Bodies on the Streets

In North Carolina, whose body demands a “state of emergency”?
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Police officers face off with protesters in the early hours of September 21, 2016, in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Police officers face off with protesters in the early hours of September 21, 2016, in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

A body in the street can provoke a state of emergency, but not always. In Charlotte, it took hundreds. “Their goal is destruction and anarchy. And that is something our nation cannot accept,” North Carolina Governor (and former Charlotte mayor) Pat McCrory announced in their wake, after an official declaration of emergency, deploying the national guard.

“My heart bleeds for what our great city is going through,” he said last Wednesday. But “peace and prosperity” were coming soon, he promised.

As McCrory told his constituents and anyone else who was tuned in, the cause for emergency — what made his heart bleed — was nights of protest in Charlotte. These were called by Charlotte residents, over the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott. Images from the streets, coming in over social media and cable news, evoked Ferguson and Baltimore and countless other American uprisings in the last two years.

But for McCrory, the emergency was not the killing itself. Scott’s body and the circumstances of his death did not merit direct mention, much less an alarm.

For McCrory, the emergency was not the killing itself. Scott’s body and the circumstances of his death did not merit direct mention, much less an alarm.

Confrontation — from protesters, from journalists — is what creates a crisis for McCrory. Just days before the protests in Charlotte put him back in the national spotlight, McCrory was fielding questions from a Charlotte Observer reporter, inquiring about his likely doomed legislation, HB2. The governor refused to answer, saying he already had three questions on deck from the same paper. But no questions had been asked by anyone from the Observer, other than the one the governor had refused. The “questions” had been planted by the governor’s own staff.

Days after, a poll by Elon University showed that, of likely North Carolina voters in the upcoming election, in which McCrory could lose his office to a challenger, nearly half oppose HB2. That breaks down to 54 percent of women voters, and 45 percent of men; 61 percent of black voters, and 48 percent of whites. Close to 60 percent say HB2 has damaged the state’s reputation. Since the state of North Carolina passed HB2, according to an accounting estimate by Wired, it has also cost the state nearly $400 million in legal fees and lost tourism. And this is to say nothing of how HB2 has damaged the ability of anyone in North Carolina to bring anti-discrimination suits in the state courts, or for transgender people in the state to access bathrooms and other public accommodations.

Confrontation, violence, damage — what’s come to the surface in Charlotte, for McCrory and others in his position, yes, it might feel like destruction. And there is something being unsettled, even unseated, in protest after protest: who gets to define what’s “destroying” whose bodies.

Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom recalled during the first days of the Charlotte protests what it was like to be raised there, and in a relative boom time marked by good schools and solid jobs. “How does the new south city that was too busy to hate and too polite to brag about it (unlike Atlanta) turn into what we’ve seen the last two nights?” she asked. Look to the resegregation of schools, to the mortgage meltdown, to the loss of those stable jobs, she replied. Whatever is being destroyed in Charlotte, it did not erupt overnight. “In twenty years,” Cottom wrote, “the fragile economic conditions that had allowed us the hubris to rewrite our history as a racial accommodation fairytale went up in smoke.”

There is a legal dimension to this destruction, defining the ground where protesters march. As Fusion’s Katie McDonough suggested, there are two key elements in the backdrop. On October 1st, a new state law (which McCrory lauds) comes into effect, permitting police to withhold police camera footage until compelled to release it by a judge. Then, less than a month ago, a federal appeals panel struck down a law targeting black voters, dubbing it “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.”

For all the appeals to “peace” and against “destruction” during the past week, to those in Charlotte, to those watching around the country, these pleas seem quite hollow after the state’s attacks on its own citizens’ peace, on their rights. These bodies — at the voting booth, in the classroom, in their cars in their own neighborhoods — are all connected. These are the bodies in the streets.

“When Charlotte’s poor black neighborhoods were afflicted with disproportionate law enforcement during the war on drugs, condemning a whole generation to bad credit and a lack of job opportunities,” William Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, wrote, “our elected representatives didn’t call it violence.”

For all the appeals to “peace” and against “destruction” during the past week, to those in Charlotte, to those watching around the country, these pleas seem quite hollow after the state’s attacks on its own citizens’ peace.

The violence is common. Samantha Daley, a contributor to Echoing Ida, writes: “as I’ve seen Black mothers like mine lose their children to violence, it has become more apparent to me that my children will be criminalized just for their skin color — judged before they are known, and criticized for doing things like laughing, wearing hoodies, loving, and living. The thought of one day having to bury my child is ever-present in my reality.”

Protection, for black children and for black women, and especially when it’s from the police, is still regarded as a radical demand.

“The governor has called in the National Guard to protect the windows at Bank of America,” Charlotte-based organizer Bree Newsome asked this week, “but we ask who is being called in to protect the people of Charlotte and North Carolina?”

For McCrory, “protection” is a deflection tactic when faced with public pressure. With HB2, he claimed the discriminatory law was meant for the protection of “women and girls.” Now, to deflect attention from police violence, he speaks of police protecting the public from protest, of the protest itself as a “state of emergency.” But what McCrory seeks to protect now is the appearance of order and the power of the police.

At a press conference on Friday, hours after Rakeyia Scott made public a video she recorded of her husband’s death at the hands of police, McCrory began with an extended series of thanks to the Charlotte police and the National Guard, “our men and women in black and gray.”

“I hope you don’t take this in the wrong vein,” McCrory replied when he was directly asked about the Charlotte Police Department’s own video of the same moment, “but I watched a football game last week on TV, and watched four different replays and each showed something different.” He did not say Keith Lamont Scott’s name. He did not say that police had shot him and caused his body to fall to the street.

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