A man was shot and killed during a second violent night of protests here, after two sharply divergent accounts emerged of the death of a black man at the hands of police.
A march of a few hundred people turned chaotic after protestors attempted to follow police in riot gear into the lobby of an uptown hotel. Officers used tear gas, and then a reporter heard one shot and saw a man lying in the street near the hotel entrance.
Medics said he was taken to a local hospital with injuries they said were “life-threatening.” He later died.
Marchers also used outdoor seating to break the windows of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which then barricaded its doors.
In the aftermath of the afternoon death of Keith Lamont Scott on Tuesday, anger in the streets turned to looting and arson, and North Carolina’s largest city joined the list of communities across the country that have erupted amid a growing debate on racial bias in policing.
In Tulsa, meanwhile, protesters called for the arrest of the officer involved in a fatal shooting of a black man there on Monday. President Barack Obama called the mayors of both cities to offer his condolences and pledge help, the White House announced.
To date, law enforcement officials have fatally shot 702 people this year, 163 of them black men, according to a Washington Post database tracking fatal police shootings. A growing divide in public rhetoric over that toll has been stoked by a summer of high-profile deaths captured on social media and the deadly assaults on police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. The latest encounters come as the presidential race has tightened, and both candidates have offered different positions and solutions.
At a news conference Wednesday, Charlotte police insisted that Scott had a gun and was posing an “imminent deadly threat” when officers shot him outside an apartment complex near the campus of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Scott’s family, however, said he was unarmed when he was killed and was instead reading a book in his car while waiting to pick up his child from school – a detail that quickly went viral on social media and was seized upon by protesters here.
Officers were searching for another man, a suspect with outstanding warrants, when they spotted Scott emerging from a vehicle and armed with a handgun, police said.
“The officers gave loud, clear verbal commands” telling Scott to drop the weapon, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said. “Mr. Scott exited his vehicle armed with a handgun as the officers continued to yell at him to drop it. He stepped out, posing a threat to the officers.”
Putney said police recovered a gun and found no book at the scene.
“It’s time to change the narrative, because I can tell you from the facts that the story is a little bit different as to how it’s been portrayed so far, especially through social media,” the chief said.
The police chief also said the officer who shot Scott was in plainclothes, wearing a vest with a police logo, and was accompanied by other officers in full uniform. The plainclothes officer wasn’t wearing a body camera, but the other officers were.
Whether authorities can defuse the current anger on the streets could hinge on that body-cam footage. The shooting has thrust Charlotte to the fore of a national debate about access to police body cams.
Putney said Wednesday that the department won’t release any footage until a police investigation is complete. By that time, its release may no longer be legal. A new state law effective Oct. 1 forbids police agencies from making body-camera footage public without a court order.
“At a time when you’re seeing other states becoming more transparent, North Carolina is taking this tremendous step backward,” said Mike Meno, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. The violent protests and conflicting accounts in Charlotte proves “just how misguided this new law is,” Meno said, and shows exactly why public access to such footage is crucial.
Charlotte’s mayor, however, said she does not believe the new law will apply to the footage and said she’s asked the chief to show it to her and a small group of community leaders such as the NAACP chair.
The new legislation is just the latest national controversy over equity and civil rights to develop out of North Carolina. In recent months, progressive forces have clashed with conservative ones over black voting rights, bathroom use for transgender people, and now police shootings and body-camera access – and in response have carried out boycotts and protests.
Those have been peaceful, as were Tuesday’s demonstrations, initially.
In the first hours after the shooting, a large crowd gathered near the university, some chanting “black lives matter” and “hands up, don’t shoot.” As the protest grew in size and anger, police appeared in riot gear and fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Some protesters began smashing the windows of police cars.
By early Wednesday, demonstrators had shut down traffic on Interstate 85. Some opened the backs of tractor-trailers, took out boxes and set them on fire in the middle of the highway, according to local news reports. A truck driver told news station WSOC that people stole cargo from her trailer.
A few dozen appeared to have broken into a nearby Walmart, then dispersed when authorities arrived.
Among the 16 officers hurt in the violence, one was hit in the face with a rock, authorities said. At least 11 people were taken from the demonstrations and treated for life-threatening injuries, hospital officials said. Police reportedly used flash grenades to break up the crowd, clearing the highway by early morning.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch pleaded Wednesday for protesters to remain peaceful, criticizing the violence that injured police and demonstrators alike.
“Protest is protected by our Constitution and is a vital instrument for raising issues and creating change,” she said at a Washington conference. “But when it turns violent, it undermines the very justice that it seeks to achieve.”
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) said Wednesday in a statement that his office “will do everything we can to support the mayor and the police chief in their efforts to keep the community calm and to get this situation resolved. It’s very important that we all work together as a team to solve a very difficult issue and to bring peace and resolution.”
In a Facebook Live video widely circulated leading up to the protest, a woman who identified herself as Scott’s daughter said officers used a stun gun on him, then shot him four times with their service weapons. She added that Scott was disabled.
“My daddy didn’t do nothing; they just pulled up undercover,” she said in the video.
It was unclear whether she was present and witnessed the event. By Wednesday afternoon, the video had been taken down.
Authorities said the officer who shot Scott is black, and they identified him as Brentley Vinson, who has worked for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police force since July 2014. He was placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.
This city was the scene of another high-profile police shooting in September 2013, when Charlotte-Mecklenburg officers fatally shot Jonathan Ferrell, a 24-year-old black man who had crashed his car in a residential neighborhood several miles from the complex where Scott was killed.
Officer Randall Kerrick fired 12 rounds at Ferrell, who was unarmed, striking him 10 times. Police said Ferrell ignored officers’ instructions.
Last year, the jury deadlocked during Kerrick’s trial. While most jurors voted to acquit the officer, four voted to convict him. After a judge declared a mistrial, the state said it would not seek another trial. Ferrell’s family and the city of Charlotte settled a lawsuit stemming from the shooting for a reported $2.25 million.
But anger from the 2013 shooting never went away, lurking beneath the surface until Tuesday night, when it exploded again into the open.
Jibril Hough, a local activist who organized protests during Kerrick’s trial, said the current Charlotte demonstrations stem from lingering frustrations over Ferrell’s shooting death three years ago.
“I think what we went through with Kerrick here in Charlotte, even though it wasn’t as explosive, I think that weathered on us,” he said. “What happens is that 9 times out of 10, the cop will get off. He’ll get paid leave. He’ll get early retirement. He’ll basically get paid for the killing. Nothing is being done to really change anything.”
“What you’re seeing is people have been put in that situation for so long and they’re tired of talking,” he added. “They’re tired of talking and talking and candlelight vigils and dialogue and nothing getting done.”
Hough said he did not agree with the violent turn the protests took overnight. But, he said, there’s a “boiling point” – and some people in Charlotte have reached it.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Lindsey Bever, William Wan