The 2016 Charlotte Riots and the Killing of Keith Lamont Scott

Charlotte protesters following the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott.
Demonstrators protest in Charlotte, North Carolina, after the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott.

Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Deadly riots broke out in Charlotte, North Carolina, in September 2016. What had been peaceful protests over the police killing of an African American man named Keith Lamont Scott turned into a melee involving both demonstrators and the authorities. The spread of gunfire, vandalism, and smoke bombs during the riots led the North Carolina governor to declare a state of emergency. In the end, neither the city of Charlotte nor the people caught up in the protests were left unscathed.

The 2016 Charlotte Riots

  • The Charlotte riots took place in 2016 after a black man named Keith Lamont Scott was killed by police on Sept. 20. Officers said he had a gun, but Scott’s family denied he was armed and suggested he’d been framed.
  • The riots ended by the morning of Sept. 23, but they had resulted in property damage, injuries, and more than a few dozen arrests. Tragically, one man, Justin Carr, died during the violence that broke out in Charlotte after Scott’s killing.
  • The district attorney ultimately decided not to file charges against the officer who shot Scott because evidence suggested the slain man had been armed and did not follow commands.


The Killing of Keith Lamont Scott

The Charlotte riots took place just one day after a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer fatally shot married father of seven Keith Lamont Scott. The 43-year-old man had parked his car in the lot of the Village at College Downs apartment complex, where police had arrived to serve an arrest warrant to a different individual. The officers said they saw Scott with marijuana and that he’d gotten in and out of his car with a handgun. When they told him to drop his weapon, he ignored their commands, making him an “imminent threat,” according to the authorities.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Brentley Vinson, who is African American, fired his weapon, wounding Scott. First aid was performed, but Scott did not survive. His wife, Rakeyia Scott, had witnessed his killing and maintained that he was holding a book in his hand, not a gun. Given the history of police shooting unarmed black men, supporters of Scott believed his wife’s account. However, the authorities attempted to verify their version of what happened by stating that they had recovered Scott’s loaded gun from the scene and that he had been wearing an ankle holster. They also said that no book was ever found.

Protests Break Out in Charlotte After Police Shooting
Protestors march up Trade St. September 21, 2016 in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina.  Sean Rayford / Getty Images

The disparities between law enforcement’s account of events and Rakeyia Scott’s led protesters to take to the streets. The fact that his family suggested that the authorities had planted the gun at the scene only led to more skepticism about the officers involved in Scott's shooting. Several people were harmed during the demonstrations over his death.

Riots Break Out in Charlotte

Just hours after Scott’s killing, demonstrators poured into the streets. They held the trademark “Black Lives Matter” signs often spotted in the wake of deadly police shootings of African Americans. The grassroots Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement gained momentum after Mike Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. The movement raises awareness about the fact that African Americans are disproportionately killed by the police. Protesters affiliated with BLM and other groups chanted “no justice, no peace!” as they marched through downtown Charlotte.

Some members of the public reportedly began to pelt the police officers on the scene with water bottles and rocks. The officers responded by firing tear gas. During the unrest, police, news reporters, and civilians all sustained injuries. Arrests were made when some crowd members didn’t disperse, blocked the lanes of Interstate 85, vandalized vehicles and buildings, robbed an ATM and various shops, and set fires. A civilian named Justin Carr, 21, lost his life in the violence, and a fellow civilian, Rayquan Borum, was arrested for shooting him and sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2019. Altogether, 44 people were arrested for various crimes in the days following the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott.

Protests Break Out In Charlotte After Police Shooting
Police officers face off with protesters on the I-85 (Interstate 85) during protests in the early hours of September 21, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Sean Rayford / Getty Images

When North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency in Charlotte after the first night of violence, the North Carolina National Guard and the North Carolina State Highway Patrol arrived in the city to quash the rebellion. In addition, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts instituted a curfew preventing civilians from being on the streets between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. With extra law enforcement patrolling the streets and a curfew, the protests had calmed down considerably on the night of September 22. The mayor extended the curfew one more night, but by September 23, Charlotte businesses were already up and running again.

Reaction to the Violence

The riots made international headlines and everyone from then-presidential candidate Donald Trump to black activists commented on them. “Our country looks bad to the world, especially when we are supposed to the world’s leader,” Trump said. “How can we lead when we can’t even control our own cities? We honor and recognize the right of all Americans to peacefully assemble, protest, and demonstrate, but there is no right to engage in violent disruption or to threaten the public safety and peace.”

The North Carolina NAACP issued a similar message, decrying violence and calling on Scott supporters to use their "First Amendment rights to call for redress of wrongs,” the group said. “We understand efforts that undermine the legitimate calls for justice with unjust, random or purposeless acts of violence." 

Protests Break Out In Charlotte After Police Shooting
Police stand outside of a vandalized storefront September 21, 2016 in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina.  Sean Rayford / Getty Images

Nation of Islam leader B.J. Murphy had a different response to the riots. He called for an economic boycott of Charlotte, a city with a history of police shootings involving black men. In 2013, former college football player Jonathan Farrell, an African American, was fatally shot by Charlotte police after seeking help following a car crash. A jury deadlocked on whether to find the white policeman who killed Farrell guilty. Later, charges against the officer were dropped. In light of police violence against blacks, B.J. Murphy argued that black money shouldn’t matter in Charlotte if black lives don’t. 

Restoring the Public’s Trust

After the riots, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department attempted to rebuild the public’s trust in its officers. It produced DNA results tying Keith Lamont Scott’s prints to the gun at the scene and turned up evidence indicating that he’d purchased the weapon. The department did this, in part, to offset claims by Scott’s family that he’d been framed in death, but this evidence failed to put an end to the disputes between the family and the police department. Video of the encounter taken by police dashcams and Rakeyia Scott’s cell phone did not end the dispute either because it did not include the actual shooting. The footage also lacked a clear image of what Scott had in his hands when police fired their shots, so the debates about his conduct that fateful day continued. The authorities said he was a threat, while his widow said he walked toward police calmly with his hands at his sides.

Protests Break Out In Charlotte After Police Shooting
Residents gather for a vigil and march to protest the death of Keith Scott September 21, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Scott, who was black, was shot and killed at an apartment complex near UNC Charlotte by police officers, who say they warned Scott to drop a gun he was allegedly holding.  Brian Blanco / Getty Images

Two months after Scott’s killing, Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray said that no charges would be filed against Brentley Vinson, the officer who fired the fatal shot. Murray reasoned that the evidence indicated that Scott had been armed at the time of his killing. His .380 semiautomatic handgun, according to police, had fallen to the ground after he was shot. The district attorney concluded that Scott didn’t aim his weapon at officers, but he didn’t obey their orders to drop it either. Scott's family expressed disappointment in the district attorney’s findings but asked the public to keep the peace.

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