Lucille Puckett had already lost one son to gun violence in Charlotte, she wasn’t about to lose another.
In September, her teenage son was jumped by a group of boys on the west side of Charlotte near their home, where her 26-year-old son was shot and killed in the front yard in 2016.
Puckett went to find the boys, not to attack them or even scold them, but to speak to them on their level about what had just happened. As she approached, one of them reached under his shirt, going for a gun. She convinced them she had come in peace, then they sat and talked.
“One of them had a gun. Instead of fighting my son, they could have pulled the trigger and took another one of my sons’ lives,” she recalls. “But I stood there and I talked to those boys for almost two hours. Them boys told me, ‘Our gun is not to take no one’s life, but to protect our own.’ When you talking about a group of teenagers, they shouldn’t have to walk around Charlotte with that mentality.”
Below is a map of all murders to have occurred in Charlotte this year. The incidents marked black are shootings, red are stabbings, blue are unknown, and green have been deemed justified. Click each one to learn more about what happened, and see photos of those we have lost.
Going into November, Charlotte had already surpassed 100 homicides in the city, well on the way to passing the total of 107 that made 2019 the deadliest year for murders since 1993. Now as another violent year comes to a close, the city is launching multiple efforts to curb gun violence in Charlotte, including investing $1 million in local anti-violence nonprofits through a new SAFE Charlotte plan and inviting the Chicago-based violence interruption program Cure Violence to the city to assess how it might work with people on the ground to put a stop to the killing.
Some community organizers like Puckett fear the efforts will be more of the same — more money wasted by out-of-touch officials.
“The city council could spend millions and millions and millions of dollars, but if you don’t have people that are out here in the community, that have a relationship with these young people or the people who are committing these crimes, we will never address it,” she said. “We will never get to the root of what’s going on.”
Tragedy inspires a new life path
Lucille Puckett has always been drawn to community work. She had been active in her community in all of her previous homes, from Detroit to Georgia to South Carolina. Then she moved to Charlotte in late 2004. She ran for school board in 2005, then mayor in 2013.
By 2015, she had begun working with crime prevention organizations and homicide support services, but it was the tragedy that befell her family in spring 2016 that changed her path forever and convinced her to dedicate her life to violence prevention.
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Her son, 26-year-old Shawn Harbin Jr., returned home from work just before 9 p.m. on March 22, 2016, to find that someone had been waiting for him. The man exited his car where he had been parked across the street and approached Harbin, then shot him five times — once in the back, once in the shoulder and three times in the head, execution-style.
“A lot of people don’t ever feel like that sort of tragedy will come knocking at their door,” she said. “When that tragedy literally came knocking at my door — my son was murdered in our front yard, so you couldn’t get any closer — I was just really like, literally, ‘What the fuck?’ to be honest. I just could not believe it. I had done everything in my power as a mother to prevent those kinds of things.
“When people never think that it can happen to them, the message is, trust and believe, no one is exempt from these homicides that are occurring … not only in Charlotte but across the nation.”
Two weeks after her son’s murder, she joined CMPD’s Homicide Support Group, and eventually founded Take Back Our H.O.O.D.S (TBOH). She can often be seen at the scenes of murders, easy to spot with her red TBOH hoodie and her red hair, supporting family and friends through what is many times the worst night of their lives, while also documenting the tragic stories on Facebook Live.
“Ever since [Shawn died] I’ve been out here trying to make a change, trying to make a difference, trying to be a support for families and also trying to do something as far as prevention,” she said.
A critical look at JumpStart
On Oct. 26, Charlotte City Council unanimously passed the SAFE Charlotte plan, which consists of six recommendations that aim to fuse city council’s goals of “reimagining” the police with its goal to curb gun violence in Charlotte.
The first recommendation in the plan is to provide $1 million from the city’s current budget to help Charlotte-based nonprofits address violence in the community.
It’s unclear just how the money will be doled out, but it’s expected to look similar to the city’s JumpStart microgrant program, which has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into start-up crime-prevention organizations since 2017. Over the next two months, the city manager’s office will work with CMPD Deputy Chief Sherie Pearsall to create a plan for all six SAFE Charlotte recommendations.
Puckett said she has concerns that the money will go to the wrong places, as she believes has been the case with JumpStart over the past three years.
“I would say [JumpStart] has no effect in the community at all because they give this money to these various organizations without any kind of data to back up where they’re benefiting the community,” Puckett told Queen City Nerve.
“From what I can see and what can be seen by the numbers of homicides, whoever they’re giving this money to, it’s not helping with the homicides or with the community at all. They need to reevaluate who they are giving this money to, and if the data does not show that they’re actually doing anything in the community, then they need not give these same organizations this money.”
Only so much money to go around
Robert Dawkins, an organizer with community violence and police accountability group Safe Coalition NC, has spent years getting JumpStart off the ground and lobbying for more funding. Dawkins defended the microgrant program, saying it’s designed to fund start-up organizations to encourage more grassroots work in the city.
JumpStart began with an annual budget of $50,000, with organizations receiving small grants doled out in a tiered system ranging from $500 to $2,500. It has since been increased to $500,000, but Dawkins believes the amount of each grant should be increased.
“What we have seen is that the amount of grants that groups can receive in each tier needs to be increased and more help given to these groups to plan effective capacity-building plans, and report back on how they spent their funding and what impact it actually had on the community the organization served,” he said.
Dawkins emphasized that the $1 million set aside for SAFE Charlotte is separate from the JumpStart funding, and should be given to more experienced groups that have proven themselves in the community.
