The autumn of Charlotte’s discontent
High-velocity beanbags, rubber bullets, megaphones, masks, and love — the humans and the humanity of protesting police brutality
The first thing I noticed was the choppers overhead. Constantly circling. The whipping pitter-patter of the propellers never ends.
It was about 11 p.m. on Sept. 23 and Charlotte, North Carolina, was under a midnight curfew. Due to “civil unrest,” North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory had declared a state of emergency.
I made it through mostly empty streets, and National Guard checkpoints, and at the front of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Law Enforcement Center, young black men were writing names in chalk on concrete. These names included Keith Lamont Scott, who was gunned down by police on Sept. 20 as he was on the way to pick up his son from school and Justin Carr, a protester whose death — during a Charlotte protest held a night later over the circumstances surrounding Scott’s death — is still shrouded in mystery.
A portly man with dreads and Kendrick Lamar Reeboks has a megaphone. He gives a speech from the police department steps to protesters below. One protester is in a dashiki and wears a golden mask like the ones worn by the Sons of the Harpy in Game of Thrones. Mr. Megaphone: We need those tapes! They need to show us the tapes! We’re tired of bodies in the street! The masked man watches with his fist raised.
I saw men and women, young and old, black, white, Asian and anything in-between. Their backpacks were loaded with phone chargers and extra phone batteries, snacks, and cardboard for signs. A small group of protesters sang and danced to old playground songs. Dozens offered bottled water, and small cartons of milk were passed around — in case anyone got tear gassed and needed it to help with the pain. People seemed to be buckling in for a rough week. Preachers prayed over anyone who seemed to need it.
“We’re here to do our parts,” said Pastor Milton Williams of Walls Memorial AME Zion Church, who was flanked by four other members of the clergy that night. “We’re angry just like everyone else. We support what’s going on here [with the protests]. We’re praying … and making sure the energy is where it needs to be.” Protesters with megaphones encouraged strangers to say “I love you” to the person standing nearest them. All of this happened between impassioned pleas and organized chants about the killing of Scott.
The first person I recognize near the police department is Toussaint Romain. He’s surrounded by admirers and protesters who ask questions and take selfies with the public defender. Romain is a bald man with a muscular build. He’s been protesting in the streets of Charlotte since the day Scott was killed — in a shirt and tie, no matter how unforgiving the Charlotte heat. He’s become a local folk hero for standing between protesters and riot gear-clad police, and for enduring tear gas and high-velocity beanbags.
“We were protesting peacefully,” said Romain. He’s talking about Sept. 20, when he found himself on the same street as the Scott killing just hours after it happened. He’d just finished a gym session after teaching a class at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. “Officers started to push us back, and started to throw tear gas at us. I got hit with a [concussion blast] in the back … and I turned around to face the police and got on my knees. They then threw three tear gas canisters at me, and hit me.” After protester Carr was shot, Romain again found himself between police and protesters, trying to keep the peace. He was hit in the back with a beanbag, blasted with tear gas, and sprayed with Mace. He’s walking gingerly.
As I was waiting for a chance to introduce myself to Romain, I finally ran into Braxton Winston, who, via a series of extraordinary events, has been a figure in local Charlotte news for almost a year.
Last November, Winston heard an explosion from a neighbor’s house. He went over to investigate and saw a woman and her 2-year-old son struggling to escape their burning home. Before setting the house on fire, the woman’s boyfriend had choked her and beaten her until she was unconscious. Winston pulled the son from the fire and helped the mother to safety. The story was all over local news channels. A year later, he’s one of the most recognizable figures of the Charlotte protests, thanks to his constant Facebook streaming of events and iconic photos of him standing in front of police with his fists raised.
