In the aftermath of the police-shooting deaths of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and the apparent retaliatory killings of five white officers in Dallas, Theresa McCormick-Dunlap, a Charlotte pastor’s wife, wondered what to say to her children.
Eddie Levins, a retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg assistant police chief and the father of a young CMPD officer, stopped midway in describing what he’d seen on videos from Dallas and began to cry.
Malcolm Graham, a former state senator who lost a sister in the 2015 slaughter inside a Charleston church, asked when will it all stop.
Throughout the Charlotte region, the week of racially-tinged violence drew out similarly strong emotions. Those feelings deepened throughout the day as reports of wounded police officers in St. Louis and Georgia began to trickle in. In Bristol, Tenn., on Friday, a black man began shooting at white passersby, later saying that he was angry at police violence toward blacks.
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In Charlotte, leaders called for calm, and the city mostly heeded.
“You have the commitment of elected officials, and you have the commitment of our police, our neighborhood and business leaders and faith leaders that our traditions of solving problems peacefully will continue,” Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles said at an afternoon press conference in the predominantly black Belmont community.
But the deaths in Dallas and elsewhere brought out a complex range of comments and feelings about race, violence and the community’s relationship with its police.
The Rev. Tiffany Thomas, pastor of the South Tryon Community Church, spoke of a different Charlotte than Lyles – one that is far more racially and socially segregated and too often disengaged from the problems of poverty and racial justice. She decried the violence in Dallas but said it was predictable, and could happen here.
“You read any history book, anywhere, anytime, and you will see that people will endure oppression only so long before they erupt,” she said. “People are tired of marching. People are tired of hashtag protests. People want some systemic change.”
She went on. “Everybody knows what the story is. There’s a confrontation between police and a black civilian and the civilian ends up dead. And then when they get to court the officers constantly say ‘I was afraid for my life.’
“So maybe we need a conversation in this community about what fear looks like. If you’re so petrified about black men merely standing in front of you, maybe you’re in the wrong line of work.”
Trevor Fuller, chairman of the Mecklenburg County commissioners, talked about the duality of being both an elected official and a black man in America.
“When I am on streets, I am an African-American male. I don’t get a chance to give my credentials. No one could watch the videos we saw on Facebook...No one with humanity could watch the videos and not be chilled by it,” he said.
“Who couldn’t be horrified by the notion that police officers assisting with a peaceful protest could find themselves...shot dead in the street. This has got to stop.”
The timing of this week’s killings oddly coincide with the first anniversary of the trial of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Wes Kerrick. Kerrick, who is white, was charged with manslaughter after the fatal shooting of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man. The judge declared a mistrial and all charges were eventually dropped.
Outside the courthouse last year, as she watched her daughter lay down in Fourth Street with others to protest the trial’s outcome, McCormick-Dunlap said she didn’t know how to explain what had happened to her seven children. Friday morning, she said she awoke with the same feelings.
“As a parent you always wonder what you’re supposed to say to your children. You hope to be a voice of wisdom, but what do you say? How do I give them the necessary tools to navigate a life and yet not leave them so armored up that they can enjoy it?”
She said the younger generation remains angry at what they believe to be the disproportionate number of blacks being shot by police.
Ashley Williams, a UNC Charlotte graduate student and community organizer, proved to be a case in point. She said she hoped the shooting deaths in Louisiana and Minnesota will energize activism. But she refused to sympathize about the slain officers, who were overseeing a peaceful demonstration in Dallas at the time of their deaths.
“I don’t have anything to say about the police officers,” she said. “The only thing I will say is to acknowledge the history of state-sanctioned violence and white supremacy that they have contributed to.”
Tears from a former cop
Given such feelings, Levins, the former CMPD assistant chief, say police find themselves in a “constant battle to justify themselves.”
“This is not a black thing. This is an everybody thing,” said Levins, who retired last year. “Police represent their community. They represent what we all say we want – a safe, non-chaotic world. But we can’t expect them to do this job if we continue to bash and bash and bash them.”
In 1991, Levins, then a young CMPD officer, shot and killed a black suspect whom he says came at him in a crowded house with a butcher’s knife. He was cleared of any wrongdoing, but wonders what the community reaction would be if the killing had occurred today.
“Do cops make mistakes? Hell yes, they do,” he said. “But nine times out of 10 it’s not because of ill will. Cops get afraid. They get scared. They have a desire to live. But every time you dial three numbers, they come. Nobody else does that.”
While he grieved the Dallas deaths Friday, he also worried how his son will navigate the seemingly broken relationship between police and some of the people they serve.
“I know the only way to survive a situation is to be exposed to it and learn how to handle it. You treat everybody with respect and fairness, but know that there are people out there who want to hurt you.”
Pam Phillips said her son recently left a Charlotte-area police department, saying the growing demands of the job had become overwhelming.
“We pay them Jiffy Lube salaries. It’s not worth losing your life,” said Phillips, who attended the Kerrick trial daily. “You’re not a hero. We don’t shoot heroes in America. We spit on them. We don’t spit on heroes. We just call police that. But we don’t see them that way.”
In many ways, the Charlotte police resemble their Dallas peers.
Both have earned strong national reputations by stressing community policing, and both rely on data and enhanced training to backstop their performance.
During the afternoon press conference in Belmont,Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Kerr Putney spoke on a more personal level – as a police officer and an African-American – about the week’s turmoil. And he continued to acknowledge his department’s “unconscious bias” toward minorities.
He said he is hitting that bias head on with mandatory training. “We have a year-long education process,” he said. “Ask what other organization has made that commitment.”
Still, Putney said he was not immune from the events of the week.
“The Minnesota video hurt me,” Putney said. “It hurt my profession. I don’t need to know the facts to see another dead black body in the street and say that hurts. I don’t want to hide behind the wall.”
Malcolm Graham is fed up with the killing. Last month, he was in Charleston – honoring his sister and eight other victims gunned down by a suspected white supremacist in an historic Charleston church.
On the day before he left, a lone killer with possible ties to radical Islam, killed dozens of people in an Orlando club.
On Friday, he put out a statement on the country’s “daily recurring nightmare” of violence. He said Charlotte and the rest of the country is living in “insane times.”
He added this: #BlackLivesMatter. #PoliceLivesMatter. #AmericanLivesMatter.”