This shouldn’t need to be said but let’s say it. There were honorable protestors in the Charlotte streets last night, and there were people who came to break and burn. It’s possible, even likely, that some changed sides during the night. They showed up to stand for peace but anger overwhelmed them. Or they showed up to riot and their hearts pushed them a different way. Our lives are complicated.
This shouldn’t need to be said but let’s say it. There are honorable and skilled police all over this country, and there are police not worthy of the badge. It’s possible, even likely, that some change sides under pressure. They practice calm reason but pull the trigger too soon. Or they itch to take down a suspect and decide, in the moment, to leave the gun in the holster. Our lives are complicated.
It’s 1 o’clock Thursday morning and the cable networks are still showing live updates of the chaos in uptown Charlotte, two and a half miles from our house. I can hear the helicopters. I’ve lived in Charlotte 27 years. My wife and I met here. Our roots are sunk to the waterline. One of the things we love most about Charlotte is that it has always been a warm and friendly city. But it is also an American city, and every American city lives with the threat of a street fight over the tensions that have always defined us: freedom vs. control, justice vs. peace. They are values this country has battled over since the beginning. This week, it’s our turn.
It is our turn because a police officer here shot a black man Tuesday afternoon. Maybe you have already decided who was right and who was wrong. The truth is, only a few people know. Police say the victim was holding a gun. The victim’s family says he was holding a book. We haven’t seen all the pictures or any of the video. We don’t know the facts. We just know how it makes us feel.
The officer’s name, by the way, is Brentley Vinson. The victim was Keith Scott. They are actual people with names and families, not just cardboard stand-ins for what you already believe. Put those same two human beings in that same spot on a different afternoon and maybe it ends another way. The possibilities are as countless as the stars. But here on the ground we have to live with what happened – one man dead from an officer’s bullet, and two nights of blood and broken glass.
The anger is always just under the surface, even in a friendly town. Like most other places, Charlotte has wealthy white suburbs and a poor black urban core. Like many other places, we have basically re-segregated our schools and limited the chances of our children to grow up around anyone different. Like a lot of other places, we have a troubled history of police shootings. Just last year a jury could not reach a verdict in the case of Randall Kerrick, a Charlotte officer who shot an unarmed black man named Jonathan Ferrell 10 times. Prosecutors chose not to try Kerrick again. It was a victory of sorts that they decided to try him at all.
The violence in Charlotte comes from the same place as Colin Kaepernick kneeling on the sidelines during the national anthem. It comes from the same place as the rise of Donald Trump. It comes from a mutual mistrust of those who are not like us, and the furious belief that America is rigged to favor the other side. Mostly it comes from a shared history that we can’t escape. From the beginning, when our country was built on the backs of slaves, we have been clothed in sins that will never wash all the way clean. With every generation we will turn more tolerant, more welcoming, more alike than we are different. But our resentment and shame over race is built into our genetic code. It has been there since the birth of the nation. Our past bleeds into our present, and that’s why things are never black and white, just always a frustrating gray.
Wednesday afternoon, in between the first night of protest and the second, I had a cup of coffee with a smart young sportswriter. We were talking about how Cam Newton spoke out in a blunt and bold way about race late last season, but has taken a softer tone this year. The young writer didn’t know what to think. Is last year’s Cam closer to the truth, or is this year’s Cam the real one? Or are they both authentic parts of the same person?
I told him to get used to the confusion. People never get more simple. Life never gets more simple.
Last night, watching on TV, there were heroes on the street. A public defender named Toussaint Romain got in between the front line of protestors and the front line of cops, brokering peace. A few protestors tried to chase off the others just looking for something to destroy. A few cops walked over to the protestors and lifted up their faceguards and started a conversation.
Those are small things, but they matter. On some nights, like these last two in Charlotte, it seems like we live in different worlds, separated by bullets and tear gas and rocks thrown through windows. Sometimes that’s the only way the voiceless can speak. Sometimes it’s the only path to justice. But there’s also a space in between, somewhere in the gray smoke, where we can try to reach one another as human beings. We have to step into the smoke, knowing that we do not always know, understanding that we do not always understand. Otherwise we’re destined to meet here again and again, late at night, on the streets.