CHARLOTTE — Twice in the past week, this city has been shaken by what many consider the inexplicable deaths of two black men — the first at the hands of a public servant sworn to protect, the second a seemingly random victim shot in the head mid-protest, on a night that saw Uptown’s boulevards convulsed with rage.
Keith Lamont Scott died to the sound of his wife’s desperate cries that his life be spared as she taped his encounter with police. Justin Carr died during a protest over that death, amid a booming chorus that for two years has echoed through the streets of dozens of American cities:
“Release the tapes!” “Hands up, don’t shoot!” “Black lives matter!
The skepticism and unrest over the official accounts of both men’s deaths is a stark example of how trust, never deep between police and African Americans, has badly eroded over the past few years.
Scott’s killer, Brentley Vinson, a two-year veteran of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police force, is free and on adminstrative leave; the police chief says he believes Vinson’s actions were justified. An analysis by The Washington Post found that, over the past decade, police officers have been charged in fewer than 2 percent of fatal shootings.
Rayquan Borum, the 21-year-old felon charged swiftly in Carr’s death in front of a luxury hotel, is in jail, facing first-degree murder charges and and a life sentence.
During his first court appearance Monday, a prosecutor said Borum had admitted the shooting. Hours later, in a contentious city council meeting Monday night, several speakers continued to insist that police shot Carr — and that they had no reason to shoot Scott.
Two men who never knew each other are now in death forever linked.
Each afternoon, Scott could be found sitting in his truck reading the Koran and awaiting the yellow school bus that drops his son off at the entrance to their townhouse communityabout 15 minutes north of the heart of the city.
Scott, 43, was a father of seven and uncle of many more, and had worked for about a year as a security guard at a local mall.
“He was a gentle giant; the kids loved him because he would give them dollars and crack jokes with them,” said Fostoria Pierson, who has lived in the area for about eight years and has been one of several women caring for the memorial of candles and flowers that has sprouted at the spot where Scott was killed. “He just appeared to be a really peaceful guy who would ride through the neighborhood with his wife.”
It was one of the responsibilities he could still manage, his family has said, after a serious motorcyle accident last November that left him with a traumatic brain injury, which caused him to slur words and forget details, and walk with the aid of a cane.
“He’s got a special spot (where) he sits in the truck and reads his book,” Scott’s mother, Vernita Scott Walker, told a South Carolina television station.
He was there last Tuesday afternoon when, according to police, officers who were in the neighborhood to serve a warrant saw Scott rolling a marijuana blunt and handling a firearm as he sat in the driver’s seat. According to the police account — the plausibility of which has been questioned by local activists and attorneys for Scott’s family — officers decided to confront Scott and opened fire when he got out of the car and allegedly pointed a gun at them.
Video of the encounter released Saturday shows Scott exiting the vehicle with his hands at his sides and walking slowly backward away from officers as he is struck with the bullets from one officer’s gun. Police also released a photo of the gun they said they recovered at the scene.
Scott’s wife, Rakeyia, recorded on her cellphone the final, chaotic minutes of the life of the man who she married 20 years ago at the age of 18.
“Did you shoot him?! He’d better not be f-----g dead!” she cried after Scott’s body hit the ground. “He’d better be alive!”
Court records show that it was far from Scott’s first police encounter.
He had a few nonviolent convictions in South Carolina in the 1990s and a violent conviction in Texas in 2005, after he shot a man in San Antonio, for which he spent six years in prison. A year ago, Rakeyia Scott sought a restraining order against him, saying he had threatened she and a son with a gun, according to court documents obtained by the Associated Press. A week later, she filed a motion to dismiss the order.
Family members, and others close to them, have said they have been angered by the police department’s refusal to release more information about the shooting and by the media’s portrayal of Scott.
“I want everybody to know that, no, we’re not perfect,” Walker said. “My son is not perfect. But . . . I don’t appreciate that they malign him.”
What do convictions a decade in the past, one family member asked a Post reporter, have to do with whether Scott should have been killed last week?
“Many of you, the media, of which I’m a part, have requested information about Mr. Scott, what kind of person he is, was he a good father, husband, those issues surrounding his character,” said Ray Dotch, Scott’s brother-in-law, as he addressed reporters Saturday night. “Of course he is wonderful, and we loved him dearly.”
But Dotch critiqued such questions, posed to family after family of black men and women killed by police in cases that gain national prominence. Why should the Scott family, asked Dotch, a television producer who lives in Los Angeles, have to legitimize the slain man’s humanity by sharing warm anecdotes and details with the media?
“That should not be the issue. We should not have to humanize him for him to be treated fairly,” Dotch said. “He was an American citizen who deserved better. That is our position. And it should be yours.”
Justin Carr’s mother pleaded with him. The images on the television seemed too violent. The situation looked too tense. Please, she asked, don’t go out to the protest.
But justice was too important, Carr, who was 26, reasoned. He was close to his grandmother, who had marched for civil rights with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Now, Carr told his mother, it was his time.
“He just wanted to do a little something,” said Kenneth Johnston, 30, Carr’s older brother. “It was just in his heart.”
He knew he couldn’t stay all night; he had to be at work that evening. He told relatives thathe wanted to drop by the protes surging through Charlotte’s Uptown district. Maybe he’d make a sign, or lead a chant.
“My mom, she really didn’t want him to go, but she ultimately accepted the fact that he had interest in being present. So he went,” Johnston said. “She told him just to be safe and to make sure that he guarded himself. Those types of situations can turn out, unfortunately, the way that they in fact did.”
Carr, 26, who had grown up with two brothers and had half-siblings on his father’s side, loved sports, specifically the Carolina Panthers. He was excited about the arrival of his first-born son.
His brother remembers his charismatic laugh and his strong, well-articulated opinions.
“He was a realist,” Johnston said. “He never sugarcoated anything. And he was one of those types of people that if he had an opinion, he would express it. A lot of people are very opinionated, but for him, it was more so factual thoughts, and he never really said anything just to be heard.”
Wednesday night abou 8:30, as the crowds stormed toward the front entrance of the Omni Hotel, a gunshot rang out. Carr had been struck in the head, his blood pooling on the sidewalk as protesters screamed.
For hours, Carr’s family crowded around him as he fought for life.
“Don’t know how to feel! Just feeling numb!” his mother, Vivian “Ann” Carr, pleaded in a Facebook post Thursday morning. “My baby was shot in the head for no apparent reason! I don’t know who did this but Lord please bring my baby through this & give me strength.”
The next day, he was dead.
In the days since his shooting, Carr’s name has been added to the protest chants he had been shouting moments before he was killed. On Thursday night, hundreds of demonstrators paused in front of the Omni for a moment of silence, and started yet another memorial on another strip of asphalt.
Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this report from Charlotte.