The State of North Carolina

Ken Rumble

In early October, in the days after Hurricane Matthew, flooding wrecked dozens of towns and thousands of homes across eastern North Carolina, displaced hundreds of families, and caused the deaths of at least twenty-five people. In August, on the eve of hurricane season, NC Governor Pat McCrory allowed five hundred thousand dollars meant for emergency disaster relief to be transferred to fund the legal defense of the anti-trans, anti-lgbtq bathroom bill known as HB2. Among other things, the law mandates that people in North Carolina make use of the gender specific bathroom which corresponds to the gender they were assigned by the attending physician at their birth. Because the law can really only be enforced on state government property, the most obvious and egregious impact of this law is that it forces trans kids and teenagers attending public schools to use bathrooms in which these kids feel threatened and unsafe because of who they are. The law’s immediate material effect is to put children under increased threat of violence, bullying, and humiliation.

The law has been rightly and powerfully protested across the state and across the nation. The protests against the law have been as inspiring as the law itself is depressing for the cowardice and bigotry it represents. And now, in addition to the damage HB2 has done to North Carolina’s work to create a just and free society, recovery efforts in eastern North Carolina will be underfunded by five hundred thousand dollars because callous, manipulative, bigots in the NC legislature want to galvanize their conservative base in an election year.

With HB2, these, mostly white, mostly male, mostly straight people, targeted trans people, one of our nation’s more vulnerable communities. Because of discrimination, violence, rejection by friends and family, and many other large- and small-scale discriminations trans people regularly face, the suicide rate in the trans community is ten times higher than the rest of the population, forty percent. In Charlotte, North Carolina, in March 2015, a year and several months before HB2 was signed into law, before discrimination against trans people was made an official part of North Carolina state policy, 19 year old Blake Brockington took his own life after becoming the homecoming king of his high school, the first openly transgender person to do so in North Carolina. By all accounts, he was a warm, generous, thoughtful, and compassionate young man who had a bright future before him.

 Blake Brockington

Blake Brockington

I didn’t know Blake; I read about his death in the days and weeks afterwards. It was national news, a national tragedy, heart-breaking, and came amidst a rash of heart-breaking suicides by transgender teenagers, including Ash Haffner, also in Charlotte, Riley Moscatel, Taylor Wells, Zander Mahaffey, Melonie Rose, and Leelah Alcorn in Ohio. Leelah was seventeen, the same age as my daughter.

Less than a year after Blake took his life, the city council of Charlotte, North Carolina, passed Ordinance 7056 which extended civil rights protections to the LGBT community, including allowing people to use a bathroom which corresponded to an individual’s sense of self with regard to gender identity. I assume the people of Charlotte, rightly, had Blake and Ash on their minds as they passed the ordinance. It was the right thing to do and should’ve been done long ago.

A month later, the NC legislature and Governor McCrory made HB2 law, citing the Charlotte ordinance as an overreach by local government that HB2 corrected. So to overturn a democratically-decided city ordinance which offered necessary and just protections to a vulnerable population, the NC state legislature made LGBTQ discrimination an official part of state policy. Whereas the Charlotte city council did something that might have given kids such as Blake some small sense that the world was not a terrible place, the NCGA definitively told Blake, Ash, Leelah, and all the other trans kids across the US struggling simply to live that their lives don’t matter, that there is no room in our society for them.

Like Randall Jarrell, Blake and Leelah were struck and killed by cars. Leelah left an explicit note about her suicide; Blake’s last message was more cryptic. I imagine, as I imagine for Randall, that Blake and Leelah felt the full enormity of human feelings when they realized their deaths were approaching. I imagine sorrow, relief, regret, so many things. I imagine that even when the answer to Blake and Lela’s questions seemed clear, there was still no clarity. Part of depression’s cruelty is that it corrupts one’s faith in any decision, good or bad, self-help or self-harm. Depression corrupts our ability to trust ourselves, leaving us paralyzed, and, in cases when we can act, full of caustic self-hatred and doubt. You can hate yourself for wanting to kill yourself, and that hatred can make finding an end to it all even more desirable.

