Charlotte friends Brandi Neloms and Enrica Ruggs weren’t together when news about the fatal police-involved shooting of Keith Lamont Scott broke, but came together the next evening to take part in protests in uptown.
The two met in 2015, both transplants from other parts of the country. They now call Charlotte home and actively invest their time and energy into building community connections. The Sept. 21 protests provided a time for both women to show their care and concern for the Queen City.
“For me it was a responsibility,” said Enrica. “There’s a high level of injustice and for it to touch so close to home, we had to let our voices be heard and to show families who are immediately affected by this that they are not alone.”
Brandi shared similar thoughts, calling the death of Keith Lamont Scott a loss for the entire Charlotte community.
“So often, we have a microscopic view,” said Brandi. “This was larger than Keith Lamont Scott; it was larger than his family. Having moved here from out of state, it was the first time I had an opportunity to connect with the locals. When you look at the neighborhood where it took place and the factors that led to why him? Why he was targeted? It felt like the appropriate time to connect to this place that we call home.”
Enrica’s reflection on what Scott may have experienced during his interaction with the police that day reminded her that anyone could find themselves in similar circumstances.
“If we look at those who have been highlighted nationally, in cases of police harassment and brutality, it includes athletes, professors–people from all walks of life. I see my loved ones through Keith Lamont Scott – how it could be my brother, my cousin – it could be me,” she said.
The protests provided Brandi a chance to talk with residents of the community about the divide in the city for families who experience generational poverty.
“Companies are offered tax incentives for bringing in talent and helping outsiders advance economically. Those who come here can be removed from the situation,” she said.
The protests helped Brandi fully immerse herself in a Charlotte community experience so that she “could be a catalyst for change.”
“That night I felt community – I felt inspiration, I felt the coming together of people for a positive reason. People were angry, hurt and sad. It was a unifying experience until it switched to being under attack. People were having deep conversations, of all races, ages and families, and the next thing we knew we were seeing officers dressed in riot gear, hitting batons against their hands,” Brandi said.
Both women felt the environment change. Protestors became tense. Conversations stopped. The dynamic shifted to adversarial.
“You could sense the pain as the tone shifted,” Enrica said. “You could see in people’s eyes and in the way they were walking, a level of exhaustion and frustration that runs deep. It’s hard to understand when you haven’t experienced it. I felt anger and it was good. It was a peaceful anger that’s needed.”
At that point, the conversations and dialogue that started the evening was juxtaposed with protestors and police officers clashing as officers sought to clear the area.
“Fear was on the side of the police,” Enrica said. “We were angry, but being angry didn’t make us violent. People were crying and experiencing grief. Then we were made to feel as though we couldn’t continue our conversations and share our anger with one another. “
In those tense moments, Brandi was unsure of what to do, or how to feel.
“Enrica and I looked at each other thinking ‘what do we do’? Should we run? We are in this.’ They asked people to move from the street to the sidewalk and everyone complied. Everyone listened, but we were still tear-gassed. We are successful women, not criminals, and yet we know what tear gas feels like.”
Both ladies agree that a year out from the protests, Charlotte is largely in the same place.
“We missed an opportunity to be true change agents and thought leaders in this arena. We haven’t held people to the fire. We have not made people accountable. Nothing has been actionable with regard to economic mobility — it’s a bunch of recommendations that don’t specifically assign the activity to anyone. We have to do something more than just talk about it,” said Brandi.
Brandi seeks to leverage her personal and professional connections and circles of influence to make an impact. Her company recently sponsored an event hosted by the National Society of Black Engineers, a new community outreach effort that may not have happened prior to her arrival.
Enrica says more must be done to address implicit bias and the discrimination that communities of color experience.
“Anyone who is not a person of color who has been systematically oppressed, who has experienced racism and injustice from a systematic standpoint will not understand. If you don’t consciously make an effort to experience it, there’s no empathy.”
Brandi and Enrica will continue to advocate against racism, its intersection with police-resident interactions and other social issues. The friends agree that Charlotte can take steps to fix systematic racism given resources, but the community must do a better job of taking action – of recognizing and owning up to the failures.
“This was bigger than Keith Lamont Scott. If he was Keith Smith – would this have even been a situation?” said Enrica. “Would the cops have been looking at his car? Those are the things we have to think about. Implicit bias is learned, developed, and most people don’t know they have it. There’s a lack of acknowledgement that it could have influenced what happened. Yes, people were upset about the outcome –but it was more about what led up to that point.”