As a photojournalist and documentarian of North Carolina, I am having trouble putting the Charlotte protest from September 21, 2016 into words. What can be said about such a tragedy? All I can do is tell my story and share what I saw, felt and heard.
I arrived at 7 PM at Marshall Park in Uptown Charlotte, NC. The day was beautiful and the sun was starting to set. A couple hundred protesters of all races, sizes and colors were gathered in the park with their families and pets. Two helicopters buzzed overhead, but the police presence was relaxed and friendly at this point. Within ten minutes of my arrival, the group started walking and lined up as a march. Signs help high, the protesters walked from the park to the nearby church, while chanting phrases like ‘Hand up, Don’t Shoot’, ‘No Justice, No Peace’, and ‘Black Lives Matter’. The protest was mainly surrounding the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a black disabled civilian whose family claimed he was unarmed, but the police claimed that he had a gun. The evidence of this matter is still unclear to the protesters, as the police have not yet released the video of the incident to the public. I saw many signs during the protest that read ‘release the tapes’, indicating the frustration of some of the protesters that were present.
The march left Marshall Park and walked along the main road before stalling outside of a nearby church. The march redirected toward the Charlotte Police headquarters and was still peaceful, however a tension could be felt throughout the crowd. Police guided traffic and cleared roads as the protest made its way to the headquarters where a peaceful protest would take place. The crowd chanted ‘Release the Tapes!’ and some of the protesters walked up the front entrance doors, yelling at the officers behind the glass doors to come out and explain why Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot. No officers exited the building and one of the protesters beside me picked up a traffic cone and yelled “to the epicenter”.
As most of the protesters started walking to the epicenter, other protesters were yelling for people to stay at the police headquarters. A protester beside me yelled “Why the epicenter? This protest is about police brutality.”
The protesting group, now growing in size, peacefully arrived at the epicenter. A few cars in traffic stopped to stand on top of their cars and give encouraging speeches to the crowd. A younger black man gave a big hug to a younger white man in front of the entire crowd, and a feeling of unity and racial equality soared throughout. As a white male, I received many handshakes and hugs from black protesters early in the night. It was apparent to me that this protest was about equality and justice.
Shortly following the hugging on top of the vehicle, a riot squad assembled at the end of the street, causing a stir in the protesters. Riots happened the night before in Charlotte, so the presence of the riot squad was expected this night. This did not stop emotions running high from the protesters, and the signs and chants were directed to the riot squad line. At this point I was still at the front of the protest line, and I did not seen any violence whatsoever.
The growing group of protesters surrounded the riot squad, still peaceful, but police lacked control. The riot squad started swiftly walking and entered the overhang of the Omni Hotel. I followed at the front of the protester pack to document the interactions of protesters and police, but stopped just short of the overhang which seemed like it would get crowded. A person beside me yelled to the crowd “don’t go in there, it’s a trap”. Moments later, tear gas smoke and loud screams exited the overhang. I heard 2 or 3 distinct loud popping sounds, but was unsure of whether or not it was a gun. People came running out full speed from the Omni overhang, repeatedly yelling “They’re tasering people”. A circle of protesters quickly gathered around what looked to be a body near the entrance where I was perviously standing. A woman walked past me crying and yelling “They shot him in the head, the police shot the man in the head”. I stood on the outside of the circle confused, and listened for what was happening. More people walked by me crying and I asked them what happened. This lady told me that she was standing beside the man as he was shot, and that a police officer fired some sort of rifle or shotgun at the protester, who later was identified as Justin Carr. She told me she hoped it was a bean bag gun but was not sure.
Ten minutes or so after the shooting, a police vehicle pulled up beside the body. As the police SUV started to pull away, the confused and angry crowd started to yell and throw water bottles toward the car. The police vehicle accelerated quickly out of the crowd as and took a quick turn across the intersection of E Trade St., and N College St. The police car slowed a few feet in front of a protester on a bike near the middle-edge of the intersection, hitting him and throwing him from his bike. The police vehicle reversed and stopped, and then cut the wheel hard to the side and peeled out beside the damaged bike. The SUV accelerated loudly down away from the crowd as protesters gathered to help the possibly injured protester. The protester was walking, but I had just witnessed a police hit-and-run. I ended up standing beside a younger guy who said he recorded the whole event on his phone, but I have yet seen the video surface.
The previously peaceful crowd tensed with the as information traveled of a police shooting. The words were on everyones mouth ‘The police killed a protester by shooting him in the head’. I witnessed lots of crying, and spoke with a few discouraged younger protesters. They told me that their lives as black men would never be the same, and they will now need to be grateful for every day that they are alive.
The crowd quickly seemed to become more tense and angry as the stories of police brutality floated through the air. Protesters starting hurling water bottles at the riot squad, which had increased in size of 60 or so. As the distraction near the riot squad line grew, much of the police force was distracted and could not attend to the looting which was beginning to take place further down the road. Roadside store windows started being broken with roadside objects, and I saw a group of people run out of the Charlotte Hornets Fan Shop with jerseys and lanyards. I must be clear, out of the hundreds or maybe thousands of people at or around the protest, there were many different groups of people. There were peaceful protesters, violent protesters, gangs, looters, and people from many religious and nonreligious organizations. Many people had different agendas this night, and it was clear to me that most of the protesters, however upset, were nonviolent and carried a strong message of unity. This said, it was impossible to ignore the looting and growing chaos.
It did not take longer than an hour for the riot squad to disperse the chaotic crowd in order to regain control. They launched dozens of tear gas canisters and started pulling in nearby protesters and arresting them behind the riot squad line. On a megaphone, a message was delivered to the crowd stating that any activities in the area were now considered illegal, and that the police were going to arrest anyone present, regardless of the affiliation. Shortly following this announcement, tear gas canisters were launched in front of the riot squad line, and protesters attempted to throw them back. The riot squad started quickly moving forward in formation, while loudly banging their riot sticks on the their shield as a scare tactic. This worked, and the remaining crowd dispersed in all directions before reforming as a smaller crowd down the road. This seemed to chase off most of the protesters, rioters, and looters. I was sore and my eyes were puffy from the multiple rounds of tear gas and I decided that it was a good time for me to leave as well.
The Charlotte Police force claimed that they were not connected to the death of Justin Carr, and have taken a protester into custody for the murder charge. Protests have risen in response to this arrest, as many of the protesters still believe the shot came from a police officer. This information is very important and I hope a video surfaces to show what actually happened this night. The last thing that Charlotte needs right now is the residents and protesters believing in two police brutality incidents within the same week.
As for my personal opinion of the entire situation, I am trying to stay as neutral as possible and document this event for the public to form their own beliefs. Everything that I witnessed still has only led me to more questions. North Carolina is my home, and all I want to see is peace in our state and justice served to those who deserve it.
The pictures and video below tell the rest of the story.
Video from the protest and rioting: