After Jonathan Ferrell shooting, a plea for ‘the benefit of the doubt’ for young black men

September 17, 2013

CHARLOTTE – Sadness in the faces of the crowd of about 50 gathered Monday at the government center here did not mask the frustration and anger.  “No justice, no peace” — the chant was familiar — as speaker after speaker at a news conference asked for answers and demanded change.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are piecing together what happened last Saturday. Around 2 a.m., a 24-year-old man was apparently looking for help after a car crash, a woman called police when she didn’t recognize the man knocking on her door, and one of three responding officers hit the man with 10 shots (of 12 fired) after a Taser either didn’t work or didn’t stop the man fitting the description of the caller. Was the man running? Did the officers identify themselves? Why did only one officer fire? The details are still being investigated.

Jonathan Ferrell, in an undated photo provided by Florida A&M University. Ferrell was shot and killed by a Charlotte police officer on Sept. 14, 2013. The officer has been charged with manslaughter. (Florida A&M University/Associated Press)
Jonathan Ferrell, in an undated photo provided by Florida A&M University. Ferrell was shot and killed by a Charlotte police officer on Sept. 14, 2013. The officer has been charged with manslaughter. (Florida A&M University/Associated Press)

What is known is this. Jonathan Ferrell, a former Florida A&M football player who had moved to Charlotte, worked two jobs and looked forward to marrying his fiancée and returning to school, is dead. Officer Randall Kerrick, 27, has been charged with voluntary manslaughter. Georgia Ferrell has become a grieving mother holding her son’s childhood Winnie the Pooh doll. She said she forgives the man who shot her son, but cannot understand how and why it happened.

Representatives of the NAACP, the ACLU and other civil rights groups are asking the same questions. They praised Charlotte Police Chief Rodney Monroe’s swift investigation and the fact that an officer was charged, but wearily observed a pattern. The officer is white. Ferrell was black.

John Barnett of True Healing Under God blamed media depictions of everyone who walks around with black skin as “a threat.” He evoked the message and memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who “initiated love.”

“Painful” and “tragic” were words Kojo Nantambu, president of the Charlotte NAACP, used as he tried to reconcile how “an African American can be killed by the people who are supposed to protect him.” It’s a tradition in this country, he said; they are “never given the benefit of the doubt.” As crime has gone down in the community, Nantambu said “excessive force by police” has gone up. “The poor, African Americans and minorities are being looked upon with less humanity and a degree of disdain.”

Nantambu called the roll of unarmed African American men killed by police officers across the country – Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell in New York, Oscar Grant in California – and members of the diverse crowd nodded.

Charlotte is a community that prides itself on getting along, a hallmark of its climb to a shiny New South example, from its airport to its skyline. It’s a city that was able to climb back from economic and banking challenges to host the Democratic National Convention last year. It’s a city that looks forward with optimism. And sure enough, the Rev. Dr. Dwayne Walker, pastor of Little Rock AME Zion Church, offered prayers Monday for families, “including the officer who shot the weapon,” and a wish to “move on for a better Charlotte.”

Yet with the hopes and prayers came a call for concrete changes, specifically added strength to a Citizens Review Board that has never ruled against police. Richard Lester, president of the Charlotte ACLU, also called for any available footage from cameras worn by some Charlotte police officers to be assembled and made public. Lawyer Matt Newton, whose group is advocating for more accountability, transparency and power for Charlotte’s review board, said the bond of trust between citizens and police “is broken.”

Kerrick, the accused officer, is scheduled for his first court appearance on Tuesday, and Charlotte, a mostly patient city, waits for a troubling case that has drawn national headlines to work its way through the court.

But a growing group — including Ferrell’s familyl — is asking questions and demanding change so that society and a mother holding a toy might view a 24-year-old black man through the same eyes.

Mary C. Curtis is a contributor to The Washington Post “She the People” blog and The Root/WCCB News Rising Charlotte/theGrio.com/NPR/Creative Loafing.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily.
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