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From Ferguson to Charlotte, Why Police Protests Turn Into Riots

“Riots occur because these police killings just keep happening, no matter how many peaceful marches happen. It is, in every sense, maddening.”

Police hold their lines in uptown Charlotte during a protest of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. (Jason Miczek/Reuters)

On Wednesday night, riots again rocked Charlotte, North Carolina, in response to the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old African-American man. Hundreds marched through the city’s entertainment district, once again met by riot police deploying rubber bullets and tear gas. Some protesters threw bottles at police and damaged businesses late into the night, as National Guard and State Highway Patrol troopers began to pour into the city. During the protest, one civilian was shot and seriously injured. Police claim they were not involved in this shooting, which some protesters have disputed.

Some observers quickly denounced the riotous protests as senseless violence, criticizing the looting of a Walmart on Tuesday and a host of businesses in the downtown entertainment district on Wednesday. But it is worth noting that the riots in Charlotte are strikingly similar to those that took place in Baltimore in 2015, where the downtown entertainment district was also the site of clashes between protesters and patrons, and in Ferguson in 2014, where retail stores were a frequent target of riots.

Keith Lamont Scott was shot in a predominately African-American neighborhood in Northeast Charlotte. But the protests that followed his death moved from that community into a majority-white area, culminating in the blockading of Highway I-85 on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, nearly all of these sites of protests were in the downtown area’s upscale entertainment districts. (Scroll over the map below to see racial breakdowns by Census tract.)

Martin Luther King Jr. said that “riots do not develop out of thin air.” Keith Lamont Scott’s death caused grievances long-simmering under the surface of Charlotte to boil over.

Charlotte, despite its status as a financial powerhouse in North Carolina, is intensely segregated, demographically and economically. As shown in the map below, the city’s wealth is concentrated on the majority-white south side, and its poverty is disproportionately spread across the majority-black north and west sides. Scroll over the Census tracts to see the percentage of residents living below the poverty line per Census tract. (Note: some population points from the outer areas of the county were not available in the Census’ data sets.)

As of 2014, 70 of Charlotte’s 79 high-poverty tracts were majority non-white, according to Gene Nichol, a Professor of Law at UNC Chapel Hill. And while 70 percent of black households there earn less than $60,000 a year, nearly 60 percent of white households make more. The median income for white families is 86 percent higher than for black and Hispanic ones.

Louis Hyman, an associate professor of history at Cornell University, argues we cannot understand the protests and sporadic riots and looting that have occurred over the past two days without looking at the intense geographic and economic segregation in which they took place. From Ferguson to Baltimore to Charlotte, rioting, Hyman notes, often breaks out in poor, black neighborhoods—where people feel both oppressed by police and by the predatory lenders and overpriced stores in their communities. Hyman explored this idea in a conversation with CityLab:

Ferguson, Baltimore, and now Charlotte: We sometimes see that local protests in response to police killings morph into riots. Why do you think this is?

Riots, though they do occur, are relatively rare. More frequent are peaceful protests and community meetings, but these of course don’t get the same coverage. Riots occur because these police killings just keep happening, no matter how many peaceful marches happen. It is, in every sense, maddening.

Many have tried to discredit the riots by pointing to the occasional looting that has occurred, claiming such actions by protestors are destructive to "their own communities." In Ferguson, a QT gas station became an iconic site of destruction during the protests. In Baltimore, it was a CVS and the payday lender ACE Cash Express. In Charlotte on Tuesday, it was a Walmart. What drives the animus against these institutions, which often seem to be large corporate chains, and why are they the secondary targets of anti-police brutality protests?

For poor black people in cities, the surveillance that they experience at stores and on the streets are of a piece. When they walk in a store they are watched. When they leave the store, their receipts are questioned. They might be ripped off, or not, but they are made to feel less like sovereign customers and more like suspects. Unwarranted police stops feel similar. Those who are watched feel disrespected, and constantly reminded that they are not in charge. Riots provide that sense of control, but at a terrible cost.

Middle-class white people rarely have these experiences, so it is hard for them to understand what Walmart and police could have in common.

Clean-up efforts at a looted and burned CVS store in Baltimore, Maryland, after the death of Freddie Gray. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

You have written that "riots reflect fury not just at the police, but at the constraints of the ghetto’s retail economy, where the poor pay more." How do police uphold this “ghetto retail economy,” where the poor are deprived of the competitive market pricing present in better-off suburbs?

In places where there are few legitimate jobs, the underground economy makes up the difference. Payday lenders and pawn brokers are the tip of an illicit iceberg, of which the drug trade is a major part. Fighting this illegal economy has resulted in police becoming an occupying force. Policing an economy with a handgun, needless to say, is an impossible task.

Are there historical cases in which riots have been an effective tactic for police brutality reform?

Riots draw attention to these issues in a way that protests and op-eds do not.  It is hard to say that riots lead to reform, but without the riots, these kinds of activities would easily slip forgotten into the news cycle. In that sense, they are effective. But too much rioting, and the goodwill of Americans will ebb.

In the 1960s, mobile television cameras made police brutality real on the evening news, and gave the civil rights protesters legitimacy. But as the riots wore on through the ‘60s, that legitimacy turned into fear.

Smartphones and dash-cam documentation of police violence could have the same effect, but not if images of the riots drown them out. It is an unfortunate truth that some white Americans are more frightened by a store burning than a policeman killing.

Is there something about the economic environments of the poor segregated black sections of Baltimore, Ferguson, and now Charlotte that may have made riots in response to police killings there more likely in a way that larger cities have not, like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles?

Yes. Larger cities have faster-growing, more diversified economies. Poor people in second-tier cities—and rural people everywhere—are being left out of the digitally driven urban economy that is keeping our GDP numbers (and stock tickers) so positive. Like New York, Charlotte’s main industry is finance. But unlike New York, for those left out of finance, Charlotte can look like any other de-industrialized town. In New York (or Chicago or Los Angeles), there are other sectors in which to work. The best solution to these issues would be to provide job opportunities for the urban poor and to de-escalate the failed drug war. Until police can be police, and not occupiers, there will be no end to these tragedies.

Looking at what has happened in Baltimore since the riots over the police-involved death of Freddie Gray, what can the people of Charlotte expect in the coming months?

They can expect a justice system that will not find any one individual in a position of power responsible. No police officers were found guilty in Gray’s death, and on some level, that is true. It is not a failure of individuals but a failure of the system. I would urge Charlotteans not to put too much faith in holding someone accountable, but have a broader conversation about what can be done, systemically, to prevent this [police violence] from continuing to happen. As long as police experience themselves as a militarized, occupying force, these kinds of abuses will continue.

About the Author

  • George Joseph
    George Joseph is an editorial fellow at CityLab, originally from Denton, Texas. He covers schools, policing, and surveillance.