Kass Ottley was already in bed when things started to go bad on the first night of Charlotte protests.
Ottley, founder of Seeking Justice CLT, has been a community organizer in Charlotte for 10 years, and from the moment she heard about a protest planned in front of the CMPD Metro Division office on Friday, May 29, she was uneasy about how that would end up.
The protest was the first to be held in Charlotte in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on the previous Monday. A video of the killing shows Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes while he repeatedly states that he can’t breathe, then calls for his mother before losing consciousness. Three other officers stand by idly as Floyd dies.
The video set off protests in Minneapolis, followed by other cities across the country, leading to the most widespread simultaneous Black Lives Matter protests since the movement began in 2013 in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
And on May 29, 2020, the George Floyd protests reached Charlotte, leading to more than 100 arrests and debates over who was to blame for escalating tensions and inciting violent confrontations between police and protesters.
Charlotte Protests Begin on Beatties Ford Road
Friday night’s Metro Division protest stemmed from a Facebook event titled “Justice for George Floyd,” and was hosted by a newly created group called Justice for Police Brutality – Charlotte, which led back to a couple clearly fake Facebook profiles.
Local organizers who wanted to respond to George Floyd’s murder how they saw fit — with the memory of protests that later proved to be planned by Russian bots during the Charlotte Uprising still fresh in their heads — were skeptical from the time the event hit Facebook. Some worried that it was a product of the Boogaloo Boys, an emerging anti-government right-wing extremist group that formed in preparation for a second Civil War and is known to infiltrate Black Lives Matter protests to incite violence against police.
The protest was later found to be hosted by a group of local organizers, some of whom had split with the Charlotte Uprising after 2016 to form groups such as Serve the People CLT and Red Guards Charlotte. Members of the group had last made local news in June 2019 when they jumped on the dais in the meeting chambers of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center during a city council public forum about proposed noise ordinance amendments outside of medical facilities such as abortion clinics.
As for Ottley, her concerns weren’t based on who was planning the protest, but where they were planning it.
The CMPD Metro Division office sits right in a part of the Beatties Ford Road corridor that’s extremely significant to local Black culture, a block away from the Excelsior Club and half a mile from Johnson C. Smith University, with four historically black neighborhoods within a one-mile radius.
As Ottley went to bed that night, she tuned into live streams to check on how things were going, worried that instigating confrontations between police and the members of those communities would end tragically. She watched for over an hour until things began to escalate. When tear gas began to spread across Beatties Ford Road, she jumped from her bed and made her way to the scene.
“I always tell everybody when I’m going to a protest, but I didn’t tell anybody anything,” Ottley recalled later. “My daughter was highly upset when she saw me on Facebook running because we’re getting shot with rubber bullets. She was mad as hell. I’m out here getting tear-gassed and all this mess trying to get these people out of the street and into the house, and [the organizers of the protest] are doing nothing, thinking they’re doing something good.”
A Pattern Emerges
Queen City Nerve was at the protest from the beginning, when organizers first crossed the street to stand in front of the Metro Division precinct, where 10 members of CMPD’s Constructive Conversation Team (CCT) awaited them. The team was formed in 2016 following the Charlotte Uprising. It consists of 20 officers who go into protests and demonstrations to engage with the folks taking part, hoping to build a rapport through having difficult conversations.
One protest leader made it clear with her bullhorn that “We are not going to protest the way police want us to,” sometimes standing between the CCT officers and protesters to drown out their conversations. Organizers handed out pieces of paper with the Serve the People logo that read, “There are no good cops!” and explained how police keep working-class Black communities like the ones on the Beatties Ford corridor in “semi-slave like conditions” in order to protect private property.
As the evening progressed, protesters marched peacefully up Beatties Ford Road toward the Lincoln Heights neighborhood. Many community members stood on their porches with fists raised in support or simply waving to the protesters. One woman angrily ran into the crowd when it stopped at the intersection of LaSalle Street and Beatties Ford Road, demanding that everyone leave because, “People get shot in this community all the time and you don’t care.”
An older man offered a more nuanced critique: “All these motherfuckers goin’ to call the police as soon as they’re in trouble,” he said. “Then you just gotta hope you don’t get that one racist cop!”
