‘It could’ve been me’: Waking up after a mass shooting on Beatties Ford

‘It could’ve been me’: Waking up after a mass shooting on Beatties Ford
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Note: This story was updated Wednesday, June 24, at 11:30 a.m.

The people came back Monday morning for their shoes.

They were everywhere, the shoes. Flip-flops mostly, but a few high-tops in the grass, some sneakers on the sidewalk. Most were just singles, a right or a left, but others a full pair. They were all along Beatties Ford Road, where, just hours earlier, the people ran.

The latest traumatic event of 2020 started at around 12:30 a.m. on Monday, still Sunday night for most folks. About 400 people were celebrating at a Juneteenth weekend block party there, in the area between LaSalle Street and Dr. Webber Avenue in the business district of the historically Black corridor.

Police say they received a call about a pedestrian hit by a car. Dispatch sent a medic. As the ambulance crawled down Beatties Ford, a popping noise cut through the sirens. A gun. Then a different, faster popping sound. A bigger gun. Over and over, pop-pop. In just a minute or two, at least 181 shots were fired, at last count of casings recovered at the scene.

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One person killed was 29-year-old Kelly Miller, her body left in the middle of the street. Another was 28-year-old Christopher Antonio Gleaton, who was transported to the hospital and died there. Jamaa Keon Cassell died later Monday, about a month shy of his 40th birthday. A fourth person, Dairyon Stevenson, 31, died Tuesday from a gunshot wound.

Several others were shot or injured by being struck by a vehicle. At least one remained in the hospital Tuesday morning, CMPD said.

People had a hard time understanding what they’d seen, defining what they’d seen, but the Gun Violence Archive gave it a clear-cut name: It lists the Beatties Ford incident as a mass shooting.

In videos from the scene, which come with the warning that you absolutely shouldn’t watch if you don’t feel up to it, you can see the faces and hear the voices.

“Oh, shit.”

“Damn.”

“Go.”

They ran. They looked for places to crouch. Behind cars. Behind gas pumps. Some just kept going until they couldn’t hear the shots anymore.

That’s what Faniya McIllwain did. She’d returned from a trip to Myrtle Beach late Sunday night when friends texted her to tell her to join them. She slipped her feet into a pair of slides she bought last month. They were black with rhinestones on them. She parked at the bank a few blocks from the party, then walked down to find her friends around a truck parked at the Mighty Midget Market, facing Beatties Ford.

The party was to mark the end of a weekend of festivities on the strip.

Local neighborhoods in Historic West End organized a Juneteenth “Liberation Drive-Thru” event on Friday afternoon. That spun off into several parties. West End’s partners wanted to be sure to note that the parties were all disconnected from theirs. Each night, officers helped block off The Ford, as the road is called. Cars did donuts on the blacktop. Fireworks were set off by the hundreds — evidenced by the boxes that still filled the road’s trashcans on Monday morning.

McIllwain remembers being startled by the first firework. She was standing in the open passenger door of her friend’s truck. The driver was on the hood, watching the show. Soon they heard pops that weren’t accompanied by flashes in the sky.

“It’s stupid,” she told me Monday. “Just innocent people whose lives were taken, and had nothing to do with it. It could’ve been me. Look how close I was standing.”

She pointed to the spot where the truck was parked. Then she took her finger and moved it off to the right, to show me where she went next.

She ran right out of those slides with the rhinestones.


CSI evidence on Beatties Ford Road shooting

Investigators gather evidence from a scene where more than 100 rounds were fired.

Sunday night and Monday morning should take a lot out of us, Charlotte. All of us. If you’ve heard nothing else over the past four weeks, it should be that we all have a role in how we move forward.

On Sunday night, hours before the first shot was fired, we had plenty to be ashamed of, plenty to be angry about. Someone spray-painted over the World War II veterans memorial at Evergreen Cemetery, drawing a communist hammer and sickle over the engraved names of 500 Mecklenburg County residents who died in the war.

