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Broken windows and broken hearts: The stickiness of the Charlotte riots

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It’s become apparent to me during the past week just how deeply I feel about Charlotte.

Watching my native city take center stage on the media with the violent protests that occurred after the police officer-involved shooting on Sept. 20 made it clear how much I take my city’s reputation incredibly personally, and how people’s perception of Charlotte affects my perception of myself.

I first learned about the growing violence when my Twitter feed started lighting up. A friend in Knoxville emailed asking if we were ok. One colleague called from Atlanta asking if his niece who lived in Uptown could stay with me. Another friend in St. Louis called to ask how it felt to be the Ferguson of the South.

As I watched those involved in the riots on television, I kept thinking these people must not be from Charlotte. Charlotte has always had the potential to be a racial powder keg but had so far avoided violent clashes like those we’ve seen recently in other cities.

I come from a very politically and civically involved family. My parents have been on the front lines of desegregation. My dad helped de-segregate the public schools when he served as a school board member, and my parents were one of the few in Eastover who put their children on buses to attend public schools in West Charlotte instead of enrolling them in private school. My mom has addressed race issues in the two books she has written about what it was like being a white girl in southern Alabama and unsung civil rights leaders, who happen to be women. This week she received a lifetime award from Dress for Success, which serves no- and low-income job-ready clients, many of whom are minorities.

I’ve also always had what I call the Charlotte Chamber booster gene, where I want to see the city grow and flourish. I felt, perhaps like you did, that the city suffered a one-two punch. First we had HB 2, which has proven to be a disaster for the entire state. Last week I was talking to an an hugely successful local developer, Arthur Samet. He said where his company was once chasing dozens of build-to-suits for industrial buildings, most of the projects has since gone away, with people either directly saying the project was not being taken to the board because of HB 2, or people just politely stopped returning calls. I have heard the same story in different ways across all development product types time-and-time again.

Then seeing people destroy Charlotte’s buildings and its reputation that our leaders have worked so hard to build really broke my heart. I found myself angry at the vandals who perpetrated the violence and what felt like a vulturous media looking for a story.

Then I remembered a recent Harvard study that listed Charlotte as 50th out of 50 cities for economic mobility. Sitting in South Charlotte, tending to my family and trying to grow my business, I didn’t understand at the time how Charlotte would rank so low, and I questioned how it could possibly be accurate given the city’s prosperity.

The rioters put faces on these statistics. There are too many that have missed this economic boom. We have all read the predictions about the growing wealth-gap, and this is a result of those left behind who see the prosperity happening in places like Uptown, and are bumping along a ceiling of complexity their entire lives, and are clearly frustrated as hell.

The protesters’ anger is understandable. An uprising is predictable. Truthfully, if the roles were reversed, I would have been in the streets on Thursday night too.

The modality of living in South Charlotte, working hard to raise a family and run a business results in a good life; but it comes at a price. The trouble is, is that this existence will likely remove you from the rest of Charlotte. An isolated existence can cause a loss of empathy for others.

I’m going to accept Reverend Chip Edens’ challenge to have coffee with someone from a very different background this week, and I want to challenge you to do the same. Martin Luther King was right: “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

This week I received an email from the director of a non-profit housing board I serve on. It turns out that the girlfriend of Justin Carr, the protester who was shot and killed by another civilian, lives in the lower-income community I’ve long supported. The director was letting me know that people were banding together informally to support the girlfriend, who is pregnant, by contributing to her baby shower. It helped for me to put a face on the protesters and remind me that there was only one degree of separation between us.

The states of emergency have been lifted, and the protests that continue have returned to being nonviolent. I feel bruised, but I have begun feeling hopeful that bridges can be rebuilt to help increase understanding among all of us. And next week I will be delivering a stroller to a baby shower, an offering, albeit a small one, that I hope contributes to the city’s healing.

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