It was right about the moment two protesters lifted me over the concrete barrier guarding Interstate 277 that I realized just how screwed we were.
There were hundreds of people staging a sit-in, blocking traffic in both directions. A few dozen more were shouting down from the overpass and throwing debris at the police lining the roads’ shoulders. A Charlotte police officer who had, for the previous four hours, marched alongside the crowd broke away from the pack. I saw him talking into his radio. A few protesters approached two officers with hands extended, one shouting, “Man, fuck the police. I ain’t armed neither, motherfucker. You gonna kill me, too?” before a woman wearing a gas mask and a “#BLM” T-shirt pulled him back toward the group.
“That’s what they want us to do,” she scolded. “Don’t you go and give him a reason to shoot you. Don’t you think he’s itchin’ to?”
The interstate looked far different than it did when I drove into Charlotte earlier on Thursday. The darkness and cloud cover eliminated the horizon. And the road itself was so vast that this group of hundreds felt small.
The crowd was noticeably tense. What began as a well-oiled machine of synchronized cries for justice and equality had transformed into something resembling a middle school dancea bunch of people standing around awkwardly, waiting for someone, anyone, to make the first move.
Maybe it was the open air around ushow, without buildings and skyscrapers to amplify and unify the soundtrack, no one voice could direct us. Or perhaps, the fuse lit September 20 when Keith Lamont Scott was gunned down by a city police officer had, in that moment, finally met a powder keg that has grown more and more unstable with every black man gunned down by a man or woman in uniform.
What transpired on that interstate was a far cry from what had unfolded hours prior, as darkness fell on Uptown. Impassioned protesters, in between chants and the occupation of one intersection after another, offered hugs to police and thanked members of the National Guard for their service. Here, there was more raw emotion and indecision; arguments erupted between those sitting on the pavement and others who wanted to return to Uptown’s Epicentre. And that dissension in the ranks gave the police an opening.
They took it.
As white vans sped toward the crowd with blue lights flashing, all I could think about were scenes from the night before: tear gas, gunshots, objects hurled at vehicles, trash cans being set on fire, a man shot and killed. When dozens of riot gear-clad officers filed out of the vehicles and lined up across the interstate, I was hit by a wave of nausea. The cops began rhythmically clanking batons against their riot shields. Then, rubber bullets started flying.
The police’s initial offensive didn’t deter those gathered in the middle of I-277. If anything, it was as if the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s show of force reunified them. Some secured doctors’ masks and bandanas around their faces. Others shouted and signaled, with wagging middle fingers, that they were ready for a clash. They locked arms and formed a line of their own underneath the overpass.
But it wouldn’t last. The pepper spray made sure of that.
As long as we’re talking about pepper spray, allow me to state for the record that being momentarily blinded by it ranks among the worst experiences I have endured in my thirty-four years on this planet. The pain is indescribable. And were it not for the kindness of the three protesters who helped me to my feet and poured milk on my face to alleviate the burning, my evening might have ended there.
But the worst part is how the loss of one of my senses heightened the others, how I heard, with what I can only characterize as an eerie clarity, chants and shouts giving way to screams and the sound of polycarbonate shields crunching against flesh and bone. And when my vision returned, I watched, through a blur, several men being knocked to the ground and forced off the road, a young woman screaming and desperately trying to wipe chemicals out of her eyes, and police officers puffing out their chests with pride when the interstate had finally been cleared.
Having been fought off I-277, what was left of the crowd returned to the fervent but restrained unit it had been for most of the eveningminus the several dozen men and women rolling on the ground as friends and strangers attempted to relieve their post-pepper spray hell. And I sat there, eyes and face on fire, wondering just how the fuck we got here.
For Jamaine Hall, the answer is pretty simple.
“Three shots, man. Three shots done changed this city,” he said. “We took the spray. Let ’em break out that gas and them rubber bullets. We ain’t stoppin’. We done had enough.”
Three shots after Scott’s wife told police that her husband suffered from a traumatic brain injury and would do them no harm. Three shots after she pleaded with them not to pull the trigger.
Police officials say the incident was unfortunate but justifiedthat Scott was wielding a gun and refused to disarm. But body-cam and dashboard footage released by the city Saturday seems to dispute that assertion. Nobodyno politician, protester, or punditclaims a gun is visible. And, in the footage, Scott appears to be passively backing away from the officers with his hands at his side.