Then NASCAR announced that it had found a noose in the garage of Bubba Wallace, the sport’s only Black full-time driver. Two weeks ago, Wallace was at the center of NASCAR’s decision to ban the confederate flag at its races. He drove a Black Lives Matter car.

Then, in a span of 48 hours, the FBI concluded that it wasn’t in fact a noose, that it was just a door handle fashioned like a noose. The bureau was clear: This wasn’t a hate crime.

That alone was enough news for a month.

Then came the gunshots and screams on Beatties Ford.

Phones around the city lit up with alerts and text messages, notifications to watch people who were filming live. One was Gemini Boyd. Boyd spent 20 years in prison, then took up nonprofit work in 2016. He now leads the Charlotte branch of the Bail Project, which aims to help people navigate the bail system and re-enter life after jail. He’s become one of the city’s most respected activists and community leaders, someone whose work has drawn big donations from prominent organizations such as the Carolina Panthers.

On Sunday night he was on the other side of Beatties Ford from where McIllwain and her friends stood. A dozen or so minutes into his stream, sirens and shots and chaos. The alert I received told me to look at his feed. I turned over sometime around 3 a.m. to watch it, and then stayed there while he talked into the camera deep into the night.

“People got us so messed up in the head,” he said. “So hoodwinked and bamboozled, we don’t know whether we’re coming or going. Now we gotta worry about who we’re going to bury.”


Beatties Ford became the heart of Black Charlotte because the city wanted it that way.

In the mid-20th century, the Brooklyn neighborhood in Second Ward occupied that status. But urban renewal — the city’s process of moving those residents off valuable downtown land — shattered Brooklyn from the 1950s to the 1970s. The most popular Baptist Church in the neighborhood, Friendship Missionary, moved out to Beatties Ford Road in July 1970. That was 50 years ago next month. Friendship still claims many of Charlotte’s Black leaders in its congregation, but it’s also true that not all of them actually live within walking distance of the church.

Those who do live here are proud to be from Beatties Ford, though. It’s one of those corridors where, if you live there, you can say all you want about it, but nobody else better bring a bad word. This is a neighborhood where the elderly leaders go around periodically to pick up the signs that read “We Buy Houses,” or, “We Spring Bails.”

Carolyn Fuller grew up in University Park along Beatties Ford, went to West Charlotte High, then went away to college and work before coming back to take care of an aging parent. That’s how a good many local residents find their way back to the Ford after leaving — they come home to help someone.

“I didn’t plan on it being this way, but when duty calls you try to answer to duty,” she told me a few months ago. “There are times we get out of the car at the shopping center and smell urine. We get out and we have to step over the boxes of food. Should we settle to live like that?”

Down the road from her is Natalie Kennedy Beard, who grew up in McCrorey Heights in the 1960s, moved away, and then came back to take over her folks’ house. She now runs the neighborhood association.

People like Beard and Fuller are up and down this street.

Deborah Woolard delivers meals to residents along the corridor. She picks up groceries for residents who can’t, mostly older people, but some younger who have health problems. She’s been doing it for years. She usually makes Sunday night deliveries to the area around Catherine Simmons Avenue, where the shootings occurred this week. But she had those trips called off at the last minute.

“People just assume what they know about Catherine Simmons and Beatties Ford,” Woolard told me Monday. “But there’s so much love here.”


CMPD Deputy Chief Gerald Smith on Beatties Ford Road shooting

CMPD Deputy Chief Gerald Smith asked for witnesses to come forward.

McIllwain found her slides with the rhinestones when she came back Monday. She also found her bank card in a patch of grass. But she couldn’t find her phone.

Elsewhere around town, people were trying to comprehend.

One of those shot was a close friend of Justin Carr, who was shot and killed by a protester in the 2016 Charlotte protests in Uptown. We published a story on Justin’s life two weeks ago today. On Monday I texted with Justin’s mom to check on her. Justin’s friend was the son of someone she works with at the Red Cross, she said. They’d worked together for more than 20 years, and now he’d woken up the day after Father’s Day to find out his son had been shot.

