After Charlotte: A community striving to heal and unite

Civic engagement campaigns in North Carolina brings race and police brutality to the forefront of discourse.

A protester stands with her fist raised as she confronts police officers in Charlotte, North Carolina [Caitlin Penna/EPA]

Charlotte, the United States – In front of a glistening fountain in downtown Charlotte’s Marshall Park, local activist, Q, shouts through a megaphone to the crowd of roughly 100 people gathered around: “Put your fists in the air to show that you care!”

The October 22 rally was organised by Charlotte Youth United, whose aim is to empower local youth to voice community concerns. Q’s group, the Charlotte JustUs League, a grassroots initiative to improve citizen security, took the stage to present an eight-point proposal to help the community “police” the police.

These points include: the compulsory wearing of body cams by all police at all times; making camera footage available to the public within 48 hours; a policy that police officers fire warning shots, and shoot to wound rather than to kill; and to have at least one out of every three police officers work in the neighbourhoods in which they live.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department officers are already required to wear body cameras when they are out on patrol, but under a new state law ( HB972 ) that went into effect on October 1st , police videos are not public record and can only be obtained with a written request and a court order.

City police must comply with that law, and larger rights groups like the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union are already planning to lobby the state legislature when it resumes its session in January to allow police departments to release videos when they are deemed in the public interest and to make copies of those videos available to those depicted in them, as well as to the attorneys and next of kin affected by related incidents.

Gloria Merriweather, a queer African American, stood among the crowd, complying with Q’s calls to the protesters to raise their fists.

The 24-year-old activist was among thousands protesting in the streets after the fatal police shooting of 43-year-old African American Charlotte resident Keith Lamont Scott on September 20.

Dozens of rallies and protests have followed, and dozens more will likely continue as all across America people take to the streets to express their anger over the election of Republican President-elect Donald Trump, which many civil rights activists see as a step backwards in the struggle for civil rights.

READ MORE: To serve and record – When do US police use body cams?

Keith Lamont Scott

On September 20, local police shot and killed 43-year-old African American resident Keith Lamont Scott while preparing to serve an arrest warrant on an unrelated suspect.

Police say Scott left his vehicle carrying a handgun, backing away from the officers when they told him to drop the weapon,but not complying with their commands.

His family says that he was carrying a book,not a gun, and neighbours say he had suffered brain damage in a previous accident, making it hard for him to communicate. His death unleashed massive protests against police brutality throughout the country.

Protesting outside the system

Merriweather opted to protest through civil disobedience against what the activist says is a fundamentally flawed police system that won’t change without a radical change in community engagement.

“We didn’t move from the street when they said move,” says Merriweather, who is helping to organise a social movement known as the Charlotte Uprising.

Some participants in the Charlotte movement believe in working within the system to bring about change, Merriweather says, while others have resorted to a range of civil disobedience tactics, like the refusal to move off of the streets.

“If we were to look at this as a national health hazard, the police department would be considered a health hazard for people of colour,” the activist told Al Jazeera.

“The entire system under which we live is guilty. We have to get rid of it, eventually. But if we are to work within it, then we have to have community control of the police,” Merriweather says.

But two weeks ago, the activist surrendered to authorities after receiving warrants for inciting to riot and a misdemeanour assault on a government official during the September protests. 

“If you ask me what my actions were in those first days, it was walking with my hands up … screaming that all lives will matter when black lives matter,” says Merriweather.

“It doesn’t mean I’m guilty; it means the police were hurt by what I did.”

Gloria Merriweather is an organiser of a civic engagement movement Charlotte Uprising [Julienne Gage/Al Jazeera]
Gloria Merriweather is an organiser of a civic engagement movement Charlotte Uprising [Julienne Gage/Al Jazeera]

Remembering the protests

On the night of Scott’s killing, protesters blocked police cars trying to leave the scene. Jasmine Wright, 24, a Charlotte Uprising activist, arrived within minutes of the initial protests after hearing the unusual commotion from her neighbouring apartment in a normally tranquil suburb on the outskirts of Charlotte. 

Recalling that night, Wright says: “These cops [were] about to leave, and that’s when we stood in front of them. It just got bigger from there. First, there were 15 or 20 people, then 30 or 40, and next thing you know there was a line of riot cops,” says Wright, a graduate student enrolled on a master’s degree programme in political and civic engagement at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

In the hours that followed, some protesters were throwing rocks and water bottles and causing damage to property. The police began firing tear gas to break up the crowd. At least 16 civilians and police officers were injured on the first night of protests .

