In a snapshot of Charlotte protest, a portrait of America's debate on race

A heated argument on the streets of Charlotte Thursday shows how protests against police shootings are bringing two very different perceptions of race in America to the surface. 

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Protesters confront police officers in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday night.

The protesters had marched up and down Trade Street. They had briefly entered a hotel, holding signs that read “Stop killing us” and “Release the tapes,” before being evicted by National Guardsmen. At last they had come face-to-face with a line of cops on bicycles.

A bearded black protester was confronting the officers, aggressively but respectfully, about why the police wouldn’t release the video of the killing of Keith Lamont Scott Tuesday, when a white woman standing nearby decided she had had enough.

Releasing the video would compromise the investigation, she said. It might be frustrating, but the legal process had to run its course. The police do a dangerous job and deserve respect, too.

The black protester listened and fired back in kind until he finally asked: “Would you want to be a black man in the US today?”

When the woman had no immediate answer, he said: “Your pause is your answer, ma’am.”

The episode was a glimpse of an unfolding moment in the history of race in America. Since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, a series of police shootings and protests have roiled the United States. Thursday night in Charlotte, these protests remained largely peaceful after two nights of violence.

To some, these protests themselves are the problem, with what the Drudge report called the “thugs of Charlotte” pointing to an America beset by lawlessness. To others, the protests are the only way to wake Americans to the pernicious persistence of racial perceptions that, they say, allow cops to kill black people with virtual impunity.

Thursday night, in front of a line of bicycle cops, this evolving conversation on race again erupted into its rawest and, in some ways, most honest form – a black man and a white woman motivated by radically different worldviews, face-to-face, desperately seeking to make one understand the other.

In Charlotte, that debate is about more than Mr. Scott. It is about reports that a local nightclub discriminated against blacks. It is about a new state law set to take effect Oct. 17 that will make it harder to get police videos released. It is about the feeling that as Charlotte has boomed it has left too many blacks behind.

In short, it is about what it is like “to be a black man in the US today.”

The point is hotly contested. Rep. Robert Pittenger (R), whose district includes parts of Charlotte, said protesters “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not” – though he later apologized, saying he was overcome with emotions.

But that view is not radical among some white residents here. The questions of what the real challenges besetting the black community are and who is most responsible for them are dividing America deeply. This week, Charlotte has become the latest front for that debate.

Looking for 'results'

On Thursday, dozens of National Guard troops joined police after violent protests on Wednesday surges onto Interstate 85, ended with dozens of injuries, 44 arrests, and one shooting. Protests spilled briefly onto I-277 late Thursday but were driven back by riot police.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
A protester speaks to a member of the National Guard in Charlotte Thursday.

The protests come after the fatal shooting of Scott, a black man, by a black police officer Tuesday, and the refusal of authorities to release the video to the public. Police have argued that releasing the video will harm the investigation and be disrespectful to Scott. Scott’s family on Thursday urged police to release it after they viewed it.

Scott had not been the target of the warrant search that brought police to the area but was ordered out of his car by officers. According to reports, some who have seen the video say Scott appeared to be complying with police and was moving backward when he was shot and killed. But Charlotte Police Chief Kerr Putney, who is black, told reporters that “in totality” the evidence supports the police claim that Scott refused police commands to drop a gun.

To Larry Bruce, a young African-American who came to Charlotte to witness the protests, the police seem to have almost unlimited power.

“It becomes like the Clockwork Orange, where the images just build up and build up and finally people snap,” says Mr. Bruce, a local IT professional. “It’s like no matter what you do, you get shot. You put your hands up, you walk away, you follow directions, you don’t follow directions, you’re a 12-year-old child, the result is the same: You’re dead and they belittle you after your death.”

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Larry Bruce, who came to Charlotte to see the protests Thursday, says he worries about the power of the police.

That makes the violence and looting understandable because it can be effective, said Jaworski Dunlap, a black long-haul trucker.

“Let’s face it, looting gets results,” he said. “Nobody wants to see it, businesses complain, the image of the town erodes, and changes happen.”

Mr. Dunlap noted that black people in Charlotte, which paints itself as a progressive center of global commerce, were already feeling powerless. Last year, a local jury failed to convict an officer who killed a black motorist trying to wave down help after an accident.

And Dunlap added that the Scott shooting came on the same day that a new club in town, Kandy Bar, was vilified on Yelp, which posts user reviews online, for turning away black would-be patrons. Black people were told it was a membership club, but white people who weren’t members were allowed inside, according to the accusations on Yelp.

Management denied those claims, saying the black people turned away had not abided by the club’s dress code.

The club was looted on Wednesday evening.

Depth of the divide

To Curtis Gray, a white man, the shooting highlights the depth of the racial divide.

He decried “thugs” roaming the street and mentioned a video of black protesters beating up a white porter, leaving him on the ground wearing only his underwear. “It made my daughter cry,” Mr. Gray said. “I told her to avoid the area” because she would be in grave danger.

He said if he had been on I-85 when protesters took it over Wednesday, he would have “run them over.” The previous day, University of Tennessee professor Glenn Reynolds tweeted a similar phrase and was briefly booted from Twitter.

But Charlotte resident Brandon Parsons, who is white, balked.

“I’m not going to run someone over,” he said, adding that the people protesting had grievances that have gone unaddressed.

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