“We’re tired of hurting,” Vivian posted on Facebook, using the hashtag #ithastostop.

A few hours later, CMPD held a press conference atop its parking deck. Deputy chief Gerald Smith asked witnesses to help them solve the shooting. Four hundred partygoers were there, he said. Surely someone saw something. Surely someone can help them find a suspect. But as of that press conference, they had nobody.

Rumors filled the answer vacuum. Who did it? This group or that group? Something isn’t right, people kept saying, at the scene on Beatties Ford and throughout social media. And no matter how the evidence comes back, that part is as true as thunder: Something. Isn’t. Right.

Out of times when something isn’t right, though, little things that are right shine a little brighter.

On Sunday morning, my first Father’s Day, we took our three-month-old to see the Black Lives Matter mural in Uptown. That piece of artwork has done good. It draws hundreds each day. Everybody says hello to each other when they’re in its presence. Art has a way of getting people off of their phones and into the world to see each other in person, to see each other at all.

On Monday, all the other drivers and race teams in NASCAR lined up behind Wallace’s car in a sign of solidarity. Even though the FBI later concluded that the noose wasn’t a noose, the teams’ show of support for Wallace was a statement and a scene worth remembering. When they believed hate was present, they rallied against it.

WWII monument cleanup at Evergreen Cemetery

USAF veteran Wayne White, along with his friends Krystal and Zoe Ireland, worked to scrub spray paint off a World War II memorial at Evergreen Cemetery Monday morning.

And out on Central Avenue early Monday morning, Wayne White, a U.S. Air Force veteran showed up at the World War II monument with a scrub brush.

Wayne served in the U.S. Air Force from 1986 to 1992. He saw the news about the vandalism last Sunday night — someone had spray-painted “Glory to the Day of Heroism: June 19, 1986,” a reference to the Peruvian prison riots of 1986, when more than 200 people died — and promptly took off work on Monday to try to fix it.

He and a couple of friends, Krystal Ireland and her daughter Zoe, went at the red paint early, around 7:30 a.m., with scrub brushes and Krud Kutter.

Deep cleaning is messy and tough work, and it takes time, but it’s worth it.


Beatties Ford shooting

After the yellow police tape came down Monday afternoon, another crowd gathered on Beatties Ford Road. This time with brooms and trash bags.

Four people died and 11 were injured in the chaos of the night before.

The day after a campus shooting at UNC Charlotte last year left two dead and four injured, thousands showed up to hold a candlelight vigil to support the victims. Charlotte Strong became, rightfully, a hashtag and a rallying cry for the city. The shooting was in papers around the country, and sparked conversations about gun reform locally.

Thirteen months later, on Monday afternoon, the Million Youth March of Charlotte, along with Friendship Missionary Baptist, helped organize a silent march from Friendship Missionary Church to the spot where the shooting occurred. It was hot, in the 90s, and about 50 or 60 people joined. Sheriff Garry McFadden was one of them. The talk wasn’t about the weapons this time, but the people.

Several, including Gemini Boyd, waited on the other end of the march with water and Gatorade. When they came into view, one woman sitting on a cooler wondered why more people weren’t marching. “If it’d been an officer shooting, they’d have thousands here. You know that.”

Boyd walked directly toward McFadden, the sheriff. They talked for a minute before Boyd raised his voice for everyone to hear.

He shouted what many people around the city were saying in quiet all day — that the shooting, whoever did it, would likely be used against the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s true even though the block party on Beatties Ford wasn’t a protest, and wasn’t affiliated with an official BLM event by any means. It was just an event attended mostly by Black people.

But that’s not how it works, Boyd and the others there know. In a world where someone still leaves a noose in a Black racecar driver’s garage, they know folks will look at the mass shooting at Beatties Ford and say, “See!” And they’ll skip past the lives altogether.

“It defeats the purpose of any of this,” Boyd said. “We can’t keep doing this. … If you can’t take action right now, after you seen last night, get out of the way.”

Then he asked everybody to raise a fist and keep fighting.


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