I want to be clear that I believe Blake and Leelah’s depression — if they were depressed and if depression exists as a thing separate from its parts — was caused, in part, by the social discrimination they suffered in large and small ways. Unlike Randall and myself, Blake and Leelah had materially difficult lives, and those difficulties were directly tied to fundamental aspects of their identity, aspects of their identity which had no impact on anyone other than themselves. We should all be free to live the lives we want, to be the people we recognize ourselves to be, to love and work in ways which leave us fulfilled. Trans people in US society are largely — and in North Carolina, officially — denied that freedom.

Not long after HB2 was passed, on September 20th, 2016, also in Charlotte, North Carolina, Keith Lamont Scott, an African American man, was shot and killed by a Charlotte police officer. The officers present claim Keith had a gun. His wife, who watched him be killed and pleaded with the officers for his life, said he was reading a book while waiting for one of his seven children. Whether Keith had a gun or not is besides the point. North Carolina allows the open carry of firearms, a mistaken embrace of the NRA-led gun culture which has enabled the murder of hundreds of thousands of people in the US.

In the days after Keith was killed, residents of Charlotte protested his murder and the larger system of racist oppression which has limited the ability of many poor people and particularly poor people of color to take advantage of Charlotte’s recovery from the 2008 recession. Police met these protests with riot gear and tear gas, an over-militarized response to people who had suffered systematic oppression and bigotry for decades. The scene and scenario is depressingly similar to scenes in Baltimore and Ferguson where victimized populations rightly protested their oppression and the police brutality which is a salient feature of that oppression. In each case, the police responded to the protests with a dramatic escalation of violence and force. Rather than engaging in dialogue with protestors, Charlotte city officials chose to meet the pain and sorrow of the protestors with violence. It is deeply shameful that after making such a positive step to protect the rights of the LGBTQ community with Ordinance 7056 that Charlotte leaders took a step in the opposite direction in the face of police brutality and chose violence rather than dialogue.

NC Governor Pat McCrory served on the Charlotte city council from 1989 to 1995 and served as Charlotte’s mayor from 1995 to 2009. His campaigns for mayor — like the campaigns of many moderate republicans who gain office in otherwise democratic leaning areas — emphasized “public safety,” a code for the same sort of racially biased law enforcement called “law and order” by President Nixon in 1968 and currently called for by the Republican nominee for president. Many in the white community urged the Charlotte protestors to embrace “law and order” even as it was the protestors who were being shot with tear gas and assaulted by police in riot gear.

An intersection of all of these events is governor Pat McCrory. He oversaw the oppressive, bigoted, violence-first, “law and order” policing which has kept the poor and poor people of color in Charlotte shut out of the economic recovery. The “law and order” tradition led to Keith’s killing, and it is that tradition which has led police to meet protests against police brutality with more police brutality. In addition to overseeing this culture of police brutality for twenty years, McCrory signed HB2 into law to institutionalize discrimination against the LGBTQ community, and further he took money from NC’s disaster relief accounts to defend a law that isn’t simply unjust but is evil.  

Blake was also African American, like Keith. In addition to the discrimination Blake suffered as a trans person, he faced the overt and implicit racism of US culture. Brentley Vinson, the police officer who shot Keith, is also African American. Brentley attended Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, the chancellor of which school is Jerry Falwell, Jr. In addition to being a fervent supporter of the 2016 Republican nominee for US president, Falwell encouraged his students in 2015 to acquire conceal-carry handgun permits so that the students could kill Muslims. Brentley was educated in an institution which explicitly supports the presidential bid of a racist, homophobic, bigot, and Brentley served on a police force overseen for many years by Pat McCrory, who made anti-LGBTQ legislation law. The racism, misogyny, and homophobia that undergirds all of these events is so deeply ingrained that it, ironically perhaps, transcends one’s particular identity. That Brentley is African American doesn’t make his killing of Keith any less racially motivated. I don’t say that to demonize Brentley, who in many ways, in my opinion, has also been victimized. I say that to point out that while police brutality against African Americans and laws such as HB2 are the most obvious symptoms of our national prejudices and bigotries, the source and system which produces those symptoms runs very deep.

North Carolina is currently led by racist, homophobic, callous, politicians who are happy to use that racist culture to sow anger and bigotry among North Carolinians and use those divisions to consolidate their hold over state legislative power. These people and their policies are costing people their lives, Blake, Ash, Keith, and many more who didn’t and won't make the news.

We need to vote those responsible out of office.