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Atlantic Forum Looks At Race And Justice In Charlotte

A wave of police shootings in recent years has left authorities in Charlotte and across the nation searching for ways to rebuild trust. Speakers at a forum uptown Tuesday organized by The Atlantic magazine focused on the city's history of racism and segregation as well as a criminal justice system that they say treats people of color and those with lower incomes unfairly.

Activist Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole at the South Carolina statehouse in 2015 and pulled down the Confederate flag. Since then, she's been working on a range of issues, including racial and economic inequality. In the first of a series of panels at the forum, she said people of color know that economic inequality is directly tied to racism.

“Racism impacts our ability to get home loans. Racism impacts our interactions with police in our community. So there really is no separation,” Newsome said.

The September 2016 protests were the immediate result of the police killing of Keith Scott. But Newsome said inequality in housing, employment and education were underlying factors. So was the city's history of racism.

“The Old South is still very much there,” Newsome said. “The New South is something we have to define what that looks like, but we don't get there without confronting the truth of our past.”

Another of the seven panels looked at how the criminal justice system has built-in roadblocks for people with lower incomes.    

“I don't call it the criminal justice system. I call it the criminal court system. It hasn't earned the right to be called the criminal justice system yet,” said Mecklenburg Public Defender Kevin Tully.

Tully says he recently argued with a judge that a defendant was stuck unfairly behind bars because he couldn't make bail. He said the judge had told him his client was in jail because he got charged with those four crimes. 

"And I said, 'Yes, but a person who's charged with those same four crimes is sitting at home on his couch right now because he had the money to go home.'”

Tully says the bail system does nothing to keep people safe, but it does hurt those without the cash to pay.

A Mecklenburg County judge and a prosecutor both said Mecklenburg County court officials are studying problems like this. That was frustrating for activist Robert Dawkins of SAFE Coalition NC.  

“We study stuff to death....Every few years we come back and we get right back where were again. Oh my god, that's a problem. Let's study it,” Dawkins said, drawing laughter from the audience.

He said Charlotte never seems to recognize a problem until someone from outside says it's a problem.

There were positives in the discussion. Several speakers talked about how Mecklenburg County's jail population is down sharply in the past decade, the result of lower crime rates and new release policies.

In another segment, Atlantic writer and Charlotte native Vann Newkirk pressed CMPD Chief Kerr Putney on why police are more likely to shoot black men. Putney repeated something he has said often in the past year - that shootings are usually a "split second decision" by an officer who feels threatened.

“And I tell the young black males in particular, 'Don't let anybody who might have a racial connotation or perspective of you, act on that legally.' We should be talking about how we engage with officers, and if I'm armed, put the gun down. Live to have your day in court. Live to fight the very perspective and racism as you see it. But don't give your life for that,” Putney said.  

In a final panel, activist Oliver Merino said Charlotte's rapid economic and population growth masks a lack of opportunities for longtime Charlotteans and newcomers.

“It feels like a golden cage almost. Like there's jobs, but the jobs that are here, it's hard to survive on minimum wage. It's even hard to survive on $10 an hour, that you have to have a second job to do that,” Merino said.

The question is how to improve things for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Panelists had some ideas:  Expanding affordable housing, addressing racial imbalance in schools and establishing universal pre-kindergarten programs.

To Lee Cochran, of affordable housing developer Laurel Street, growth presents an opportunity to reduce segregation across the city.

“The most integrated neighborhoods in Charlotte and in most places tend to be new neighborhoods because they have a fresh start. You build brand-new housing, everybody moving there, it's kind of a blank slate,” Cochran said.

As a result, Cochran said, new neighborhoods tend to be more racially integrated than the rest of the city.