To make matters worse, the police weren’t even there because of Scott. They were at his apartment complex to serve a warrant on someone else. But they confronted Scott because they allegedly saw him rolling what they “believed to be a marijuana blunt” and, later, “hold up a gun,” according to the police report. Moments later, he was dead.
Even without having seen the video, many of those who converged on Uptown Thursday night disputed claims that Scott had a gun. The protesters argued that the lack of transparency up to that point hinted at the motives of those conducting the investigation.
“If the police have nothing to hide, that footage would have been released to the public by now,” said Tyrod Williamson. “This is some bullshit. And there wasn’t no gun in that man’s hands. If there was, we would have seen the tapes.”
But Williamson wasn’t in Charlotte just to mourn Scott and demand answers. He drove from Durham to remind protesters that this was not the first injustice to unfold in North Carolina in recent years. He was there for La’Vante Biggs, a friend who was gunned down in the front yard of his mother’s house last September. One especially troubling fact about that incident: during a forty-five-minute standoff with police, Biggsa suicidal twenty-one-year-old who’d been released from jail hours earlier and was armed with what the police later determined to be a BB gunset his weapon down several times, once for as long as three minutes. So why, during those moments, didn’t negotiators find a way to subdue him?
“These cops are trigger-happy. That’s why you used to always hear ’bout police killing dogs and shit. Now we the dogs,” Williamson told me. “So if we go by their story, this man is crying out for help and you kill him? You shoot him down when he’s in crisis? That’s some fucked up shit.”
Biggs wasn’t the only minority killed by Durham police in recent years. In July 2013, Jose Ocampo, a thirty-three-year-old Hispanic man, was shot moments after officers responded to a stabbing incident. The Ocampo family’s attorney has said Ocampo was waiting to explain to the police what had occurred, but when he took the knife out of his pocket and presented the handle to them, they fired. A few months later, on September 17, Durham police took another life. Derek Walker, a suicidal man who was waving a gun in CCB Plaza, was shot to death, after negotiations failed.
A third incident followed that Novemberone that sparked violent protests in the Bull City akin to what unfolded last week in Charlotte. Jesus Huerta was only seventeen years old when he was shot at close range in the mouth after being arrested for trespassing. The cops claimed that Huerta killed himself, but, with Huerta secured in the back of a police car with his hands cuffed behind him, how could such a shooting have occurred?
Durham police would only say that they found a handgun in the back of the police cruiserand that the officer who arrested Huerta must have missed the gun as he frisked the teen. Many people didn’t buy that explanation.
Protesters broke windows at the city’s police headquarters and threw everything from road flares to smoke bombs at the facility. Then-police chief Jose Lopez intensified the situation by suggesting two groups of protesters could be identified: those who showed up for a peaceful gathering and “outside agitators” who wanted nothing but an opportunity to destroy things.
Similar characterizations have been made about those who clashed with police in Charlotte last week, including a glaring lie peddled, and later retracted, by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Todd Walther: that 70 percent of those arrested during last Wednesday’s riot were from out of state. In fact, 80 percent of arrestees lived in Charlotte.
But Amber Raynor, a college student from Charlotte who held up a sign Thursday night that read, “DARK SKIN ISN’T A BULLSEYE,” said, “They always say shit like that after they kill somebody, to try to distract people.”
“If there is a way for them to make us look like thugs or tell the rest of the country that all we came to do was break shit and loot and steal, they will,” she told me. “That’s the game they play. They want people to see us as the enemy, so when they shoot us, they look like fuckin’ heroes. Well, I am an educated black woman a year away from my degree. I have a job and both parents raised me. And I am outraged. So what are they gonna say about that?”
Akiba Byrd knows something about black men being slain by police. The Raleigh Police Accountability Community Taskforce spokesman stood alongside the mother of Akiel Denkins at a Raleigh City Council meeting back in May and told the board that the twenty-four-year-old didn’t deserve to die just because he fled from police February 29.
“This mother is standing here before you right now, holding a picture of her slain child for no other reason than he was evading arrest. That is not a death sentence,” he said then.
So, for him, hearing about Scott’s death was a surreal moment.
