Friday, September 23, 2016

Rebellion Upends Charlotte’s Civic Identity
A beacon of the New South wrestles with tensions; ‘Charlotte way’ falls short

Wall Street Journal
Sept. 22, 2016 11:31 p.m. ET

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—This week’s riots literally smashed the facade of some of the city’s defining civic institutions, including the convention center that hosted the 2012 Democratic National Convention, the home arena of Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets basketball team and the Nascar Hall of Fame.

Charlotte until recently had boomed as a beacon of the New South, with a pragmatic approach to civic problems that said what was good for all was good for business. Locals credited the city’s businesslike approach with everything from luring professional sports to the city, to avoiding the type of violence that racked other cities during school desegregation.

But now the vaunted “Charlotte way” isn’t working.

Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co., the banks that built Charlotte into a global powerhouse, kept thousands of employees home from downtown offices Thursday.

“This is not who we are,” said civic activist Lisa Crawford, leader of Mothers of Murdered Offspring. “We are a family. Hugh McColl would’ve never told his people to stay home,” she said, of the former BofA chief executive who helped build modern Charlotte.

At a news conference Thursday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney answered questions about releasing video footage of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott to his family.
The banks said they were trying to protect employee safety.

It had already been a strange year here. Wells Fargo, the city’s biggest corporate employer, is under congressional scrutiny for bilking customers. The bank said it fired the employees who improperly opened unwanted customer accounts, and it has agreed to pay a $185 million federal fine.

The city has lost more than $100 million in business from the fallout of a controversial state bathroom law that started as a way to quash a Charlotte gay-rights ordinance. Last week, the Atlantic Coast Conference yanked its football championship from Charlotte because of the law, known as House Bill 2.

A monthslong behind-the-scenes effort to repeal HB2 collapsed last weekend.

Then came Tuesday’s fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer. Police say Mr. Scott, who was black, was holding a gun in a threatening manner; his family says he was holding a book while waiting to pick up a child from the bus stop.

On Tuesday night, rioters blocked Interstate 85 near Mr. Scott’s apartment complex in northern Charlotte. Fearing additional rioting downtown, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce advised hiring extra security on Wednesday and locking down outside furniture.

On Wednesday night, protesters threw water bottles and rocks at police in riot gear, who sought to clear the scene downtown with bean bags and tear gas. The mayor and police chief have said they miscalculated the risk and had too few officers on hand. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory dispatched National Guard troops to Charlotte on Thursday, after declaring a state of emergency at the city’s request the previous day.

By Thursday night, protests downtown appeared to be peaceful as of about 9:30 p.m., and a curfew was set for midnight. Some chanted, “Justice for Justin,” in reference to Justin Carr, the 26-year-old man shot during Wednesday night’s protests. Mr. Carr died Thursday. Police said his death was caused by another civilian.

Charlotte is in limbo, said Damian Johnson, co-owner of five city barber shops. It has grown beyond its identity as only a banking center, he said. “Charlotte is one of the great cities with no identity,” said Mr. Johnson, 43 years old. “My brother, Hugh McColl, was the guide of the city. We don’t have that now. Is that a good thing? Bad thing? I don’t know. It’s a new thing.”

Charlotte remains one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. It had a population of about 827,000 in 2015, up 12.4% from 2010, according to estimates by the Census Bureau. About half the population is white, and about 35% is African-American, according to the most recent census data.

The economy has rapidly diversified after the 2008 housing bust and financial crisis that contributed to the sale of hometown stalwart Wachovia Corp. to San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, and turmoil at Bank of America.

But the Charlotte area has a stubbornly high rate of poverty in certain neighborhoods, especially among African-Americans, according to a report released earlier this year by the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund, a research initiative based at the University of North Carolina School of Law.

Mr. Johnson said he hopes this week’s violence leads to a conversation about what comes next for the economy, and for poor black kids, some of whom he recognized while they rioted Wednesday in front of his No Grease flagship shop downtown.

“It’s not that I agree with their actions, but I understand them,” he said.

The city also has unhealed wounds from the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot in 2013 by a white police officer.

As for Mr. McColl, now 81 years old, he went to work downtown Thursday at his private-equity investment firm. He said he wanted to work on his speech for a Friday community meeting at the Blumenthal Performing Arts center, alongside pastors and other civic leaders which he said represents a mix of the old and new guard.

“I don’t think we’re on our heels,” Mr. McColl said. “To the contrary, maybe we’re getting up off our butts. We’re shocked, but maybe every now and then you need a shock.

“I think you can become complacent with your own image, and think you don’t have a problem, when in fact, you do.”

Write to Valerie Bauerlein at and Cameron McWhirter at

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