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Witnessing grief in Charlotte: Protesting the war on Black lives

Protest in Charlotte with the National Guard in the background
Protest in Charlotte with the National Guard in the background Photo: Lori Khamala / AFSC

Keith Lamont Scott. 1973-2016. I know it’s nothing new. And somehow it still hits closer to home, maybe because it is actually closer to my home.

I was born in Charlotte and grew up there. I graduated from West Charlotte High School in 1995, a school recognized as a national success in busing and racially integrated public schools. My 8-year-old daughter lived in Charlotte for her first year. Charlotte is no longer my every day home, but it will always be my hometown.

I have watched from afar as my school system completely re-segregated again in the early 2000s following a lawsuit which effectively reversed the 1971 Swann v. Board of Education ruling. Currently, one in five schools in Charlotte Mecklenburg are “hyper-segregated”, where over 95% of students are of the same race.

The author with her daughter at the protest in Charlotte

I have watched from afar as Charlotte has grown into the big city it has always wanted to be. For about a decade, every time I came home, I again needed help navigating uptown Charlotte because of a new skyscraper, hotel, arena, light rail, etc. that had sprung up since my last visit. That development had its cost, shown in national reports citing that Charlotte is now one of the cities with the largest income inequality in the country: in a 2014 study, the average income of the bottom 20 percent was $21,998 and for the top 5 percent it was $219,126.

I have been shaken by the events in Charlotte. It isn’t the first time (for example, in 2013, Jonathan Ferrell was shot dead by police after seeking help following a car crash; in 2015, a mistrial was declared in the case against the officer after the jury deadlocked), and sadly it won’t be the last. But this time has hit me differently, and indeed much of the community—hence the “Uprising of Charlotte”, as many are calling it.

Black Lives Matter sign at protest in Charlotte, photo by Lori Khamala

I drove to Charlotte on Saturday because I couldn’t not go. I dragged my 8-year-old daughter, who is already tired of marches in her short 8 years.  I estimate that around 2000 people gathered in Marshall Park to speak out against police violence. The march was absolutely peaceful. In my opinion, the city police were calm and polite, though the presence of the National Guard with their automatic weapons in full view was very disconcerting.  We prayed, chanted, marched, danced, rocked to the beats of Cakalak Thunder, our radical drum corps. It was hot. We stopped in front of the Police Department, chanting “Release the tapes! Release the tapes!” We knelt by the spot where a protestor was killed last week, who, according to police was killed by a civilian, but according to other protestors there, was likely shot by police.

There has been a barrage of information and it’s impossible to know which sources to trust. I have friends who have been at the protests every night, and their accounts differ widely from media reports. I know some of the city officials and believe them to be of good will and intentions, but I am confused by who is making which decisions and disappointed that my city did not respond in a better way. Every single person I have spoken to tells me that a militarized police force escalated the protests, especially the first few nights. I heard that Charlotte police tear-gassed its own residents, defended property over human lives, and turned uptown into a war zone.

We want justice, protest in Charlotte, photo by Lori Khamala

I have felt frustrated by conversations with some of my white friends and Quakers, who seem quicker to condemn looting than the killing of Black men and women and who seem quicker to highlight the imperfections and short comings of this movement developing in the streets than the overall goals. I am comfortable putting aside any imperfections with this movement and just showing up when I can, as best I can for this Movement for Black Lives. It is an important exercise in humility: maybe “they” aren’t protesting the way “we” want them to and maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay to step back and be a presence of unconditional love that demonstrates that we hear you and we see you.

Overall, I am absolutely appalled by our nation’s acceptance of police use of force, especially against people of color. I believe there are ways to begin chipping away at this ongoing violence, like demilitarizing police forces and significantly increasing de-escalation techniques. I would like to see Quakers - both individually and collectively - deepen our commitment to understanding and coming to terms with our own implicit biases, to ending racism, to stopping the increased militarization of our police forces, and to ending violence. What does that look like? AFSC and FCG have a number of resources to help on this journey, and I’m pleased that AFSC has recently endorsed the new policy platform of the Movement for Black Lives, which offers some very concrete policy asks.

