By Ann Doss Helms
Now that frustration in Charlotte’s black community has erupted, the first challenge for clergy is finding common cause despite their own differences, says the Rev. Traci Blackmon.
But the bigger challenge will be connecting with others on the street who are younger, angrier and more profane than people in their own religious circles, she says.
Blackmon should know. The 53-year-old pastor of Christ The King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Mo., was called in after Michael Brown was shot by police in next-door Ferguson two years ago. She was at the center of the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged as Ferguson became shorthand for police violence and community rage.
Last week it was Charlotte’s turn, after a police officer fatally shot Keith Lamont Scott and violence exploded onto the city’s streets. Blackmon flew in with another national movement leader to offer support.
She found a city where clergy had already pulled together for justice and were on the streets working for peace as crowds were teargassed and a protester fatally shot. “The clergy in Charlotte have had the benefit of watching and being prepared,” Blackmon said Tuesday.
Pastor Michael McBride, leader of the California-based Live Free project, was also impressed when he arrived with Blackmon. “I find it to be very encouraging that there was a multiracial, multi-generational gathering of clergy in the streets,” he said Wednesday.
A digital community
But Charlotte’s young, disenfranchised citizens have had years of watching video and social media accounts of police killing African-Americans across the country, said Blackmon, who is also head of the United Church of Christ’s justice and witness ministries.
The Guardian, a British newspaper, tracks people killed by police in the United States, she noted. The 2016 tally hit 800 this week, with 26 in North Carolina.
So for young people digitally connected to every questionable shooting, Scott’s killing isn’t an isolated local incident but one more assault on their community. The frustration, aggression and obscenity-laced language of that generation can be disconcerting, Blackmon said.
In 2009, Blackmon took over a congregation that was shrinking, in a neighborhood where poverty was on the rise. As part of her outreach, she sometimes conducted funerals for young people killed in street violence. When Brown was shot in Ferguson, Blackmon said a young woman who had attended one of those funerals called and asked her to come.
“One of the most challenging things for me to adjust to in the street was the language,” she said.
Telling the story
On the night of Sept. 21, Steve Knight, pastor of social justice and activism at Charlotte’s Missiongathering Church, placed a call to the PICO National Network, which sponsors the Live Free project on mass incarceration and violence in minority communities.
He and others in the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice had been in the crowd that clashed with police in riot gear at the Omni Hotel. Police had just started firing tear gas when a gunshot rang out and a young protester dropped. People in the crowd shouted that police had shot him. Almost immediately, the city identified the shooter as another civilian, though no more details were released.
Knight and other ministers were traumatized and skeptical of the instant finger-pointing. That’s why Knight says he called PICO: To get help ensuring that the official story wasn’t accepted without challenge.
In the heat of a conversation he believed was private, he said something that would haunt him when it appeared in a press release sent by PICO’s public relations team to national media shortly after midnight: “It was an ambush. The victim was shot while he stood between two ministers, and we believe he was shot by police.”
It was a harsh lesson in the difficulty of communicating in the midst of chaos. Knight says now he didn’t see who shot the man, later identified as Justin Carr, and wishes that accusation hadn’t been circulated, especially since he appeared to be speaking for the coalition.
Say his name
On the afternoon of Sept. 22, Blackmon and McBride arrived in Charlotte. At a 5 p.m. training session in Knight’s church, they talked to about 50 people preparing to march about keeping the message on target.
“Say his name,” Blackmon said, as the group responded with “Keith Lamont Scott!” She had them chant it over and over, urging them to keep talking abut Scott’s death and police brutality if reporters asked them about looting and rioting.
Blackmon says she doesn’t condone any kind of violence, including looting and vandalism. But she said it’s disingenuous to criticize those actions without acknowledging the source of the crowd’s anger and comparing it with police killing citizens.
“That’s violent as well,” she said, “and it’s violence that cannot be replaced, restored or rebuilt.”
In meetings with several groups of local clergy last week, McBride told them they have to be clear about their reasons for being on the street.
“How can we move beyond our differences to a unified front? What is the higher moral message that we can stand on?” she said.
For Blackmon and others in Ferguson, the mission was to be truth-tellers and peace-makers: “We were there to hold a moral line and a moral standing. ... I am not in there to be anti-police. I don’t hate police. I love police enough to challenge this system.”
Lessons from other cities
McBride, who says he has been to five cities where riots or protests erupted over police shootings, said he was pleased to see clergy and younger activists, who dubbed themselves Charlotte Uprising, coming together at Missiongathering, a “neighborhood progressive church” on 15th Street. Hearing the voices of the young and angry is essential to real progress, he said.
He was dismayed but not surprised, he said, to see police in riot gear and National Guardsmen patrolling the streets. That seems to happen whether a city is led by Democrats (as Charlotte is) or Republicans, McBride said: “It seems like there is bipartisan support for militarizing police departments when it comes to the African-American community.”
In Ferguson, where street protests went on for a year, clergy adopted a uniform of orange vests and caps to distinguish themselves as nonviolent protectors. “We looked like Elmer Fudd, but it worked,” Blackmon said. The governor of Missouri eventually formed a Ferguson Commission to report on racial equity.
In Charlotte, Blackmon found ministers improvising with clerical collars and stoles supplemented by yellow armbands. The Coalition for Justice had already begun planning an independent Commission on Reconciliation and Equity, which they hope to put into motion this fall.
McBride said he plans to return to Charlotte this weekend, while Blackmon has no immediate return trip planned. Both say the work ahead will be long and difficult, requiring Charlotte’s leaders to listen to a lot of pain and anger.
“I think we have to continue to name the evil that is among us,” McBride said, “and that evil is violence in all of its forms.”