African Americans and police brutality

According to The Guardian’s The Counted database, 24 percent of the 897 people killed by police in the US since the beginning of 2016 were African American.

According to 2015 US Census data , African Americans make up just 13.3 percent of the population.

The next night, the protests moved to Charlotte’s commercial centre where the violence continued; some businesses were looted, and one protester, Justin Carr, was killed.

Police arrested 21-year-old Rayquan Borum for shooting Carr, but Merriweather, like others who were at the scene at the time, denies that, saying Carr was killed by police.

Following the second night of violence, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency and sent in the North Carolina National Guard , a move rarely seen since the most tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

“Here we are in 2016, and have the same types of vitriol, the same types of hate that I experienced in the 1960s, and my mother and father experienced well before,” Charlotte NAACP President Corine Mack, 59, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. Mack was a member of the Black Panther movement in the 1970s. Today, she is a minister who preaches nonviolence.

In 2013, Mack helped to found the SAFE Coalition, a grassroots programme to promote police accountability. A year later, SAFE successfully petitioned Charlotte’s City Council to adopt a resolution to start collecting demographic data on police stops and to train officers in de-escalation techniques that could bolster trust between civilians and law enforcement.

Black Lives Matter: What has the movement achieved?

The city commission unanimously approved what would become known as the Civil Liberties Resolution (PDF).

Demographic data for the first-three quarters of 2016 was posted on the CMPD website in October, and Mack says she learned through police that just 400 of its 1,900 officers had gone through workshops specific to that resolution.

“We’re angry. The system that we knew needed to be in place to safeguard all citizens was not there,” says Mack.

Willie Ratchford, Executive Director, Community Relations Committee at City of Charlotte, told Al Jazeera that the department’s police chief meets several times a month with civic organisations and that the CMPD has long held “know-your-rights” lectures at such groups and in local schools.

Jennifer P Davis, a CMPD human resources consultant who specialises in diversity training, has been offering similar workshops to officers for 22 years. It started as a black-white discussion and opened into a series of classes dealing about race, class, religion, gender, and disability.

“It’s not all about race, although the issues we have in our society tend to break themselves along racial lines,” says Davis, who is African American. “It’s always about how to build good relationships and engage with the community so that we can serve them.”

Jasmine Wright, centre, is an organiser for the nonprofit Democracy North Carolina's 'Souls to the Polls', a grassroots effort to get people of faith out to vote [Julienne Gage/Al Jazeera]
Jasmine Wright, centre, is an organiser for the nonprofit Democracy North Carolina’s ‘Souls to the Polls’, a grassroots effort to get people of faith out to vote [Julienne Gage/Al Jazeera]

Deeper inequalities

“There are many layers to the pain of African Americans in this country,” says Mack, noting that much of the current civil rights discussion centers on changing public perceptions of why and how these incidents transpire. She says one tendency is to associate these killings by police with poor, high-crime neighborhoods.

Like most civil rights activists, Mack welcomes a larger dialogue on how to address socioeconomic realities since the US Census Bureau shows minorities face disproportionately higher levels of socioeconomic inequality than whites.

“If you put a whole bunch of folk who are poor in one particular area, you’ll have more anger and frustration, and that’s across the country no matter who they are,” she says, however, she warns of the discrimination that notion can fuel.

“The perception is cops are shooting black people who are involved in some kind of violent action, but the fact is many African Americans are killed by police going to work, playing with their toys, driving their cars, responding to cops’ commands by putting their hands up in full display, and the list goes on and on. You are black first in this country, no matter what position you hold.”

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Civic engagement

In the aftermath of the riots and with the 2016 election race under way, all of these concerns were being raised in voter education, racial reconciliation, and youth engagement workshops sponsored by civic groups, such as the NAACP, Democracy North Carolina and even faith communities.

Shannon O’Toole, a public information officer with North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigations (SBI) , says civic engagement campaigns help civilians know their options for investigating law enforcement.

The family of Keith Lamont Scott was fortunate enough to find a lawyer who got them to the SBI,  > which is conducting an investigation and will present its findings in the coming days.

“People need redress, and they don’t know what’s available unless they know their rights,” says O’Toole. 

Back at Marshall Park, Merriweather is among the many activists who say they still plan to make use of the system through civic engagement and other actions, like voting.

“I want to attack this from every angle,” explains the activist. “I would hate to say that social justice is a full-time job, but being black, being queer – it is.”

Protesters at a rally organised by Charlotte JustUS League [Julienne Gage/Al Jazeera]
Protesters at a rally organised by Charlotte JustUS League [Julienne Gage/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera