How One NC Town Struggled to Unite Following George Floyd’s Death

A person wears a mask reading "I Can't Breath" during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Chicago, Saturday, May 30, 2020. Protests were held throughout the country over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

By Michael McElroy

June 18, 2020

Elected town officials in the Charlotte suburb of Harrisburg bickered over signing on to a statement about George Floyd’s death, revealing a deep schism.

On the afternoon of June 3rd, as three more Minneapolis police officers were arrested and charged in connection with the killing of George Floyd, the town manager of Harrisburg, N.C., emailed a proposed statement about Floyd’s death to the seven members of the town council.

“The Town of Harrisburg mourns with the family and friends of Mr. George Floyd, along with the rest of our country,” the statement read. “The death of George Floyd is a shocking and tragic reminder of the social and racial injustices that exist in our country. We are stronger together, and we encourage everyone to work in unity to find solutions that foster acknowledgement and change in our community and within our homes.”

The email to the Harrisburg council was meant to be a matter of routine. 

The statement had been written in consultation with Cabarrus County and with the other municipalities, some of which had already released statements. It was intended to project a unified voice across the town and county, and to ensure its residents that their concerns and challenges were heard by the public officials elected to serve them. 

“Some of the municipalities were sending out statements,” Harrisburg Mayor Steve Sciascia said in an interview last week. “I wanted [ours] to come from the town and the council. At least that’s what I thought.”

But the email exchange among the council, sent in full to Cardinal & Pine, quickly showed that unity is more easily discussed than achieved. 

The latest police killings of Black Americans have rekindled the country’s centuries-old burn over systemic racism and inequality. While much of the public reaction this time seems to be shifting with the arc of progress, attempts by local governments to speak with one voice on the issue mask some enduring realities. An email chain meant to show unity instead began and ended with division, demonstrating that the fight is not just between strangers separated by regions, but between neighbors, colleagues and officials sitting together in front of their constituents. The Independent Tribune in Concord first reported on the Harrisburg dispute.

The immediate impetus for the Harrisburg statement, at least, came from an effort at accord from the mayor and county. But the council’s fight over a simple statement is a peek into Harrisburg’s own reality: a growing town struggling with what it wants to be and how it can marry its history with progress. 

A former farming town and now a bedroom community of Charlotte, Harrisburg is 66% white and 20% black, just below state averages. Median household income, at $100,000, is nearly double the state’s average. As Harrisburg’s demographics change, like so many small southern towns, so do its priorities and challenges. 

How a statement of unity unraveled 

Harrisburg’s town manager, Haynes Brigman, sent the email to the council at 3:02 p.m. on June 3rd. “Please let me know if you have any questions or would like to see the statement modified,” he wrote.

At 4:31 p.m., Ian Patrick, an architect who was elected to the council in 2019, was the first to respond.

“I disagree with the part about systemic injustices,” he wrote in a reply sent only to Brigman. “You can call to discuss further if I caught you in time.”

At 5:18 p.m., Patrick replied again, this time to the entire council and Mayor Sciascia.

“I take issue with the phrase ‘shocking and tragic reminder of the social and racial injustices that exist in our country,’” he wrote. “It seems to imply we are making a statement regarding ‘systemic racism.’ While I agree there is much to be done, if you look at some of the work done by Coleman Hughes, Larry Elder, Richard Hernstein, Charles Murray and many other important thinkers (many of them black) – it can actually do more harm to the black community to continue using terms like ‘systemic racism.’”

“I actually know a lot about this subject,” he added, “which is why on my marriage certificate under race, my wife and I listed ‘human.’”

The writers he cited are viewed with varying degrees of skepticism. Hughes, for example, is a young, black conservative who has argued against the basic premise of the Black Lives Matters movement, while Murray has been accused by the Southern Poverty Law Center of arguing that social inequality is caused by genetic inferiority.

At 5:23 p.m., Diamond Staton-Williams, who was elected in 2017 and is the first and only black woman to be elected to the town council, weighed in, asking that the statement be released unchanged. 

“My statement is from a person of color perspective,” she wrote, “please do not email me or call me to try and explain.”

And then the wheels began to wobble.

“Given Diamond’s response ‘Please do not email or call me to try and explain,’” Patrick wrote, “I fail to see how we can issue a statement that says: ‘We encourage everyone to work in unity to find solutions that foster acknowledgment and change in our community and within our homes.’”

Staton-Williams circled back.

“To remove the phrase and not acknowledge social injustice and systemic racism is to further put another bandaid on the issue,” she said. “As leaders we have an ethical and moral obligation to acknowledge and recognize the very issues that impact our constituents.”

She then addressed Patrick directly, though not by name.

“Your efforts to put ‘human’ on your marriage certificate does not translate to what the black and brown experience is, nor does it validate our experience. 

“If you want to continue to ignore the issue at hand and not recognize why people are protesting just don’t release a statement. The silence will be enough said.”

She ended the email by inviting the council to a prayer vigil that weekend.  “This is your opportunity to listen for understanding and not to respond,” she said. 

The argument began to stray from the existence of systemic racism and toward personal attacks on Floyd. One councilmember, Ron Smith, who had asked to add language in the statement that praised the sheriff’s department, pointed out that Floyd had methamphetamines in his system when he was detained. (An autopsy confirmed the presence of drugs in his system, but said it had nothing to do with this death.)

Then, in a later email, Smith made a formal complaint to the mayor about Staton-Williams, echoing Patrick’s comment that her statements showed disrespect and unprofessional behavior.

Staton-Williams said that her comments were about that moment and the statement at hand and were not an attempt to close off debate or conversation on the larger issues of what must be done. In fact, she said, she was responding to what she saw as an attempt to limit the conversation by removing any mention of larger, institutional problems. 

“Talking about systemic racism is a much larger conversation that needs to be had,” she said in an interview. “Sometimes when people don’t acknowledge it, and take in other people’s experiences with it, it can impede growth.” 

In the end, the statement was published with minimal changes, and none to the section in question.

Smith and Patrick did not return messages seeking comment. 

Plea for unity from community 

That evening, the town council held a remote public meeting. The disagreement was not mentioned. But there was a plea for unity, just in a way different but no less germane.

The first speaker during public comment was Paula Boon, who was worried about the construction behind her community in Cabarrus Woods where current home prices are in the high $100,000 and low to mid $200,000. The work had significantly increased traffic, and the construction trucks were running stop signs. She was concerned for the safety of her grandchildren and her neighbors, even as she acknowledged the larger issues to worry about. 

“I know pandemic, the senseless murder of George Floyd, I mean we got a lot of big issues in our country. I cannot personally heal the sick, I cannot personally stop racism,” she said. “I can try to love my neighbor as I love myself, and I can do my part to bring awareness to this problem and work to try to make this a safer community for our children and our residents.”

“But I can’t do that alone,” she told the town council. “I need your help.”


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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