Upon returning to the station, confrontations with police grew more aggressive. Despite having many seemingly meaningful conversations as dusk fell, the CCT officers eventually went inside the station, and out came the Civil Emergency Unit (CEU), better known as riot police. For the next five to six hours, things would break down, as police deployed tear gas and shot pepper balls — paintballs filled with pepper spray — into the crowds.
Protests Continue Through the Weekend
It was a pattern that would repeat itself in the coming days as protests moved into Uptown Charlotte: Protesters would spend the day and early evening marching peacefully, seeing an outpouring of support from passersby, residents on their balconies and those in traffic who would honk their horns and throw up a fist. Then, as night fell, confrontations with police would heat up, eventually leading to tear gas, pepper balls, and bottles and rocks turned into projectiles.
It was a pattern that Ottley saw coming, and never wanted to see occur on the Beatties Ford corridor.
“I was angry because I sat there and I watched a group of white people come into a predominantly black neighborhood that is underserved, that has had three police shootings that I can think of in that area — one not that long ago with Danquirs Franklin — and play off of those people’s anger and emotion, get them riled up and then fall back and go home to their quiet neighborhoods — no helicopters, no tear gas, no blockades — and traumatize those people all over again,” Ottley said. “So I was really angry, I’m still angry.”
Queen City Nerve spoke to one organizer of the Beatties Ford Road protest who told us that, “This narrative that it’s white people going in and instigating the violence is just not accurate.” On the ground, it appeared to be a rather diverse group of organizers, although one white woman who took a lead role on Friday night drew the ire of many of the protest’s critics.
The member of the group that Queen City Nerve talked to, who spoke on condition of anonymity and asked to be identified only as Florence, said the protest “was always meant to be confrontational, but never meant to be violent.”
‘It’s About the People’
Florence believed the more experienced organizers in the city were denigrating the protest because they were not allowed to control it. He claimed that people working with reputable organizations had not shown enough results in the past.
“Activism is not something you can just do and receive praise for, you actually have to accomplish something,” Florence said. “You have to get your message across, and we haven’t been getting it. People who have been activists for a while, they haven’t been getting the message across, getting actual change to happen, so I feel like they’re mad because they couldn’t take advantage of it and elevate themselves.
“But really it was about the people who showed up to voice their grievances and fight back against the police,” he continued “It’s not about any one person organizing it, it’s about the people, so that’s who really matters. If other people have grievances with what the people did, then from my perspective it seems like they don’t actually care about their voices.”
As for the location of the protest, Florence said they picked the Beatties Ford Road corridor specifically because of its proximity to Charlotte’s historically black neighborhoods.
“The people who are going to respond the most are going to be people in historically black neighborhoods because that’s who experiences [police harassment] the most,” he said. “So this criticism that we’re just trying to get black people arrested, no, we’re doing this so they can voice their grievances. If we go to a white, majority wealthy neighborhood, they’re not going to have problems with the police. They’re well off enough to the point where they don’t have to worry about police brutality. The people who actually have to deal with this on a daily basis, they deserve to have a platform to fight back.”
Activists Question Police Tactics
On that Friday night, police arrested 15 people, more than half of whom were charged only with failure to disperse. Among those were Charlotte City Council member Braxton Winston and the ACLU’s local campaign manager Kristie Puckett-Williams.
Like Ottley, Williams didn’t agree with protesting on Beatties Ford Road, but attended reluctantly in order to serve a mediating role.
“Myself and councilman Winston had been out there for hours, we were there to monitor the situation and to ensure the safety of the people,” she later told Queen City Nerve. “He and I know all too well the effects of police brutality on the black community. We didn’t want to see that happen again.”
Williams believed she and Winston were targeted by police not only because they were high-profile protesters, but because they were keeping things in order. Video of Winston’s arrest shows him standing peacefully between police and protesters when he’s plucked from the street by a group of CEU officers in riot gear.
“What became apparent was they don’t want peace,” she later said of the police. “People were peaceful, they weren’t throwing shit at them. They were just talking shit to them, holding the line with them. When they arrested Braxton, it didn’t even make sense. But it does make sense, because I think what the real issue is, Braxton and I had more control than they did over the crowds, and they didn’t like that. If they took us out, they believed that the rest of the crowd would disperse, which actually, from what I was told, things deteriorated after we were arrested.”
And despite peaceful protests during the day on Saturday and Sunday, things continued to deteriorate as night fell each evening.