Winston has a disarming personality that’s only enhanced by his friendliness and Brooklyn accent. Plus he’s smart and a Phillips Academy Andover graduate. He knows many Charlotte police officers by name, jokes with them about their long shifts, and defuses tense situations. Winston, when I first saw him, seemed happy to enjoy the spirit of community that tends to form in cities where these uprisings take place. However, I could tell — his voice broke when relating details from earlier, more volatile nights of protest — that he was reeling. After all, he’d seen a man get killed right in front of him just 48 hours earlier.
I’ve known Winston for a long time. He’s a fellow black alum of Davidson College, which means we have a bond that’s hard to break. It’s no exaggeration: Every black person who is on campus at Davidson at the same time knows one another. Most known for being the tiny college where NBA star Stephen Curry made his name, fewer than 10 percent of 2,000 students who make up Davidson College are black. The school is a tight-knit community altogether — according to Winston, Davidson administration has reached out to offer support for his work — but the black alumni community? We’re deeply invested in each other’s well-being. Even back in school, Winston and his classmates, three years older than me, helped me keep my head on straight while trying to adjust to a small town, seemingly impossible classes, and a whole lot of white people.
Davidson is 20 minutes north of Charlotte. At 19, and with a head full of cornrows, a love of throwback jerseys and pants that didn’t quite reach my waist, I spent the summer after my freshman year on campus teaching at Freedom Schools. I drove to Charlotte to enjoy some nightlife. I’d go downtown and get treated like I didn’t belong.
Charlotte’s downtown is home to bars that play Flo-Rida as loud as Journey. The epicenter is the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets. There are wallet-friendly happy hours and people bounce from bar to bar. Even when I cleaned up and put on a button-up, I was sometimes denied entry into Charlotte’s 18-and-up nightclubs. I was turned away at the door — something like these people experienced. Once, when I managed to get into a club to meet up with a black male friend, his girlfriend, and her friend — both white women — my friend and I went to grab (nonalcoholic) drinks. White guys then pulled the women to the side to make sure they were “safe,” and to ask why they were with us. I never got called a nigger in downtown Charlotte, but I sure felt like one.
Yet Charlotte is perceived by many as a southern city that’s not quite southern. A place where young bankers and forward thinkers of varying races converge in a space more progressive than the rest of the South, despite socioeconomic indicators that it still has a long way to go before it’s as progressive and successful as its reputation.
Charlotte ranks among the worst 10 states in terms of upward mobility. It’s also home to an increasingly segregated school district: 20 percent of schools have 95 percent of students as part of one race. One in three schools has at least 80 percent of students living in poverty. Seventy percent of black households make less than $60,000 while 60 percent of white households make more. Poverty has also almost doubled since 2000. To make matters worse, the areas of poverty are confined to certain poor communities — such as Grier Heights, for example — while entire other sections of the city, such as the hyperaffluent Cotswold, are wealthy. And white.
Ironically, a moment the city hangs it hat on when touting its progressiveness is when former Florida A&M University football player Jonathan Ferrell was gunned down and killed in the street. On Sept. 14, 2013, Ferrell crashed his car in the Bradfield Farms neighborhood — about 20 miles east of where people are protesting over the killing of Scott now — and was looking for help. He knocked on a door of a home, the woman in the house became afraid, and she called the police thinking she was about to be the victim of a break-and-enter. When multiple police cars arrived, officer Randall Kerrick hit Ferrell with a stun gun before firing 12 bullets at him. Ferrell, hit with 10 of them, was dead.
There was no cellphone footage (though some dashcam footage was eventually released). No series of tweets from eyewitnesses. However just 18 hours after the shooting, Charlotte’s first black police chief, Rodney Monroe, who retired last July, met with prosecutors and investigators and decided to issue a warrant for Kerrick’s arrest: manslaughter. As is par for the course in these cases, the arrest failed to land an indictment. But Attorney General Roy Cooper tried again with more witnesses and succeeded in bringing about charges against Kerrick. The case, which ended in a hung jury, was supposed to be a sign that Charlotte, though a black man was killed for seemingly no reason, is the racially cooperative place it’s billed as.
