CHARLOTTE — Keith Lamont Scott became the latest in the alarming and depressing trend of black men killed by police when his body wilted and hit burning asphalt on Sept. 20. Anger-filled black bodies subsequently marched, chanted and blocked highways throughout Charlotte in response. Hotels were ransacked. Stores were trashed.
This type of unrest has a specific way of frightening the majority. The City of Charlotte quickly enforced a midnight curfew and arrest policy. City-goers urged peace and criticized protesters. And perhaps the most high-profile exhibition of distress came from the Carolina Panthers. Team officials petitioned the NFL to change the location of their upcoming home game against the Minnesota Vikings—though, the NFL decided the Thursday prior to keep the game in Charlotte.
Those officials weren’t alone. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera didn’t approve of some of the protests, deducing that “looting” and “rioting” wouldn’t happen if people voted instead of “tearing up our own city” and that Charlotte was “better than that.” Tight end Greg Olsen pulled his kids out of school in fear for their safety and called for protestors to find common ground with police so “chaos” could diminish. Fullback Mike Tolbert described the disturbance as “a damn shame.” Linebacker Thomas Davis said by conducting violent protests it devolves the organizers to “hoodlums.”
And it’s this level of derision from the city’s athletes that makes Charlotte unique in the state of modern protesting during a renewed age of activism.
In response to the outrage over Michael Brown's killing in 2014, tanks and tear gas came to Ferguson to combat the protest. However, this was more than 10 miles from the epicenter of the St. Louis sports complex, as opposed to the civil unrest in Charlotte, which usually started and ended within spitting distance of Time Warner Arena and Bank of America Stadium, home of the Hornets and Panthers, respectively. And the specter of canceling or disrupting one of only eight Panthers home games — unlike, in the case of the Baltimore Orioles, canceling one of 81 home contests in the wake of Freddie Gray’s tragic killing in 2015 — would be described by some as a civic crisis.
But, more than anything, Charlotte is home to two of the most high-profile former or current athletes in the world, who have either been forced or inserted themselves into this country’s ongoing discussions of race: Cam Newton and Michael Jordan.
Not even hours after Scott had been killed and protesters stormed uptown Charlotte, Jordan released a statement calling for peace and unity while critiquing how the protests were being conducted, part of which destroyed some of the Hornets’ team store.
Scott’s death not only caused protest, but also forced the police to drop the full video of the encounter, which they said will happen this week, brought Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to Charlotte a few days ago, and forced many to turn their eyes toward the unrest.
Jordan, was one of them, and he has rarely, if ever cohesively, tried to mix race or politics into his realm of sports. He’s the same man who allegedly joked that “Republicans buy sneakers, too” as told in a 1995 Sam Smith book Second Coming: The Strange Odyssey of Michael Jordan; a man Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said chose “commerce over conscience”; the same man that never supported former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt in a Senatorial race in the ’90s opposing Jesse Helms, a race-baiter that would whistle “Dixie” in elevators in Congress to antagonize black members.
And then there’s Newton, who used to speak freely about his black experience in America. But after receiving racist letters from NFL fans and losing the Super Bowl, he’s since gone mute. In an infamous GQ interview in August, he said that the country is beyond race and that people’s dislike of him had nothing to do with him being black.
"I don't want this to be about race, because it's not,” Newton told the magazine. “It's not. Like, we're beyond that. As a nation."
And more recently Newton rode the fence in his comments to ESPN last month about supporting Colin Kaepernick’s “Star Spangled Banner” protest:
“Who am I to say it’s wrong. Who am I to say it’s right. Either or, it’s still personal. What I can’t, you know, fathom is: how does one eighth of an inch, something so small, be the difference in such a big commodity in our whole lifetime? That’s the thickness of our skin. One eighth of an inch. Under that, we are all the same color. That’s the big picture. A lot of scrutiny happens when an athlete talks about race, but the truth of the matter is we have to do right by each other. No matter what color you are. Certain things that has happened in our lifetime is kind of embarrassing to be affiliated with, but it still happens. But uh, who am I to say ‘Colin you’re wrong’ and who am I to say ‘bro, you’re right.’ Because we all have the right to think whatever we want to think, and I respect that by everybody.”
Around 9 p.m. on a steamy black Friday night in the center of a street intersection, a bulky black protester with swinging dreads named Malik Peay roared a ferocious parable that echoed throughout an assembled crowd of protesters teetering between emotional pain and racial animus. He halted the march to make a plea. That the city’s athletes are likely the last people to care about what they’re here to display.
"Listen. Fucking listen. I've been out here for four days,” Peay screamed. “The NFL don't care about us. The NBA don't care about us. But I care about us! Black lives matter."
In a distant cul-de-sac shrouded with trees you could hear a backdrop chant of black boys and girls bouncing and giggling around crooked bends of concrete and pavement. School had just let out. Parents were chirping. It’s almost hard to imagine that days earlier a man, who had a regular habit of sitting in his truck and reading, was shot here, disrupting this harmony.
