Can We Talk?

By Michael Graff


On the fifth day of the uprising, I saw a photographer friend gesturing toward a slow-moving elevator — hurry up! hurry up! — and when I laughed at him, the sound of a man’s voice blistered my ear, “Fuck you, motherfucker.”

It was a warm September Saturday, 2016, in the heart of Charlotte, North Carolina, the fastest-growing city in the Southeast, and we were steps from the NBA basketball arena where protesters laid waste to plate-glass windows earlier that week. The man had scruff on his face, a scowl, a camouflage jacket, a worn-out book bag over his shoulder, and he was black.

“You think this is funny?” he said.

I didn’t.

Behind me, thousands of protesters were marching up Trade Street, chanting, “All lives matter when black lives matter.” At the front of the blocks-long surge was U.S. Congresswoman Alma Adams in one of her 900 (actual number) hats, and behind her were signs that said everything from “To Resist Is Justified” to “Free Hugs Here.” My photographer friend Logan and I had been following the protests since Tuesday afternoon, when a Charlotte police officer shot and killed a black man, Keith Lamont Scott, in an apartment complex parking lot surrounded by Bradford pears and oaks.

Over the first four nights, tear gas canisters flew, highways went up in flames, and, in the worst moment, an innocent 26-year-old protester named Justin Carr was murdered by a random bullet, fired aimlessly into the crowd by another protester. I was 20 feet from Carr that night; security video shows the gunman running right past my left shoulder seconds after he pulled the trigger. Logan’s picture of the chaos was on the front page of The New York Times. He still doesn’t like to look at it.

But Saturday was peaceful and organized, a family event. We were almost at the spot where Carr died when Logan realized the march would soon pass under a bridge, and that if he hurried he could capture the size of the crowd in a single frame. His only way up was an elevator that didn’t understand his rush. The predicament amused me.

“I will whip your motherfuckin’ ass,” the man next to me said.

I immediately understood. Here he saw me for who I was and who I wasn’t at the same time: a white man cracking up against the backdrop of a solemn protest march for justice. I tried to explain, but the man turned his back and walked away from me, just another white guy who wasn’t hearing him.

* * *

That week in 2016 changed Charlotte in ways that still haven’t fully bloomed. Voters elected a new mayor and overhauled city council in the next year’s election; the year after that, voters approved a $50 million affordable housing bond.

Eighteen months from now, though, the Republican National Convention will take place in the same Charlotte streets. I have more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist in North Carolina. I’ve listened to the ocean whisper evil thoughts on the eve of a hurricane at the coast, and I’ve fallen asleep next to a creek along the Tennessee border. I’ve covered basketball games at the Dean Dome and Cameron Indoor. I’ve heard the Rev. William Barber preach and shadowed Richard Petty at a NASCAR race. With any of those opposites, I can find something to stuff in the middle of a Venn diagram. But a week covering the 2016 Keith Scott protests and a week covering the 2020 Donald Trump convention?

Seeking advice, I attended a two-day workshop and presentation last month titled “Can We Talk? It Is Possible to Disagree With Grace Again.” The program, put on by the North Carolina Humanities Council and the Solutions Journalism Network, brought together 100 or so journalists, politicians, civic leaders, concerned citizens, and students over two days at Queens University.

“The veneer of civilization is thin,” Amanda Ripley, author and The Atlantic writer, said in her keynote address. “The stakes could not be higher.”

I sat a little straighter in the pew when she said that. Ripley’s most recent story involved a county-by-county analysis of political prejudice and tolerance. In it she writes that 45 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Republicans say they’d be unhappy if their child married someone from the other party. In 1960, that number was 5 percent.

“Who benefits from high conflict?” she said at Queens. “There are national politicians who benefit. There are media personalities and outlets that benefit. Right? And there are platforms that profit. We are getting played. We are getting manipulated.”

In her work and in her home, Ripley uses a process called “looping,” in which she, a listener, takes careful steps to ensure her conversation partner feels heard. In looping, the listener restates what the talker says in a way that shows understanding. If talker replies, “Exactly!” she’s been heard.

The next day, we split up into groups and practiced looping. I went with the journalists. We agreed that what happened in the room was off the record, but I’m not breaking any embargo in reporting that looping didn’t come naturally, and we all need practice.

