for ignoring the piece. But after a long week of unrest in the Queen City, I think it’s worth revisiting those points.
Keith Lamont Scott was killed within a stone’s throw of our university on Tuesday, Sept. 20. As had happened in Ferguson a little over two years ago, neighbors and family gathered at the scene of the murder, wanting answers and voicing their frustrations. As the afternoon turned into evening and into night, community members turned out, little by little, until a sizeable crowd had coalesced. Emotions were high, and understandably so. People were grieving and people were angry. But the crowd didn’t have much of an enemy, at least until militarized police showed up in riot gear, and with crowd control weapons.
The point is a simple one. Protestors can’t toe off with a line of police until there is a line of police to toe off with. Protestors can’t kick tear gas canisters back at a line of cops until the line of cops has shot tear gas canisters into the crowd in the first place. Protestors can’t throw rocks at police if there are no police around. The first night of protests, on Old Concord Road, the police progressively moved the crowd towards W.T. Harris Blvd., away from the other end of Old Concord where students were arriving to join in the protest. When the protest became close enough to W.T. Harris, however, that’s when demonstrators were more or less forced to separate. Some remained in confrontation on Old Concord Road, and others marched down W.T. Harris, taking over I-85. That evolution of the protest, where it escalated from high emotions to more direct combat, was entirely instigated by the police.
For much of Black America and Black Charlotte, the police are an occupying army. Black neighborhoods in Charlotte are increasingly either re-segregated and entirely neglected by the city, or they undergo a rapid and destructive process of gentrification, displacing Black citizens and families who have lived in those neighborhoods for decades. When a police officer shows up to College Downs off Old Concord Road, it isn’t because they are there to visit a loved one. They came to College Downs to make an arrest—not of Keith Lamont Scott, but of another suspect. These officers saw themselves as an invasion force with a particular target. So whether he had a gun or a book (and I lean towards the latter, based on holes in the police narrative and on testimony of eyewitnesses and neighbors who said that Scott read at that spot every single day), CMPD viewed Scott as an enemy combatant.
The riots and protests that ensued in the wake of Scott’s execution, however, were not wholly sparked by Scott’s death alone. Re-segregation, displacement, racialized income inequality and opportunity gaps, the legacy of the Jonathan Ferrell case, and H.B. 972—each of these had a hand in Charlotte catching fire. And not only are each of these external and pre-existing factors the fault of city and state officials, but Black people, people of color and poor people in Charlotte have been protesting them for years, completely ignored by the public, media and government.
As UNC Charlotte alum Cameron Joyce posted on Thursday, after the first night of large scale protests in Uptown Charlotte:
“The research showed Charlotte has an economic and educational racial/socioeconomic equity problem. They shrugged.
The research showed there is a racial/socioeconomic displacement because of gentrification. They rolled their eyes.
The research showed there is racial bias in policing and regular use of unnecessary force. They didn’t believe it.
The critics said don’t militarize the cops for the DNC. They said it’s absolutely necessary.
Randall Kerrick went unpunished for murdering Jonathan Ferrell. They said it was justice.
…If you think this protest and riot came out of nowhere it’s because you’re disconnected from oppression and uneducated on the facts of reality of Charlotte.”
Let me be very clear: the police, the city government, the state government, the federal government, the banks, the corporations, the National Guard and the media invent and incite the riots. And calling for calm without first demanding concessions—namely, stop killing Black people—is not motivated by a sense of care for our city but by a desire to control and police Black people. And that’s not going to fly.
In the words of Moral Mondays leader, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber: “To condemn the uprising in Charlotte would be to condemn a man for thrashing when someone is trying to drown him. Whatever righteous indignation the public can muster ought to be directed toward the systems that created a situation where a man can drive to the bus stop to pickup his daughter and end up dead before she gets there.”