The quaint neighborhood became hawked by media members, all aching to snatch a scoop of news or cast a different outlook on the pain that’s beleaguering this city. Fostoria Pierson, a local mother working with Scott’s family, said as much. She watched news crews try and take pictures of his home. She answered too many questions in too few days.
But the thing is: Charlotte didn’t get to this combustible point overnight. It wasn’t one shooting death of one black man that drove residents to this explosive point.
Jonathan Ferrell, a former football player at Florida A&M, was killed here by officer Randall Kerrick in 2013. LaReko Williams was tased to death by officer Michael Forbes in 2011. Scott was the sixth man fatally killed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) since September 2015. All were people of color. Charlotte has always ranked the lowest in the nation on interracial trust for those reasons exactly.
Black men were 67 percent of those killed by CMPD since 2013, according to data collected by Campaign Zero — a data-driven platform that presents solutions to end police violence in America. 50 percent of drivers stopped are black, as are 68 percent of those searched and 74 percent of those CMPD uses force against.
Officers here are more likely to stop and search black folk. They are also three times more likely to arrest black people rather than issue a citation for marijuana possession and CMPD is 76 percent white. Additionally, Charlotte’s Citizen’s Review Board has never ruled in favor of a civilian complaint against an officer.
Charlotte —like Atlanta or D.C.— has created and maintained an image of being one of the most welcoming cities in the country for the black professional class. But there is a different life for the city’s indigenous black community. The city is ranked one of the lowest in terms of black upward mobility, with children rarely escaping poverty. Schools are re-segregating. Needy families can rarely find affordable housing.
Taking this into account, Pierson couldn’t stomach the recent change in conversation from Newton. Her son, Michael Booker, played defensive back for five years in the NFL for the Falcons and Titans. So to see Newton’s behavior, or even Jordan’s, in the backdrop of all this pain was frustrating.
"Of course he thinks racism doesn't exist — he's an NFL player. C’mon. They roll the red carpet out for him,” Pierson said, placing a teddy bear at the memorial. “He just had a son, too? Wait until his son is of age. And he gets profiled. Then see if Cam Newton still thinks racism doesn't exist."
As she turned away, tasked with more questions to answer, a young boy dribbled a ball right through orange police markers illustrating where they killed Scott. The boy didn’t care. He was filled with too much glee. His blissful ignorance of the pain his skin induces is a reminder of the joy that used to fill this hood.
Pierson’s comments illuminate a separate thread running parallel to the protests themself. Scott’s killing ignited a flame long dormant in many black folk around Charlotte about the daily oppression they face in searching for housing, escaping poverty, and policing.
But at a time when more and more athletes of color are speaking loudly about police violence and racial injustice, Jordan and Newton are somewhat muted.
Jordan’s essay, when he spoke about police violence and donated funds to two organizations attempting to curb police brutality, spoke of the “deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement and angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers.”
Newton’s comments leading up to the Panthers game and protest reflected him wanting to bring unity, but said his desire for accountability applied to both the black community and police officers and that there was a state of oppression in the black community but also that “as black people, we have to do right by ourselves. We can’t be hypocrites.”
Yet, if there was ever a time to unapologetically and robustly address issues black and brown people face in America, it was when Scott got shot down in their backyard. But black Charlotteans didn’t receive that from either man.
Ask around the city and black residents will tell you they’re more than disappointed in Newton and Jordan.
“Even though he’s bullshittin’, I still rock with [Cam] because he's the quarterback of my team,” Roger Duncan, a 50-year old protester wearing a Newton jersey, said. “Hopefully that PR nonsense is about to go out the window. We rode for him last year when nobody rocked with him. So for him to [renounce racism] now is kinda fucked up.”
“It takes individuals, the citizens, to come together and step up and be leaders because we can’t wait on Michael Jordan. We can’t wait on Cam Newton,” Peay, the protester from Friday, said. “We have to do this by ourselves. I’ll remain out here. I’m out here for those that are frustrated. I’m out here for us.”
Realistically, it’s improper to place such demands on black athletes — retired or otherwise — to stand for any causes. That onus has always been placed on them, historically. But Newton began this conversation. In January he described the plight of being a black quarterback in the NFL, a title that has always been marred by stereotypes and profiling.
Before this past Super Bowl, Newton described how being a black quarterback “may scare a lot of people” because they might not have seen anything like him before. Jordan, who had a habit for staying silent on any socio-political issues, shocked many when he renounced former Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014, expressing that there “was no room” in the NBA for Sterling’s racism.
Then they started walking back.
The Panthers hired GOP operative Frank Luntz, a former Fox News pundit, to coach Newton on how to converse on topics of race. Jordan went back to silence until his donation two years later and Scott’s killing.
It’s this type of waffling that has angered many black people living or protesting in Charlotte.
“I know myself and other protestors wish we could have Panthers players on the front lines with us,” Clarissa Brooks, a protester with Charlotte Uprising, said. “By them using their platform, they could bring a lot of attention to police brutality that many [athletes] have been able to ignore.”
