CHARLOTTE (North Carolina), Sept 22 — Was the victim carrying a gun, or a book?
Was the officer who opened fire black or white?
In the North Carolina city of Charlotte, two conflicting accounts of the police shooting of an African-American man took hold yesterday.
City officials appealed for calm after a night of violence triggered by the shooting, with Charlotte’s police chief saying that Keith Lamont Scott, 43, was shot after officers saw him with a gun and posing a threat to their safety.
Police chief Kerr Putney — who is black — identified the officer who fired the shots as Brentley Vinson, also African-American.
But neighbours and people claiming to have witnessed the incident disputed the official account, convinced the shooting is just the latest example of police brutality that has disproportionately impacted black communities.
A climate of distrust has descended on the largely black neighbourhood where Scott died, in the wake of several incidents in recent years of African-American men killed at the hands of white police officers.
Community members said Scott was doing what he regularly did on a school-day afternoon: reading a book as he waited for his young son to step off the school bus at the Village at College Downs housing complex.
Two women who claim to have seen the shooting said police leadership lied about the circumstances of the deadly encounter, which along with the recent killing of a black man in Tulsa, Oklahoma has fuelled a fresh burst of nationwide anger about police violence.
Others who gathered at the site of the shooting also were quick to insist that Scott was holding a book, not a firearm, and that the officer who opened fire was white, not black.
Police stated that no book was found at the scene.
But it was a narrative that began taking hold among members of the black community.
“A white officer with a bald head shot that man,” insisted Taheshia Williams, whose daughter goes to school with Scott’s son.
As for Scott holding a gun in the encounter, “It’s a lie,” she told reporters.
“They took the book and replaced it with a gun so they can look like that man did something that he didn’t do.”
Complying will ‘get you murdered’
Williams noted that she believed Scott had complied “exactly” with specific police orders to exit the car and walk to the back of the vehicle.
“Obviously, complying is going to get you murdered. Because that is what happened.”
Another black woman, who asked not to be named, also insisted that it was a white officer who opened fire, and that Scott had no weapon.
“I saw it from my balcony,” she told AFP, pointing to a third-floor apartment within view of the spot where Scott was shot.
“The chief is lying’ by saying that officer Brentley Vinson fired the shots, she said.
The contradictions between the police accounts and those of Scott’s Charlotte neighbours highlight the tensions that often exist between heavily armed US security forces and African-American communities, whose members complain of unfair racial profiling and decades of police brutality.
“Innocent blood cries from the grave!” declared civil rights activist John Barnett, with a minister and some Scott friends and neighbours at his side, as he called for authorities to sweep the Charlotte police force of “dirty cops” in its ranks.
“We’ve got a virus, we gotta use some chemotherapy to get that virus or that cancer out,’ he said.
Barnett led a brief call-and-response of “Hands up, don’t shoot,” echoing one of the chants that rose up during last night’s protests that turned violent, leaving 16 police officers injured.
Some of those who gathered yesterday at the scene of the shooting appeared shell-shocked in the aftermath of Scott’s death.
“He was a sweetheart. I never had any ill feelings about him,” Sheila Daniel, 36, said of Scott, who was a regular customer at the shop where she works.
She said the police account was “completely different” from the one put forward by one of Scott’s daughters.
Police routinely entered the housing complex on Tuesdays and today on patrol and should have seen that “this is his normal routine”, she said of Scott, who regularly waited for his son at the bus stop.
Daniel, who has a 20-year-old son, said she feared he could fall victim to police discrimination.
“I have to worry about whether I’m going to get that phone call” from authorities about a dead son or daughter.
“If I get that phone call, hell is going to break loose.” — AFP