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5 Things to Know: Community Organizers Kicked Off Parks Commission

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Apryl Lewis, seen here praying with fellow community organizers in 2019, has been kicked off the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Commission
Apryl Lewis (center, facing camera) leads a prayer while carrying out community work in the Lake Arbor complex in summer 2019. She was kicked off the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Commission on June 7. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Community Activists Kicked Off Parks Commission

The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) has removed a member of the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Commission from her position after she protested venue fees that she says make access inequitable for smaller grassroots organizations like the one she works with. 

The commission also refused to grant another term to Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Commission Chair Blanche Penn after she invited a child who took part in the protest to address commissioners at the meeting where the protest took place on May 10. The removal of Lewis and Penn came during a BOCC meeting on June 7.

In the ensuing days, Lewis has threatened to file a defamation lawsuit against Park and Recreation Director Lee Jones and Park and Recreation Commission Vice Chair Mark Loflin, who she said unfairly “portrayed (her) as a violent person” following the protest, according to the Charlotte Observer. Jones has said that Lewis “stormed” at him, an account that Penn and at least one other commissioner that was present have denied. 

Lewis’ original complaints came in connection with a Juneteenth event scheduled to take place tomorrow at Romare Bearden Park. Action NC, an organization that Lewis works with, was charged $2,256 to host the event at the park, even after 50% of the total fee was waived due to Action NC’s nonprofit status. 

Lewis said the high fees make it difficult for smaller organizations to have access to the parks for events. 

Blanche Penn, seen here holding her grandson, Apryl Lewis, seen here praying with fellow community organizers in 2019, has been kicked off the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Commission
Blanche Penn with one of her grandchildren in 2019. Penn will not be allowed to keep her seat as chair of the Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation commission. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

While Lewis was removed from her position as Central Region 2 commissioner by a unanimous vote, Penn was not reappointed after a motion to do so failed to get a second. Her term expires on June 30. 

Penn addressed the incident publicly in a Facebook post on Wednesday, claiming she was unfairly targeted for simply agreeing with Lewis despite not having taken part in the protest. 

“If you know me, I am for the people and will take a stand for seniors, youths, adults, nonprofits, organizations, grassroots, and our residents to be able to use the parks, greenways, and facilities without so many fees,” Penn wrote. “I did a study on fees and charges and gave a copy to the BOCC. I will always be for the people and if that is wrong then I am wrong.” 


County Set to Give CMS $30M Increase

During a straw vote meeting on Wednesday, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners appeared set to give Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools a $30-million increase in their budget as compared to last year, though they stopped short of approving the full $40-million raise requested by the CMS Board of Education. 

During the meeting, County Manager Dena Diorio recommended that the county approve half of the increase, but a substitute motion from commissioner Mark Jerrell that called for a $30-million increase was approved 5-3. If approved in a final vote, which is expected as soon as next week, the increase would bring the CMS budget from $538 million to $568 million in Fiscal Year 2023. 

Commissioner Vilma Leake voted against the increase, stating that, “I’m not going to support giving them another dime, and I’m saying it loud and clear, because they do not return results, and if it was a business, they’d be closed down 10 years ago.”

Leake, a former teacher herself, went further during a public meeting in May when she said, “Every parent in this community ought to take out a warrant and have every educator arrested and put in jail for not seeing that their children are not given a quality education.”


Victims of Graham Police Violence Reach Settlement

A group of plaintiffs announced Wednesday that they reached an agreement with the City of Graham, the Graham Police Department, and the Alamance County Sheriff in the wake of violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators during the ‘I Am Change March to the Polls’ on the last day of early voting in the November 2020 general elections.

As part of the settlement, the defendants have agreed to pay a total of $336,900 to the plaintiffs. Graham Police Chief Kristy Cole has also agreed to have an on-the-record meeting with any of the plaintiffs who would like to join within 60 days of the lawsuit’s final resolution.

Participants in the “I am Change March to the Polls” were physically injured when officers used pepper spray on the marchers, including children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

According to a release from the ACLU of North Carolina, which represented the plaintiffs alongside the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Mayer Brown LLP, many march participants were unable to get to the polls that day because they were “terrified by these actions and suffering the painful effects of pepper spray” or wrongfully arrested. 

“I was raised in Alamance County and it will always be my home. Their attempts to silence the voices of peaceful demonstrators are all too familiar,” said Rev. Greg Drumwright, founder of Justice 4 the Next Generation. “Although we’ve reached an agreement with the County, the City of Graham and law enforcement, we are deeply aware that we have still have a long way to go until we reach true equality and justice.


SBI Investigating Death of Man in CMPD Custody

The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations is investigating the in-custody death of a shooting suspect after he was transported by Medic to the hospital on Monday. According to a CMPD release, police responded to Featherstone Drive at around 2 a.m. on Monday morning after multiple neighbors called about someone who was firing shots and attempting to break into homes. 

In a 911 call related to the incident, a woman said she was hiding in her closet while someone was firing a gun outside and screaming. She said she heard the suspect trying to open her door. Shots can be heard in the background of the phone call. 

According to CMPD, officers arrived at the scene and found 31-year-old Jovontay Williams acting erratically, “exhibiting stress and delirium.” According to the CMPD release, “Officers immediately contacted Medic and then apprehended Williams using a ‘soft, empty hands’ approach as detailed in CMPD’s response to resistance policy. Williams was subsequently transported by Medic to Atrium University in life-threatening condition. He was later moved to a second hospital for more intensive care.” Williams was pronounced dead at around 10 a.m. that morning. 

Jovontay Williams (Photo courtesy of Christa Williams)

Police claim to have uncovered a firearm and drug paraphernalia at the scene, along with shell casings and a round that had struck the front portion of a residence. 

In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Williams’ mother said she was not getting any details from police. 

“My son Jovontay Williams died while in custody of CMPD. We believe that he died after being taken to the hospital for a ‘medical problem.'” she wrote. “I have no information about my sons [sic] death. They haven’t told us ANYTHING! I need answers and justice for my baby.” 


Two Arrests Made in Motel Murder

Police on Tuesday arrested two people in connection with the June 11 killing of a motel employee on Glenwood Drive in west Charlotte, charging one of them with murder and the other with a slew of crimes connected to the incident.

According to CMPD, police responded to a shooting call at the Econo Lodge at around 9 a.m. that morning and found Jayeshbhai Patel and another man suffering from gunshot wounds. Patel would later succumb to his injuries.

 

On Tuesday, police announced they had arrested two suspects in Leland. A 20-year-old man was charged with murder and attempted murder, while the second suspect, age 22, was charged with felony aid and abetting murder, felony accessory after the fact, assault, larceny, and injury to personal property.

“Our hospitality workers provide an important service to our community,” tweeted city council member Braxton Winston on the day of the murder. “They should not fear for their lives at work. There are too many guns in our community.”


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