“The defense just did a better job than the prosecution,” Romain said, thinking back to the case. “The system actually operated like it should. Too often what we see is what appears to be a cover-up. But that wasn’t the case. That was the difference between Charlotte and the rest of the nation.”
This reputation has remained solid even as the state of North Carolina rolled out a law that eliminated any protection from anti-LGBT discrimination. That law led to the NBA moving its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans. This is where Michael Jordan presides over his Hornets (who finally reclaimed their historic name). Jordan, a man so closely associated with North Carolina’s Tar Heel culture that he’s finally, if informally becoming the face of it, is fighting his history of passivity in the face of American racial strife by finally speaking up and donating millions to organizations working for change. This is also the city where Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton emerged as football’s brightest and most divisive new star. Clearly it’s complicated for the Panther: One day he is declaring that his blackness bothers people, and on another he says he doesn’t see race at all.
He was dead.
He was dead.
He was dead.
Winston repeated those three words, three times each.
On Sept. 21, Carr was killed while protesting outside of Charlotte’s glassy, upscale Omni Hotel. Winston was one of the people who tried to resuscitate him after he was shot. Everything is unclear — including whether Carr was shot by a metal or rubber bullet, whether the bullet came from police or a civilian, and whether Carr died at the scene. According to police statements, Rayquan Borum — who has a yet-to-be-revealed motive to shoot Carr — amid the chaos of police officers shooting rubber bullets and gas cans, fired a single lead shot that hit Carr on the side of the head at point-blank range.
“Our crime scene investigators and our homicide detectives were able to use a lot of footage,” said Charlotte police chief Kerr Putney in a statement. “A real-time crime center was able to supply footage from cameras that helped us solve that case.”
The alleged shooter was undetected by dozens of cops within a few feet of him, and managed to escape before being arrested a few days later. Police say they have security footage of the shooting but as of Monday they haven’t released it. There is also a first-person essay written by a Ryan James for The Daily Beast declaring that he saw a “civilian” fire “indiscriminately” into a crowd of protesters. It’s the only article James has written for the site. Borum remains in police custody. Neither he nor his lawyers have made a statement. Prosecutors claim he has confessed to the shooting.
“This is the spot where the police killed another man,” Winston screamed to me in front of the Omni Hotel. “They killed two black men this week.”
Here’s where I want to make some important distinctions: Nobody I talked to said they actually saw the shot that killed Carr. However, nobody I talked to said they heard an actual gunshot, saw anyone fire a gun or saw anyone but police firing rubber bullets. And they definitely didn’t see someone fire indiscriminately into the crowd. The people I talked to who were at the scene are wholly convinced that the police fired the shot that killed Carr.
Jimmy James Tyson is a 31-year-old community activist who stays equipped with his medical bag. Tyson is most known for his role in helping Bree Newsome scale the flagpole in front of the Charleston, South Carolina, statehouse in the wake of the murder of nine African-Americans in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, allegedly at the hands of Dylann Roof. He was arrested alongside Newsome and has since become a cult figure and integral part of the expansive, strong movement to preserve black lives in America. Tyson — as well as Newsome — is a Charlotte native.
“We roll pretty deep,” he said of his group of friends as we walked down Tryon Street on Sept. 23, trailing behind protesters. “There were about 20 of us … and all … say they saw police fire rubber bullets, and we saw [Carr] go down. Rayquan Borum is being jailed unnecessarily.”
Winston recalled the events of that night.
“The police retreated into the Omni Hotel. We followed them, because we were protesting … We rushed to the [hotel lobby] and we were banging on the glass. As you can see, there’s no glass broken. We weren’t breaking glass …We were all outside the lobby area, shoulder to shoulder. The police were in [the hotel lobby] for two to three minutes. They rushed out. One guy was firing rubber bullets. They started spraying the pepper spray … They were firing round after round after round. They were spraying pepper spray to fill up the entire atmosphere to disperse the crowd out. There’s a guy that got hit [and said,] “they’re shooting, they’re shooting!” He got hit and fell to the ground. There was a bang and we heard things ricocheting. I was going to go to him, but then I heard [Carr] say, “Oh, s—, they’re shooting,” and he pulled his hand away from his head and it was full of blood.”