In the weeks since, I’ve kept a piece of paper with the looping steps on my desk. I’ve tried to use them in work phone calls and other conversations. I think I’m making progress, but I also think I’ll keep some of my other defusing tools: The other day my wife, Laura, was frustrated with me, so I sent her an Ed Sheeran love song, just to remind her that, if nothing else, we can agree that we hate Ed Sheeran love songs.

* * *

During a question-and-answer session with Ripley, a woman stood and outlined a predicament that struck at the core of why we were all here: She’s having an ongoing disagreement with a family member, a fierce and unforgiving family member, over politics, and she’s afraid they’re going to die mad at each other.

That’s a hard realization, but in some cases it might be true: The desire to get to know each other is just a waste of time.

Also difficult is realizing that the very people who want to fix a problem might be the ones prolonging it.

At the “Can We Talk?” event, “we” were a limited representation of the city. Admission was free, but still, a 7 p.m. event on campus in Charlotte’s wealthiest neighborhood isn’t going to attract many single mothers taking two buses to work on the west side.

As the former editor of Charlotte magazine, I’ve taken part in dozens of similar “let’s talk” events in the past six years. Hell, I helped organize a few. I love Charlotte. Laura grew up here. It’s home. But Charlotte’s the talkin’-est damn city in the state. I lived in Greensboro for two years and never heard people argue about Greensboro’s identity. Winston-Salem has a little edge, and that’s cool, but Winston-Salem doesn’t constantly ask people if it’s cool. Fayetteville wants to tell you what it isn’t, a noble and fruitless pursuit for the military town. Raleigh’s consistent troll is that it isn’t Charlotte. Which brings us back to Charlotte, which maybe used to talk about Atlanta, but now really just talks about Charlotte.

The “let’s talk” crowds are usually full of well-meaning people who say they’ve come to be challenged, but more than that, I think, they’ve come to feel comforted that they’re doing something. And hey, there’s a place for that, at a time when it’s easy to feel useless against larger forces. But at conversations about Charlotte, a city of a million residents, I often see many of the same faces in the crowd and on the panel discussions.

“I want to indict us in this room,” Toussaint Romain said during a panel discussion at the “Can We Talk?” event. Toussaint’s a friend and former public defender who stood between protesters and police officers during the Scott uprising. He’s been on tons of panels since then but now declines most invites, for the simple reason that in a city that’s 35 percent black, being the only black panelist in front of a mostly white audience gets old. “Are we even involved in the first place? Are we passive watchers for everything that’s happening. That’s why conflict perpetuates itself so much, because the good people in this room may not be stepping up to say anything about it.”

* * *

After “Can We Talk?” ended that Friday evening, I went uptown to walk around before the ACC semifinal game between Duke and UNC tipped off at the Spectrum Center. Basketball rivalries used to fire me up, but they seem quaint now. People wearing one shade of blue high-fived in the same security line as people wearing another shade of blue. That must’ve been difficult for them.

My brother and I slipped into McGlohon Theater for a concert. McGlohon is an old church-turned-music-hall that’s the best-sounding room in Charlotte. It’s our city’s mini-Ryman, if you will. That night, a band called Chatham County Line performed. They’re four guys and string instruments. The lead singer lives in Raleigh, and he made a joke about coming “all the way” to Charlotte, three hours away. “It’s more of a psychological journey,” he said.

If you have a little money in your pockets in uptown on nights like these, Charlotte is a hell of a fine city that offers more fun than one can ever have, but no city is good or bad, and Charlotte also ranks last in the U.S. in terms of economic mobility, and its schools are the most segregated in North Carolina. There are people who live here who’ll never walk inside the arena, never catch a show at the McGlohon. It’s a city that hosted the NBA All-Star Game last month, but also a city that lost that game two years ago because of a bathroom bill. It’s a city where chants of Black Lives Matter rang out in 2016, but also a city where for a week in 2020 all the hats will say Make America Great Again.

It’s a city where well-meaning folks gathered for an event that states “It Is Possible to Disagree With Grace Again,” and, as your optimistic correspondent, I’d like to tell you that’s true. I’d like to tell you that one little conversation can join another little conversation can join another. But during that same weekend, while a few of us were looping, white supremacy was the motive in the slaughter of 50 Muslim worshipers in New Zealand, and the leader of the free world tried to start a Twitter fight with a dead senator.


Michael Graff is a writer in Charlotte.