Somewhere within the week, between when Scott was killed to the subsequent protests to watching the inconclusive released video from CMPD that Saturday in Marshall Park — a popular meeting ground that week — protestors and organizers decided they had enough.
Organizers strategized around this moment. Their mindsets were irascible. While marching they ratified a way to show the world what was happening in Charlotte. They wanted to hit the city with something it loved dearly. Their train of thought: You took a loved one from us, so we will take a loved one from you. They planned to shut down the Panthers’ next home game.
Eddie Thomas, a 31-year-old assistant public defender in Charlotte, became overjoyed that night upon realizing what would happen next. In 12 hours, he hoped, the football world would meet the Charlotte uprising.
“It's important for the demographic to see it,” Thomas said. “Everyone loves the Panthers. This will make it real to them. This will make our pain real to them."
When Charlotte and its officials aren’t scared to death about possible impending doom for their municipality and their football, a Sunday morning in the middle of protest has a distinct stillness about it. Streets are idle. The bars and cafes are quiet until noon. The soul food and barbecue don't begin smoldering until the pavement sizzles. The Queen City slumbers at daybreak. And on this hushed day, the two sides of this scrap are marching to different beats.
By 10 a.m., hundreds of law enforcement personnel surround Bank of America Stadium on nearly every corner, bouncing between Humvees and tour buses unloading dozens of officers in riot gear carrying zip-ties and weapons. Folks that weren’t protesting and not near the stadium were reportedly scared to be in the vicinity. Church congregations around town were planning to skip Sunday service.
But nothing would deter game day. Couples jogged past military vehicles as Panthers and Vikings players pooled into the stadium. Middle-aged men pounded Miller in decorative koozies. Others took selfies with officers and members of the National Guard and applauded as officers walked past.
It was calm next to crisis.
In passing, a small child whispered to her parents after gazing at the mini-militia.
“I’ve never seen police dressed like this, mommy.”
As cops traipsed outside the stadium, inside Newton wore a shirt to pre-game with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. reading “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” His tone changed a bit throughout the week—he said he wanted to unite Charlotte by playing this game.
By noon, the protests had reached the front of the stadium. Chants pinged around each corridor: “Black Lives Matter,” “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” and “Whose streets? Our streets!”
Fans (mostly white) gawked at the ongoing process. Some were confused, others angered, many carefree; because, for some, the coping mechanism for calamity has always been the embrace of sports. Home vs. away. Though, if reality enters that mirage it changes the discourse of the fans.
"I think the protests are stupid because they mess the city up,” Bryan Chaka, a fan from Minnesota, said. “They fuck shit up and lose their case. Part of the movement goes out and smashes things and that's when they lose the power, to me."
Officers outside the stadium often harassed protesters next to fans. Sometimes there’d be random searches of people’s bags and verbal confrontations with the lot. When the “Star Spangled Banner” played over the stadium’s loudspeakers, dozens of people knelt as lingering fans scoffed.
Before the game started, ESPN did a segment with Rivera saying that playing football would bring normalcy to the city. But, that’s the point the protesters wanted to reinforce: Protesting is a disruption to the normalcy of American life.
“Every night of the Charlotte Uprising, protesters have been rocking Panthers gear,” said Todd Zimmer, a white organizer in Charlotte. “We want justice and transparency in Charlotte more than we want a Super Bowl ring. We love the Panthers. We just want the Panthers to love us back.”
As the Panthers got smoked, justifications came immediately. On Fox Sports’ broadcast, Ronde Barber made concessions for their play, saying “these guys living in this neighborhood, living in the community, having to deal with some of the distractions of the protests and the riots going on all week had to have affected them.”
Newton, who said nothing of the protests, wore a pin on his hat that read "don't be a puppet," which seemed to be a subliminal shot fired at the franchise that hired a GOP loudmouth to try and turn the city’s black quarterback into a marionette show of linguistic racial ambiguity.
Night inched its way over Charlotte and the local government called off their citywide midnight curfew and arrest policy. To them, the last chip had fallen. Football was safe. The protesters went home. It was all over. Charlotte could finally sleep again.
The Monday after the Panthers got waxed, Newton was back to focusing on his next opponent. He spoke more of finding a way to get Kelvin Benjamin targets than he did of the last seven days that brought fire and protest to a climax in Charlotte.
Jordan had been quiet since his lone statement of the previous week.
At this point in their muddled histories, with race, with sports, and with Charlotte, it might not have mattered if they said anything substantial at all.
As fans flew back out of the city, the front seat of a nearby black Uber held Ahmed, a black man from the surrounding area. Feigning to disrupt the silence in a cramped Toyota Corolla, he cranked a knob and turned to a news radio station detailing what happened Sunday in Charlotte.
He sighed before seeking the plush comfort of his driver’s seat. Sadly, he said, this was “our” reality.
“Honestly, man. These cops don't get it,” he said. “I think of racism and police brutality in this country and these cops like a mechanic and a machine. To fix the machine when it's broken, you have to actually see the problem."
Author: Tyler Tynes
Editor: Vincent Thomas
Design & Development: Graham MacAree