Inside a jammed room, a young African-American girl, perched atop a riser, and barely reaching the microphone; delivered a tearful, emotional plea at a Charlotte City Council meeting, just six days after the shooting of an unarmed black man.
“I’ve come here today to talk about how I feel,” says Zianna Oliphant, 9, urging the council to ensure fair treatment for Black people. “And I feel like that we are treated differently than other people. And I don’t like how we are treated. And just because of our color doesn’t mean anything to me.”
Oliphant’s words, delivered to a mixed assembly of residents and city officials, helps paint an image as to why Charlotte exploded in protests in the aftermath of the police-involved shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.
Scott, 43, died Sept. 21, after being shot by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers who said they saw him in possession of a gun while sitting in his car. Police say he had a stolen handgun when he was shot and ignored repeated orders to drop the weapon when confronted by officers. A cellphone video taken by his wife depicts the moments up to and including the shooting, but do not clearly show him holding a weapon. So far, police body camera footage of the incident has not been released to the public.
In the days following the shooting, protesters took to the streets in mostly peaceful demonstrations, but in several cases extensive damage was done to property in the city’s downtown area. The city operated under a state of emergency for several days.
Another African-American man, Justin Carr, 26 was killed as he joined a protest in downtown Charlotte. Police arrested Rayquan Borum, 21, in Carr’s death and charged him with murder. Two killings, two Black men and a city now attempting to heal.
The National Guard has since left the area, downtown businesses are operating close to or at normal pace and angry protests are sporadic. But community leaders say the Scott shooting struck a chord deep in the community and that the anger and pain is real.
“Race relations in Charlotte are good,” Willie Ratchford, Executive Director of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee told EBONY.com. “But racial tensions could be set off and this was it.”
Ratchford, whom has worked more than 20 years in Charlotte city government, says what happened here after the Scott killing is not the city he knows. He says recent protests are not necessarily a reaction to this one event but represents “a flashpoint of what’s going on across the country with police shootings of people of color,” adding that makes this killing different as opposed to others in the city.
Several community initiatives hope to help. One of them, a “Statement of Commitment,” was developed by residents, community and faith leaders, executives, and entrepreneurs as a pledge to foster ongoing dialogue and offers residents a chance to work towards a solution. Using the hashtag #ThisIsOurCharlotte, the document has more than 700 signatures and continues to grow.
But many residents will not allow the Scott incident be pushed off the radar, either.
Robbie Miller, a student at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, helped organize 300 fellow UNCC students for a peaceful protest organized by the Black Student Union in which students lay down. “The event was held to be a visual representation and show the enormous amount of Black individuals being shot and killed by law enforcement,” she says. “Some of these individuals are armed and some aren’t, but at the end of the day, police are sent to deescalate situations. When it comes to recent encounters with people of color they are not doing so.”
Still, Ratchford, who trusts the city can and will overcome this snag, is encouraged by collective efforts to work towards a solution. He says making changes won’t be easy or comfortable.
“We can have substantive dialogue to work together and deal with issues that plague our community,” he said.