Politics & Policy

The Narrative versus the Facts in Charlotte

A protester confronts police (Reuters Photo: Shannon Stapleton
Jumping to conclusions with police shootings, denying terrorism with bombings.

In Charlotte, a black man is shot and killed by police (specifically, by a black officer, who works under a black chief of police, but don’t let that slow down your “systematic racism” roll). Soon the protests start. The politicians talk. The protests turn violent. The National Guard is called in. Before you can blink, Charlotte is added to the litany of cities cited by the Black Lives Matter movement as examples of “killing of unarmed black men.”

If you hear Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, and Cleveland read together, what pops to mind? That the police were cleared in each case? Probably not. Add Charlotte to the list, because the narrative matters more than the facts. It is apparently of little significance to anyone that Keith Lamont Scott’s death in Charlotte has not been investigated, or that, in the end, the officer’s use of deadly force might well have been justified (Scott was armed, according to some reports).

As I pointed out within a week of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, federal civil-rights prosecutions are exceedingly rare, and the greater risk is raising community expectations of a prosecution, rather than encouraging the patience to wait for the facts to come out. Unfortunately, when it comes to police-involved shootings, some view the narrative (that structural racism leads to scores of innocent black men being gunned down in the streets by police with impunity) as more important than waiting to see whether a given case actually fits into that narrative.

After Ferguson, U.S. attorney general Eric Holder traveled to Missouri to express his support for the narrative that policing is racially biased, while arguably staying neutral (other than dispatching a huge number of FBI agents to investigate) on the shooting itself. As I wrote after his trip, there may be some short-term political benefit to agreeing with the narrative, but in the long term, if the facts don’t justify a prosecution, the community will have a difficult time when no case is brought (I was unfortunately proven right).

It is easy to see the power of the narrative over the facts by looking at Ferguson. Notwithstanding that Eric Holder’s Justice Department cleared Officer Darren Wilson completely, that the DOJ report established that “hands up, don’t shoot” was a complete fabrication, and that Michael Brown had indeed attacked Officer Wilson after strong-arm robbing a convenience store, “Ferguson” is still cable-news shorthand for an innocent black man being unjustifiably gunned down in the street (“a Ferguson situation”). Charlotte, regardless of the outcome (I’ll go out on a limb and say there will be no prosecution of the officer), is now in the same company. And violent protests, vandalism, and general hooliganism are tacitly tolerated by the political Left because the “narrative” is, in their minds, valid, even if this shooting is eventually found to be justified.

In contrast to the Keith Lamont Scott shooting, compare the typical liberal reaction to the spate of terrorist attacks this past weekend. A man in a Minnesota mall, who according to eyewitnesses mentioned Allah and inquired whether his victims were Muslim before stabbing them, wounded ten people before being shot by an off-duty officer. In addition, two explosive devices were intentionally detonated near the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, injuring scores of people. Yet the many outlets and people who push the “racially biased policing” narrative without waiting for the facts to develop will rush to assure the public that these incidents are “not terrorism” until it is no longer deniable.

The many outlets and people who push the ‘racially biased policing’ narrative without waiting for the facts to develop will rush to assure the public that these incidents are ‘not terrorism’ until it is no longer deniable.

My personal favorite was New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who in the same press conference reported that the explosions in Chelsea had been set off “intentionally” and refused to label the act terrorism. I’m not sure what non-terrorist reason for intentionally exploding devices on the streets of Manhattan Mayor de Blasio wanted to leave open the possibility of, but regardless, the contrast with the police shootings is clear. For the Left, when it comes to terrorist acts, the narrative (we have terrorists in our country committed to killing us) is disputed even if the facts are clear (see, e.g., workplace violence at Fort Hood), while for police shootings the reverse is true: The narrative is endorsed (or at least “understood”) even when the facts don’t support it.

Here’s a crazy thought: What if, when the Scott shooting occurred in Charlotte, the media and the political Left had been as cautious about characterizing the incident as part of the “racially biased policing” narrative as they are about acknowledging that a given terrorist act might have something to do with terrorism? What if the mayor had said: “Why are you protesting? We don’t know anything yet!”? What if a respected community leader had said: “You know, you can’t unburn that black-owned small business if it turns out this officer was innocent, so let’s all calm down.” What if the media and political leaders were just as reluctant to suggest police misconduct prior to a full investigation as they are to suggest that terrorist acts have something to do with terrorism?

It would never happen, because it’s all about the narrative.

— Robert N. Driscoll is the managing partner of McGlinchey Stafford’s Washington, D.C., office and a former deputy assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. You can follow him on Twitter at @RNDriscoll.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its publication.

Robert N. Driscoll is the managing partner of McGlinchey Stafford’s Washington, D.C. office and the co-chair of its government-investigations practice. He previously served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

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