“We believed that there should be another pot of money for groups working on violence that are already in the community, have established track records of doing violence-prevention work and are already passed the experience level of the JumpStart recipients,” he said.
Dawkins said he hopes to see SAFE Charlotte recipients entered into a similar tiered system, though one that distributes larger grants ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. He added he’d like to see more investment from the business and philanthropic communities to stop gun violence, similar to how the city has come together to provide funding for affordable housing, as both JumpStart and SAFE Charlotte still won’t be enough to fund all the community groups that have committed to building safer communities.
How to stop gun violence in Charlotte
Outside the Oct. 26 meeting, Puckett joined fellow community organizers Kass Ottley with Seeking Justice CLT and Rev. Corine Mack of the local NAACP chapter in front of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center to address their concerns with SAFE Charlotte.
Ottley and Mack both served on a community input group that helped direct the Safe Communities Committee that put SAFE Charlotte together, though their concerns mostly hinged on how it would be implemented. After speaking to media outside the government center, Ottley and Mack addressed city council virtually. Ottley voiced her concerns about the timeline for SAFE Charlotte to get started.
“I’m happy with the recommendations we came up with, but my concerns are, how are they going to be implemented long-term?” Ottley said. “I’m also worried about the timeline. While we’re talking about safety, we’re up to homicide number 99. The more time we take, the more of our citizens are dying. I’m extremely concerned about that.”
She said she wants to make sure funding from SAFE Charlotte goes to organizations that have been proven effective in their work on the ground, despite often going overlooked by city officials.
“Every day we’re having more and more homicides and the people [involved] are getting younger and younger,” Ottley urged. “We have to do something at this point. This is an opportunity for this community to feel like city council is really hearing them and wants to work on doing something for the most marginalized and most ignored communities in the city where most of these crimes are taking place.”
Council member Larken Egleston, who chaired the Safe Communities Committee and spearheaded efforts to create the plan, addressed Ottley’s worries that the plan would sit inactive after it was approved.
“[SAFE Charlotte] is not optional,” Egleston said. “This is not a resolution we’re adopting saying we believe in this. This is a policy item … When we adopt a policy like this, it is not just a statement, it is a change that is written and codified and it will be implemented.”
How exactly it’s implemented, of course, will be the deciding factor in whether this investment can put a dent in the rising violence.
Cure Violence comes to town
At the Oct 26 meeting, City Manager Marcus Jones said the Chicago-based Cure Violence organization is currently working on an assessment of needs for violence interruption in Charlotte. Jones said his office will have an update on that assessment ready by the Nov. 9 council meeting.
A visit to the Cure Violence website shows how the organization’s goals sync up with Charlotte City Council’s approach to violence as a public health crisis, which came out of the group’s January retreat.
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According to the Cure Violence website, the organization treats violence like a contagious disease. “It is transmitted through exposure, acquired through contagious brain mechanisms and social processes, and can be effectively treated and prevented using health methods,” the site reads. “To date, the health sector and health professionals have been highly underutilized for the prevention, treatment, and control of violence. Now is the time to mobilize our nation’s healthcare and public health systems and methods to work with communities and other sectors to stop this epidemic.”
The organization uses a four-pronged approach: training violence interrupters to prevent shootings by identifying and mediating potentially deadly conflicts, training culturally appropriate outreach workers to educate high-risk residents about the consequences of violence and help them access services, mobilizing community leaders against gun violence, and following up with victims of violence at the hospital to prevent retaliation.
Local organizers feel ignored
Puckett, Ottley, Mack and other local leaders met with members of the Cure Violence team on Beatties Ford Road on Oct. 30. After that meeting, Puckett told Queen City Nerve she had reservations about the process. She pointed out that the local NAACP, for which she also serves as political action chair, had already developed a similar violence interruption plan earlier in the year and tried to present it to Charlotte City Council, which she said ignored it.
“Corine Mack had put together this whole Cure Violence plan of our own here in Charlotte, right in line with what Cure Violence is doing,” she said. “They presented this information to the city council, and there has been no mention of even implementing it. Then you go and want to have an outside organization come in and do the same thing that we’re doing.”
She fears the Cure Violence team won’t know what’s best for a city that its members are not from.
“That’s really one of the big sticklers, when we’re talking about curing violence and decreasing violence; we could have had a handle on some of this quite a few years ago if the city council would really listen to these grassroots organizations and have these true grassroots organizations in the room.”
In Episode 30 of the Nooze Hounds podcast, Ottley discussed why she’s cautiously optimistic about partnering with Cure Violence in the future, among other topics.
Puckett said the concerns she had following their meeting energized her to revamp efforts to get more volunteers working with TBOH.
She held a Zoom meeting with about a dozen people on the following day to recruit more folks to work with young people, whom she’s concerned about being on the streets more often due to virtual schooling.
She hopes to launch a “spin-off” of the work she’s already doing with TBOH, with more proactive engagement focused on young people like the ones she confronted in her own neighborhood after they fought her son. She said those boys call out to her when they see her now, and it all comes back to meeting them where they’re at.
“They need adults to actually engage with them, to listen to them, and to understand where they’re coming from and what they want,” Puckett said. “When you have city council and some organizations coming to these young folks and telling them what they’re going to give them instead of asking them what they need, the homicide rate is going to continue to increase because we’re not giving them what they need, we’re giving them what we want them to have.”
Stay tuned for continued coverage of violent crime and the efforts to curb it in Queen City Nerve.
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