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WFAE Forum: Debating Police Shootings And Inequality A Year After Keith Scott

A year after the killing of Keith Scott, Charlotte is still debating both police shootings and the social and economic inequality that led to a week of protests. Just how well CMPD and the city are doing was the question Wednesday night during a two-hour Charlotte Talks Public Conversation at Spirit Square in uptown Charlotte.

Panelists at the forum, titled "Unrest in Charlotte: One Year Later," drew from the recent and distant past to help explain last year's shooting and protests. Activist Robert Dawkins of SAFE Coalition NC, a group that pushes for greater police accountability, said Scott's killing was another sign of deep-rooted mistrust between blacks and authorities that goes back to the time of slavery.

“The police department and the sheriff's department were the legalized people to round up African-Americans and to punish African-Americans. And I think that the police department is making an attempt to fix that history. But every time more incidents like this happen, it pulls that Band-aid off again,” Dawkins said.

Mutual mistrust - especially between black men and police - is tough to overcome, agreed Brenda Tindal of the Museum of the New South.

“When we talk about the ways in which that suspicion is sort of nurtured, I mean it's in our legislation, it's in our social mores. It's in the ground,” she said.

Still, CMPD assistant chief Vicki Foster argued the department is making changes: Creating what it calls "constructive conversation teams" to talk with citizens at incident scenes. Inviting people to transparency workshops. Sending chief Kerr Putney and other leaders to community forums. And improving de-escalation training.

But during a question-and-answer session later, Foster said all those changes only go so far, when police face a suspect with a gun.

“When someone has an object in their hand that is deadly, then you meet with the same force. Now what I will tell you is that de-escalation is for after the gun is dropped,” Foster said.

Foster doesn't expect that policy to change, because officers can't know what a suspect with a gun is thinking. They have to make a split-second decision, she said. That prompted this response from Dawkins.

“It also cuts both ways. When I call a police officer, he's coming to my house with a gun. And l don't know if he's had a bad day, if he's just come from another call where he was upset. I don't know what's going on through his head,” Dawkins said.

During the Q&A, activist turned city council candidate Braxton Winston said that policy led to a “predictable outcome”: That the African-American officer who shot Scott - Brentley Vinson - wasn't held accountable.

“We knew he would not be charged through the criminal justice system, Officer Brentley Vinson. We knew that he would not get discipline from CMPD, because policy shows you can execute a man on fear. The government has created laws and policy to protect them to do that,” Winston said.

The forum touched on a wide range of issues - gentrification, educational inequality, the need for affordable housing and jobs, and strategies for improving economic mobility in Charlotte.

In a segment on activism, panelists Ash Williams and Greg Jackson debated tactics. Williams, a leader of the group Charlotte Uprising, said her group has focused on political education.

“We've invited folks to come and learn about what direct action is and how expansive it can be. And while it can look like protests, it also looks like call-ins, it also looks like petitioning, it also looks like voting, it also looks like demonstrating. Giving people a lot of options is something we believe we've done,” Williams said.  

The conversation about demonstrations and political action brought a sharp response from Jackson.  

“When are we gonna address what are you gonna do? I'm not gonna sit up here and point fingers and complain and complain. I work with a group of organizations that work hard, and we've been working hard every day since the protests and the riots,” Jackson said.

Jackson's group Heal Charlotte runs an after-school program for children in need in northeast Charlotte. He also has led constructive dialogue training for CMPD officers - training about engaging with residents that officers have already used at incidents, such as the recent police killing of Reuben Galindo - a Latino man who had a gun.

“They sent out these officers, and these officers called my phone directly. I got business cards, Greg. I don't have tickets. I got business cards. And you know what, I'm gonna get coffee. And you know what I did, I emailed them to make sure they went and got coffee,” he said.

In a segment on economic opportunity, several panelists talked about Charlotte's problem of two economies - one that does well for more wealthy whites, and one that leads to intergenerational poverty for people of color. They offered solutions like more job training and placement programs, and better schools.

City economic development director Pat Mumford said businesses need to be involved - including business recruited to move here.

“When you look at all the cranes on the skyline, you think, gosh, this community is doing really well. Everybody must be prospering. We know that's not the case. So, how do these businesses that come to Charlotte because it is a great place to be, how do they come here and own some of this?” he asked.


You can listen to a replay of the public conversation Thursday at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. and online at WFAE.org.

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.