“They are proving us right in the worst possible ways, and they just keep doing it,” he says. “This is what I don’t think people understand. We’re all connected. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a different city, state, or country. The racist treatment of black and brown bodies all over this world impacts us all equally. There’s an intersectionality with housing, education, health care, access to healthy affordable food, clean drinking water, stuff that you think would be human rights, but they’re not. And for it to really change it’s going to take the community to stand up and say they’re not going to have it. It’s going to have to be a mass uprising.”
As disturbing as the shootings themselves have been, Byrd continues, it’s the lack of accountabilitythe fact that most of these officers never end up behind barsthat is more troubling. So after the indictment of Betty Shelby, the officer who fatally shot forty-year-old Terence Crutcher September 16 after his SUV broke down in the middle of a Tulsa, Oklahoma, roadway, Byrd was skeptical that it would result in a conviction.
“How many times have we seen them get indicted and then nothing?” he asks. “When she goes into custody, and she goes to her hearing, and she doesn’t get bond and she has to take her ass to the jailhouse and sit there until she has a fair trial and they give her a fair determination of the law, and she has to sit her ass in prisonnot like a halfway house or house arrest, or she just has to resign or some stupid shit like thatthey don’t get to do these itty-bitty things.”
Byrd gets emotional, emphasizing his anger by punching his fist.
“Hell with that,” he says. “We gotta see something end because they are ending people’s lives. They are ending their lives. They’re killing them. Forever. So they don’t get to start something kind of all right and then end it on some bullshit.”
The sentimentthat cops involved in questionable shootings invariably get treated with kid gloveswas clear in Charlotte last week.
“Let’s get real, man. A black man shoots somebody and he gets life in prison,” Joshua Hinton, a thirty-two-year-old who works at an Uptown hotel, told me. “A cop shoots somebody, and it’s proven that it was unnecessary, and he gets paid to sit at home until things cool down. Can somebody please explain that shit to me? Murder is murder is murder.”
He also argued that North Carolina’s new body-camera law, which the legislature passed earlier this year, was nothing more than an attempt to protect “racist cops who harass black people.”
“You know why they don’t want us to see those videos,” he said. “Come on, man. All those white Republicans like the fucking governor talk about protecting people’s privacy. That’s bullshit. They want to protect white people’s privacy.”
Come October, the law signed this summer by Governor Pat McCrory will require a court order to release footage from police recordings. Supporters say House Bill 972, which passed 88–20 in the state House and 47–2 in the Senate, strikes a “necessary balance” between protecting law enforcement and the public’s right to know.
But Susanna Birdsong, the policy counsel for the state ACLU, says the law violates the very trust between the government and citizens that body cameras were implemented to foster.
“When you think about transparency and accountability goals that body cameras are supposed to represent in our communities, HB 972 really strikes the wrong chord,” she says. “What’s the point of body cameras then?” If the public can’t see what the cameras record, she adds, “only one side of that equation is going to actually have access,” which means the cameras aren’t “really serving the purpose they were meant to serve.”
(Earlier this year, the city of Raleigh purchased six hundred body cameras, which will be rolled out over the next three years. In Durham, a debate over when and how footage would be released stalled the implementation of a body-camera program; while HB 792 rendered that debate moot, no progress has been made since the law passed.)
With Charlotte on edge last week, McCrory fielded an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, who pressed the governor about concerns voiced by critics: that HB 792’s built-in lack of transparency would only lead to a lack of accountability, that the law denies public access to what should be public records. McCrory abruptly and awkwardly dodged, saying he had to “get back to work” because he had “a lot of work to do.”
Standing outside the Omni Hotel in Uptown, Tiffany Blackwell agreed that there’s a lot of work to do in North Carolina. But she’s not sure a Republican majority in Raleighor the Republican in the Executive Mansionhas any inclination toward actually doing it, toward bridging the divide between the police and the communities they serve.
“Anything the Republicans can do to keep us in chains, they’ll do,” she told me. She wiped the sweat off her brow and looked skyward. “Why does this keep happening?”
After a pause, she answered her own question. “I’ll tell you why. They have beaten us down. They have taken our men and put them in prison. They have scared our children and created a system where we are dependent. And then they attack us. They shoot us where we livewhere our children play. This must end.”
Additional reporting by Paul Blest and Lauren Horsch.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Charlotte Rising”