I was born in Charlotte in 1960 and grew up there, so I lived there through the disturbances surrounding Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 and surrounding the busing for desegregation in the early 1970s. I graduated from high school there and from nearby Davidson College. And for all but 18 months of my adult life, I have lived within an hour or two’s drive. My stepmother and brother live there today, as do other relatives. I grieve at what has happened there, but I also know there is no reason why it shouldn’t have happened there, just as there is no reason why it shouldn’t happen here in Greensboro or, really, anywhere else in this country.
What we know is that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police shot and killed an African American man, Keith Lamont Scott, Tuesday afternoon. We have wildly differing accounts as to why, and this morning, the police chief said that police video of the shooting does not provide “definitive” evidence that Scott was pointing a gun. That’s important: North Carolina is an open-carry state, so Scott was permitted to have a pistol in public, as the NRA would be shouting from the rooftops if it weren’t a racist organization. Only if Scott were an “imminent” threat — if he were pointing the gun at someone — would his shooting have been legally justified.
Without definitive video evidence, we are left only with the word of police officers. They might be telling the God’s honest truth, but a lot of people won’t believe them because if there’s one thing the smartphone era has made clear, taking cops’ word for it in any and all situations is a fool’s errand. Just today, a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was charged with manslaughter for shooting an unarmed African American man who had his hands in the air and, clearly, on video, posed no threat. Absent the video, there’s every reason to believe that the officer who shot him would have skated. So you don’t need a PR expert to know that if all you have to go on is the word of police officers, a whole lot of people simply aren’t going to believe you.
And so there were demonstrations Tuesday night and Wednesday night in Charlotte, and follow-on rioting both nights. Gov. Pat McCrory has called in the National Guard. Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, at this twilight-fading-to-dark writing, has not imposed a curfew. And as my friend Ed Hardin from Charlotte writes, a lot of people are hoping tonight for rain.
We don’t know exactly what happened on Tuesday in Charlotte, and absent dispositive video evidence, we likely never will. That’s awful for all involved. But here are some things we do know, in no particular order:
This country has a problem with its law enforcement. Disproportionately more unarmed African Americans die at the hands of police than do whites. Meanwhile, a lot of white criminals, such as the suspect in last weekend’s terrorist bombing in New York, can actually shoot at police and still be taken alive. (And, critics, stop linking to that New York Times article — you know the one. It says in so many words that the study it describes does not focus on the killing of unarmed people of color by law enforcement. And that is the issue here. So that article is irrelevant.) Whether the problem is individual racism, flaws in training, both, or something else entirely, we need to find it and fix it. But before we can do that, we have to admit it, and way too many people are in denial about this.
Law enforcement needs to take a long, hard, critical look at itself. One of the patterns we’ve observed in many cases of law-enforcement violence against people of color is that while one individual officer may be the proximate perpetrator, others frequently lie to support the perp’s version of events or, at the least, fail to report the criminal behavior of their co-workers. That culture is radioactive. It needs to be ended. And if a whole lot of cops have to lose their jobs to make it happen, I will not shed a tear. I don’t want corrupt cops on my payroll, not only because it’s wrong on the merits but also because if my city or county or state gets sued because of their corrupt behavior, I, the taxpayer, will have to pay the judgment. And cops who fail to report and help prosecute their criminal co-workers are corrupt, full stop.
This problem with law enforcement, which is resulting in too many prematurely dead African Americans, is more important than property damage. And yet way too many commenters are focusing on the rioting at the expense of the dead people. Stop it. You’re exposing yourselves as moral midgets. Yes, both are wrong, but one is a lot more wrong than the other.
Too may critics are conflating “demonstrators” — and even “the black community” — with “rioters.” This one is almost, but not quite, self-explanatory. An uncomfortable truth is that demonstrators often serve as unwitting stalking horses for rioters, in this sense: Rioters almost never show up in situations in which a demonstration is not already happening. That’s because rioters are cowards coasting on the courage of others. Any fool can throw a brick through a window. It takes guts to stand up publicly against a militaristic law-enforcement apparatus one perceives as corrupt, armed only with one’s convictions and maybe a sign — guts that rioters simply do not have. If would-be demonstrators stayed home, so, too, would the rioters. And yet people have the constitutional right to demonstrate, and, indeed, an obligation to do so, inasmuch as major social change in this country seldom happens without demonstrations of some kind. It therefore behooves everyone else to properly distinguish between demonstrator and criminal, and way too many people — including some in the media who damned well ought to know better — are failing in this obligation.
In a weird way, HB2 is to blame. OK, we don’t actually know this, but: I can’t help thinking that Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, and current Mayor Jennifer Roberts would be on better terms if not for HB2, and that the governmental response to the situation would be better organized and coordinated. But from all I’ve seen, the two aren’t really on speaking terms right now — which is McCrory’s fault, with HB2 the proximate cause.
Some incredibly ignorant people are going to say that MLK wouldn’t have approved of all this uproar. To which I respond, probably not, but he damn sure would have understood it. Here he is speaking, about two weeks before he died:
It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
I say to you my friends this afternoon that I am convinced in so many instances that people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. It may be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people who would bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or who would shoot down an Episcopal theological student in Lowndes County, Alabama, but also for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around as they wait on time. Somewhere along the way, we must realize that human progress never rolls in on the heels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be coworkers with God….
We must realize that the time is always right to do right. (h/t John Burns for both quotes)
I fear that this will get worse before it gets better, but here’s something else I know: White people need to sit down, shut the fuck up, and listen to their brothers and sisters of color. Unarmed black men getting gunned down in the streets while white wanted terrorists who shoot at cops get taken alive isn’t something you can explain away from the comfort of your wood-paneled suburban den, and it is a mark of moral retardation that people are even trying.