As protests roiled Charlotte this summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, local officials trotted out a reliable trope to cast doubt on the authenticity of the demonstrations.
“There were outside agitators,” Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden said on June 1. “The agitators started throwing things, they started doing things, and guess what happened they left.”
Charlotte Councilman Malcolm Graham agreed.
“Many of the individuals are not from Charlotte. They’re from out of town. They’re agitating and instigating public violence,” he said.
One local reporter, WCNC’s Alex Shabad, fact-checked these claims and found that over three days, the share of arrested protesters in the Mecklenburg County jail with addresses from outside the Charlotte metropolitan region was 0% on May 29, 26% on May 30, and 5% on May 31.
The claim of outside agitation this summer was untrue — as it almost always is.
After Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department killed Keith Lamont Scott in 2016, CMPD Sergeant Todd Walther went on CNN and falsely claimed that 70% of those arrested during protests over Scott’s killing were from outside Charlotte. Walther was appearing as a spokesman for the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of the Police, an organization that represents and advocates for police officers.
Right-wing news outlets picked up the stat to further their narrative of paid, professional protesters barnstorming across America.
When the Charlotte Observer established that, in fact, almost all of those arrested were from Charlotte or the surrounding area, Walther replied, “I didn’t quote facts. It’s speculation. That’s all it was.”
The trope of the outside agitator has featured prominently in other efforts by the forces of reaction to deflect criticism and prevent progress, most prominently in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Sheriff Jim Clarke of Dallas County, Alabama, where marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday in 1965 as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, blamed the protests on outsiders.
A year earlier, Alabama Governor George Wallace wrote to a supporter that until outside agitators intervened, Black residents of the South were content with their lot.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s critics often attempted to paint him as an alien or foreign force, a communist prop stalking the land — the ultimate outsider.
More recently, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron relied on the division between insiders and outsiders when attempting to preempt criticism of his decision to guide a state grand jury away from indicting the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.
“Let’s not give in to their attempts to influence our thinking or capture our emotions. At the end of the day, it is up to us. We live here together. We work here and raise our families here together,” he said.
As Professor Penial Joseph of the University of Texas explained to National Public Radio earlier this year, the trope of the outside agitator has been one regularly used “to defend white supremacy.”
It turns out the trope is also one of projection — at least in Charlotte.
As of August 2020, only 30% of CMPD’s 1,766 officers and trainees lived inside the city limits, according to the department. A higher number, 42%, lived within Mecklenburg County, but outside the city.
Put differently, nearly three in four police officers patrolling the streets of Charlotte don’t live here. More than half don’t even live in the county.
There are outside agitators among us: They’re wearing badges and carrying guns.
CMPD policy allows officers to live as far as forty-five miles from the department’s uptown headquarters.
That means Charlotte’s cops can live not only in relatively nearby towns like Huntersville, Cornelius, and Davidson, but in Mooresville, Statesville, Concord, Salisbury, Monroe, Rock Hill, Gastonia, and Shelby.
The data produced by CMPD does not indicate the locales of the officers’ residences, only the total number that live inside and outside the city and county limits.
At the August 18, 2020, meeting of the city’s public safety committee, elected officials, top administrators, and community members briefly discussed the fact that most CMPD officers live elsewhere.
Tonya Jameson, chairwoman of the city’s Citizens Review Board, which hears certain complaints against CMPD officers and which acts as an advisory board to the department, explained that officers choose to live outside the city for a number of reasons.
Some do so because of relatively lower tax rates in surrounding communities, while other live elsewhere because they “don’t necessarily want to basically be on duty 24-7,” Jameson said. If they lived within CMPD’s jurisdiction, officers would always be in “officer mode,” she said.
The affordability argument seems, at best, weak.
According to recruitment materials on CMPD’s website, entry-level pay for officers is $45,081. That rises to $48,044 for officers with Associate’s degrees and $50,332.00 for officers with Bachelor’s degrees.
The recruitment materials further state that officers can earn up to $94,909 per year.
Salaries for higher-ranking officials within the department can far exceed this, according to city data.
Chief Johnny Jennings makes $220,000 a year and is the highest-paid member of the department. The second-highest salary goes to Sandra Diane Vastolo, who holds the position of administrative services manager. She earns an annual salary of $151,000. Deputy Chief Gerald Smith earns the third-highest salary, making $139,026 a year.
Seventy-seven employees, including captains, lieutenants, and area commanders, make more than $100,000 a year. In total, 800 CMPD employees make more than $75,000 a year.
The median household income for a family of four in Charlotte is $83,500 in 2020, according to the city.
The “24-7” argument also seems weak.
Surely officers’ neighbors in Statesville or Concord know they’re cops and, if circumstances called for it, the neighbors wouldn’t hesitate to reach out for help just because the CMPD officers aren’t in their jurisdiction.
Whatever motive individual officers might have for residing elsewhere, that so many choose to live outside the city is some evidence that policing isn’t really about public service, but social control.
After all, if law enforcement is about protecting and serving, why don’t the police live in the community they purport to serve? Why do they instead flee the city after clocking out?
For the same reason prison guards leave Central and Attica and Parchman when their shifts end.