Stop fearing my skin, sidewalk chalk at protest in Charlotte, photo by Lori Khamala

My question is, “What are we as Friends and allies of the movement willing to do, willing to sacrifice, willing to put on the line in order to end this war on Black lives? Will we stand up for justice?”

I’ve been talking to a lot of friends in Charlotte about their own reflections, perspectives, and here is what I am hearing:

I was surprised it happened here, but it is exactly like what I have heard several people say- those of us who are comfortable think everything is fine… Charlotte on the surface is very polite, but nobody asks the people on the bottom what they think, and why would they tell you if they could perceive you weren’t interested? So, in some ways I guess I’m not surprised after all.     (member of AFSC’s Immigrant Solidarity Committee of Charlotte)

 

Y'all see my village #CharRaq, Queen City, North Carolina, turn into a war-zone? From the rice paddies, to killing fields, to war zones in Southeast Asia, to refugee camps, to resettlement neighborhoods, to the Char-raq battlefields, I am proud to be on the ground with the people in this struggle. Y'all see the police's disproportionate use of force on unarmed citizens these past two nights? The media and the police continue to lie and state that a civilian shot and killed the brother protesting the police. We know that is not true. I was right there. My skin is still stinging from exposure to tear gas. I still can't believe that they did this to their own people. Is this Gaza? Is this the West Bank? Is this Damascus? Is this Honduras? Is this China? Nah, this is #America2016. Wake up, my brethren. After the past 2 nights, I am a changed human being--my eyes are even wider, ears more open, and heart filled with even more love for the people. I am even more determined to work hard to liberate all of us--including our brothers and sisters who don't even know they need to be liberated.     (immigration attorney, volunteer with South East Asian Coalition)

 

What I want everyone to know is this, these officers are people too, they're going to work and doing their job, because they have to, not because they have an agenda or hatred in the heart. In this house, we love everyone, and we do not stand for hatred of any kind. But, this man, he's just like any other man. He has a family, and mortgage, and people who love him. I'm fearing for his safety, and that of his colleagues, while also being so fearful for the protesters and their safety. It's a hard place to be...I do not want one single more person hurt, regardless of the 'uniform' they wear. Today, I just hope for peace, and a quiet night, for everyone involved, I think everyone has 'said' all they need to say, it's time to embrace our differences and move forward as best we can.  (girlfriend of a police officer)

 

For those of you not here in Charlotte, I suspect that you've only been hearing about the violence. There were also peaceful protesters--led by local clergy--(and the free hugs project). Charlotte's faith community has been engaging in open and peaceful dialogue about race for over a year. And yet..... Here's the thing. Structural inequalities run deep in Charlotte. We are 50th out of the 50 major cities in the nation for upward mobility. Our schools, some of the first to integrate in the 60s, have re-segregated in profoundly damaging ways. And yet there is such profound wealth in this town. There are so many things that people have been asked to remain silent about, but clearly, we've reached a tipping point.  (member of Charlotte Friends Meeting)

 

I don't understand why the majority of thought is that looters are a part of the Black Lives Matter movement. I don't see it that way. Looters came to loot and protesters came to protest. These are two separate actions carried out by two separate groups.  (former member of AFSC’s Immigrant Solidarity Committee)

 

…THE TRUTH IS that Charlotte people are outraged because this is not the first time that a Black man who is not posing a threat to the police has been shot down and murdered… What makes me sad and angry is that my 11-year-old daughter told me that she is afraid of the police because she is scared that they will think that she is doing something wrong and kill her… Some of the students at the HBCU where I work are afraid to participate in local protests out of fear of being hurt or killed. However, there was a peaceful protest held on campus today and students protested at UNCC as well… I was born and raised in this city, and I know firsthand that Charlotte people want the same thing for themselves and their neighbors. We want all of our residents to be valued and treated equally and with respect! White, Black, Brown, and Yellow people as we are called, are all protesting in solidarity, but they don't show that in the Media. I will because I am here and I know and see these people! This is the first time that I feel like the city that I was born and raised in is divided and broken. I pray for peace, justice, and systemic change that values and protects all of humanity.  (professor at J.C. Smith University and participant in AFSC’s African American- Latinx Bridge Building & Awareness project)

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