Charlotte’s Keith Scott decision is more salt in the wound
As the documentary ’13th’ makes clear, devaluation of black lives infects America to its core
It wasn’t really a surprise. Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray laid out a careful case for why his office, following an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation, decided not to charge Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Brentley Vinson in the shooting death of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott, who is African-American. Murray said he found no legal wrongdoing. Scott had a gun, Murray said the evidence showed that Scott didn’t drop it when officers shouted at him to do just that, and Vinson said he felt he had no choice, that he and his “buddies” were threatened.
Murray’s report was more transparent than the statements, social media postings and flurry of intermittently released videos, one taken by Scott’s wife, after the Sept. 20 shooting. Protesters gathered after Wednesday’s announcement. But though there were a few arrests, there was no repetition of September, when peaceful protests turned violent and images that flashed around the world changed idyllic notions of the New South city, even those held by Charlotte, North Carolina, leaders who finally acknowledged not all of its citizens have shared in the region’s prosperity.
Anger mixed with resignation in conversations between officers and protesters, as it seems to in the protests after confrontations that end in death between police officers and the communities they serve. Yes, police officers have a dangerous job — many accept that, and the conclusion in the Scott case. But a question remained: Will police and society ever approach all its citizens as deserving of the benefit of the doubt?
One piece of evidence released, a taped statement to investigators made the day after the shooting, revealed the 26-year-old Vinson’s state of mind when he saw Scott in his car with marijuana and a gun at an apartment complex where Vinson and fellow officers had gone looking for someone else.
“I felt like he was trying to decide who he wanted to shoot first,” Vinson said, as reported in The Charlotte Observer. “It was like he just wasn’t there, and he just had like this evil look.” Rakeyia Scott had shouted that her husband was under treatment and medication for TBI, a traumatic brain injury, sustained in a 2015 motorcycle injury, and records show he had problems with anger management.
But “evil?” The language sounds familiar.
In Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, when faced with unarmed teenager Michael Brown, said in testimony that led to no charges, “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon,” using a pronoun that erased humanity altogether.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a police officer from the vantage point of a helicopter nevertheless judged unarmed black man Terence Crutcher, saying “that looks like a bad dude,” before an officer on the ground shot him dead.
In Charleston, South Carolina, a jury with just one African-American is deliberating in the murder trial of former police officer Michael Slager, who testified he was in “total fear” of Walter Scott (no relation to Keith) before Scott fled after a traffic stop and Slager shot him in the back from about 18 feet away.
In Charlotte’s own recent past, former officer Randall Kerrick was freed after a hung jury in his trial for voluntary manslaughter in the 2013 shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, who was disoriented and seeking help after a car accident. Of the unarmed Ferrell, the young African-American man he shot 10 times, Kerrick testified: “No matter what I did, he wouldn’t stop. I wasn’t sure how many rounds I had fired; none of them affected him in any way.” Actually, some of those bullets killed him.
Criticism that the victims were not perfect people — though no one on this earth is – tracks each incident, each person, even Ferrell, the engaged student-to-be with two jobs, a fiancee and a mother who carried the Winnie the Pooh doll he played with as a child as proof of innocence.
This is not black and white. While Wilson and Slager are white, Vinson is African-American.
It is not just between law enforcement and communities of color. Studies show that black children are judged older than their actual age, seldom given the chance to be goofy kids, occasionally acting out. From preschool, they risk suspension or arrest for school behavior that merits a trip to the principal’s office for white classmates.
African-Americans themselves are affected and infected by how our own country thinks of us, has always judged us.
In the documentary 13th, which had a timely screening Thursday night at a Charlotte church, director Ava DuVernay traces America’s mass incarceration crisis through history, and shows how linking blackness and criminality for economic, social and cultural reasons have advantaged whites and provided justification for relegating citizens of color to second-class status. It has always been a struggle, academic Jelani Cobb notes in the film, for black Americans to be understood as “full, complicated human beings.”
At the annual stakeholder’s breakfast of Charlotte’s Community Building Initiative on Friday morning — one with the theme “Equity: Single Stories and Multiple Realities” — speakers addressed the challenges for a community and a country trying to move forward.
One step to making good on America’s unfulfilled promise of “equity” could be as simple as approaching one another with the presumption of innocence — and humanity.