Thursday, September 22, 2016

Charlotte like I'd never seen before

I grew up about 40 miles east of Charlotte, which was the "big city" we would go to for serious shopping at Sears & Roebuck, Belk's and Ivey's. I learned to drive in heavy traffic in that city, and I lived in Charlotte for two summers in my early 20s.

When I go to Charlotte now, where my daughter and a few other relatives live, I don't recognize much of anything. I can travel streets I knew 50 years ago, but they are no longer familiar. New construction has changed the streetscapes and the skyline, and the roads themselves have been transformed.

What I recognize least about Charlotte this week are the scenes of mass rioting (there is no kinder word for the chaos two nights this week). Charlotte was always a place our parents would warn us to be careful about; big cities were not like the friendly small towns we knew. But I never saw any crime or felt endangered in all the nights we drove or walked Charlotte streets.

Video and still photos of gangs blocking Interstate 85 and looting big trucks, then setting fire to their loot in the middle of an interstate highway appalled me. It's amazing that more people weren't injured, that many of the pedestrians running onto the interstate lanes weren't run down by speeding vehicles (I've driven I-85 enough to worry about being inside a car on that highway), that so many people were focused on destruction, not protest; that police were not rounding up suspects by the dozen and charging them with blocking traffic and destruction of property; that simple, civilized decency seemed to have been abandoned. 

I know this began as a protest over the police shooting of a black man. Police say he was armed and posed an imminent danger. Investigators have recovered a firearm. Others say he was unarmed and harmless.

Regardless of how this investigation and inevitable court cases are resolved, a fatal shooting does not justify looting, burning and blocking interstate highways. None of the people on the highway the night after the shooting had anything to do with what transpired Tuesday afternoon. The scenes of the riots were reminiscent of the violence in Baltimore when Freddie Gray died in police custody. Ultimately, prosecutors could not get a single conviction against any of the officers (both white and black) who had been charged in Gray's death. Property owners who had nothing to do with Gray's death or with police procedure sustained losses because they happened to be within reach of mobs intent on stealing and destroying.

What do the protests leading to riots accomplish? Even if someone is charged with first-degree murder, the verdict won't come in minutes after the shooting. Do the rioters expect to have the shooter handed over to the mob in a new twist on lynchings? Vigilante justice is never just. The United States has a court system that is the envy of the world, but it takes time to reach decisions.

We can recognize the need for better police training and for accountability when law enforcement officers shoot a suspect, but stopping traffic, looting a Walmart and rioting does not bring about accountability, only destruction.