Charlotte is the conversation we're getting about race in America, with rioting, death and looting, encouraged by the noise of the mob, the purple rhetoric of certain newspapers, bloody mayhem on the television screen, and encouragement, no doubt unintended, by the president of the United States. It's a carnival out there, but not much conversation.
The city buttoned down for a third night of violence Thursday, with National Guardsmen joining the thinning blue ranks to impose restraint if not order. The lot of a policeman, nor of anyone else in Charlotte, is not a happy one.
President Obama finally spoke up Thursday. Not the president himself, but his earnest spokesman, Josh Earnest. "The president hopes that the rights of peaceful protesters will be protected," he said, and added, as if afterthought: "But he also believes that it should be made clear that the protests must remain peaceful, and they should not be used as an excuse to engage in vandalism or violence."
The president who can't summon the courage to call radical Islamic terrorism by its right name, and retreats to limp euphemisms like "workplace violence," can't find the courage, or grit, to call "rioters" by their right name, either. The unblinking eye of the camera shows clearly that these are not "protests" in Charlotte, as if they were an orderly march on City Hall, or a stinging rebuke from the likes of Martin Luther King, but a continuing riot, with the attendant looting, shooting and smashing of windows that are the mark of protest out of control. There was an attempted lynching, this time of a white man. The mob eventually settled for beating him nearly to death.
But the president is not alone in his timidity in calling things what they are. Some of the reporters on the scene can't summon the courage to call evil by its right name, either, even though the mob threatened and roughed up one or two of the denizens of the press.
In the absence of editors to curb the enthusiasm of certain reporters, perhaps on their first riot, some of them are competing with each other to describe the scene in the darker and more florid shades of purple. Here's an account of the shooting of a man who was presumably just in the wrong place at the wrong time: "The gunshot victim lay motionless on the ground, his eyes open, as people surrounded him and blood pooled among their feet. He was taken into the nearby Omni Hotel ..."
But a story, even one written in purple ink, must have context, linking shootings in several states: "And then it was Charlotte, where [Keith] Scott, 43, black like the other two [in other states], was shot by a police officer in a parking space marked 'Visitor' outside an unremarkable apartment complex. On Wednesday that parking space was both a shooting site and a shrine, and Charlotte was a city on edge."
There was a tender portrait of a black man killed by a police officer who was also black, racial identifications being crucial in a conversation about race: "Keith Lamont Scott was well-known in the neighborhood, a fixture in the after-school hours, who sat in his truck passing time reading while waiting for his son off the bus ... "
Well, yes, he might have been reading a book, or it might have been magazine or even his Bible, but no reading material was found at the scene. What the cops did find was a gun, with which Keith Lamont Scott was said to have made the threat that led to his death. The video evidence, which the police showed to the man's family on Thursday, is not conclusive, but it shows no book.
When the treacle and sentiment are drained from the media accounts of what's happening in Charlotte, and cooler heads deal with "the issues that should be subject to careful public scrutiny," as President Obama himself says, maybe all the blame will be rightly assigned to the police and the city of Charlotte, just as many of the media accounts say it should be. But maybe not. The Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday demanded a nationwide investigation, presumably federal, into "police violence." That won't be a bad idea if it's an honest attempt to learn something useful. That's a big "if." If it's an attempt to whitewash either the cops or the rioters, such an investigation would only make things worse. That might be exactly what some of the troublemakers want.