As soon as Carr fell to the ground and Winston saw the blood, he retreated for a few seconds. He kicks himself for it.
“I felt like a coward,” he yelled to me through an already-hoarse voice. “I fell back, walked away to the bench [roughly five feet away from Carr’s body]. I told myself I was getting a better camera angle. But … ” his voice faded.
But Carr was being assisted. As he lay dying on the sidewalk his friends tried to stabilize his head and neck. And Tyson stepped in. He applied surgical pads to the wound, but there was too much blood. But the trained medic noticed something. “I did not see a [lead] bullet wound. At all,” said Tyson. “I heard no gunshots. I own multiple firearms. I know the sound of gunfire. I know the sound of a pistol caliber. I know the sound of a high-velocity rifle caliber. I saw nothing.” Tyson and Winston both noted, separately, that Carr fell away from the police, indicating that the momentum of the blast came from the police’s direction.
They also both, with others, tried to revive Carr. “We kept yelling,” said Winston, “stay with us, stay with us.” When Winston and Tyson retell the story, apart from one another on separate occasions, they use the same phrase: “I saw his life leave his body.” For its part, the city of Charlotte’s official Twitter feed was confused as well.
CORRECTION UPDATE: Civilian who suffered gunshot wound during protests is on life support, critical condition. Not deceased.
— City of Charlotte (@CLTgov) September 22, 2016
The Charlotte police department has released dash cam videos of Scott, showing that he’d stepped from his car and was backing away from police at the time he was shot. But the city has yet to release security footage they say they have of the Carr shooting. The longer they wait, the longer it looks like the city of Charlotte is responsible for another dead black man, with no justice in sight — only heightened mistrust and volatility. The day after I made it back to Atlanta, I got a call from a Davidson alum. “Braxton’s been arrested.”
Winston went to the Bank of America Stadium to document protests during the Carolina Panthers vs. Minnesota Vikings game. However due to the official state of emergency, the game had been deemed “an extraordinary event,” which gave police authority to search bags at will. When half a dozen police officers surrounded Winston and searched his bag, they found a gas mask, which, according to police during Winston’s Facebook Live feed, was the reason given for his arrest.
Friends, fellow Davidson Wildcats and Romain scrambled to gather bail money and to assure Winston’s safety and quick release. His arrest is a reminder that even when outsiders leave cities where these uprisings occur, many left in the cities still fight every day for their rights.
There’s plenty of anger, passion and sadness, but demonstrating for black lives and protesting brutality and lack of transparency and inequality is an act of love. It’s something you don’t realize unless you’re among the protesters. Tweets, Vines, Facebook Live feeds and news outlets convey a multitude of emotions, but the amount of love in every footstep is lost in translation. Love for lives senselessly lost. Love for family and friends we don’t want to see become the next hashtag. Love for the families left behind when someone is gunned down by police. Protesting is a disruptive expression of extreme love and I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t been in Charlotte, in the midst of it.
Being in Charlotte reminded me of being in Louisiana, the home of the jazz funeral, where, ever since the 19th century, black people have taken to the streets in the face of grief. It’s at the heart of New Orleanian and the African diasporic tradition. I’ve been to second lines for people who died of old age, and I’ve danced in the street for babies who were gunned down before they got to elementary school. We take to the streets because of our grief and at the same time in spite of it. In defiance of our pain and the forces that cause it. In dress shirts and ties we do this. In dashikis and masks. We do it in the face of bullets, metal or otherwise. And we do it under the unrelenting rumbles of choppers flying over our heads.