Braxton Winston Confronts his Captors
During a virtual city council meeting on June 1, Winston addressed CMPD Deputy Chief Johnny Jennings during a briefing on the ongoing protests. Braxton questioned CMPD’s de-escalation policies, their “blanket decisions” to arrest people for failure to disperse, and their tactics at the Friday protest, during which they pushed protesters up Beatties Ford Road away from the division office and toward “vulnerable businesses.” He then asked Jennings about his own arrest.
“What could I have done differently to not be arrested?” Winston asked.
“You could have left,” answered Jennings, who less than two weeks previous had been named the successor to CMPD Chief Kerr Putney after he retires in September. “When the dispersal order was given you could have walked away. I’m not going to try your case talking to you here at this meeting, but the bottom line is that the people that left, they did not get arrested. You stayed there, you remained, you were part of the line as officers pushed through and that’s what happened.”
During a virtual media press conference following Jennings’ briefing on June 1, Chief Putney discussed the Charlotte protests, but first stated that he found Floyd’s murder “disgusting” and that he has been surveying members of his CEU and other units because he doesn’t want anyone who felt differently working with the CMPD. However, he emphasized that those feelings will not stop him from employing force to protect his officers and city property. He pointed out that eight officers had been injured up to that point (three more were injured later on Monday night) and officers had confiscated many weapons from protesters.
Putney laid out the department’s policies for dealing with demonstrations, distinguishing between protests that are peaceful, lawful and illegal, each one building in aggression as the police see it.
“When we have that first rock or brick or bottle thrown at us, we know then that it has gone from a lawful protest to an illegal riot, and we move accordingly,” Putney said, explaining the steps he takes before deploying the CEU.
When asked about claims that police had escalated situations throughout the weekend, Putney denied that was the case.
“That is totally unfounded,” he said. “If no one throws a rock or assaults our officers, if no one tries to destroy property, they’re lawfully protesting, and we encourage and accommodate. Otherwise, we have to maintain order and will do so.”
Police Show Instances of Aggression
Queen City Nerve was on the ground during protests all day and night throughout the weekend, and did witness plenty of back and forth between protesters throwing objects and police shooting tear-gas canisters, flashbang grenades and shooting pepper balls. It was often hard to tell just who instigated each specific situation, but reporters on the ground witnessed multiple incidents in which police acted unnecessarily violent and antagonistic.
In one such instance that happened on Sunday afternoon in Uptown, bicycle police directed protesters into a parking garage at Whole Foods in Stonewall Station in Second Ward. After funneling them in without aggression, a team of CEU officers marched down Brevard Street and began pummeling protesters with pepper balls, offering them little chance to escape.
The incident was caught on Queen City Nerve’s Facebook Live stream, in which Nerve publisher Justin LaFrancois was caught in the deluge and struck with multiple pepper balls. Another video circulated online that showed the incident from a balcony in the Novel apartments above the garage.
On Tuesday night, LaFrancois captured an even scarier moment that would change the face of CMPD’s role in the Charlotte protests. At around 9:30 that night, LaFrancois was live-streaming as he walked with a group of protesters marching peacefully on Fourth Street near the Omni Charlotte Hotel. Suddenly, CEU officers began deploying tear gas from in front of the group, and when protesters turned around they were confronted with more CEU officers behind them and more tear gas.
In the video, officers can be seen in a parking garage shooting pepper balls down at the protesters. The video spread around the world and spurred calls for investigations from local and state elected officials. On Wednesday, Mayor Vi Lyles and Charlotte City Council held a community engagement session with residents outside of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center to discuss the protests, policing and racial justice in light of Tuesday night’s incident. We’ll report further on the ambush on Fourth Street and response from officials in an article to be released later today.
Community Organizers Find Hope in Turmoil
Despite a weekend in which 97 protesters were arrested from Friday night through Monday night and dozens were injured, not to mention authoritarian threats made by President Donald Trump on Monday night in which he stated he would be deploying the military to quell protests around the country, most of the organizers Queen City Nerve spoke with were optimistic about where the movement was headed as we moved into June.
“It actually makes me hopeful,” said Florence. “You see the news and it presents it as chaos and destruction, but there’s unity amongst people who are actually coming to fight back. There’s been a massive positive response across racial lines. So going forward I think we’re still going to have to get organized, we’re going to have to plan things out and be more careful, be more responsible, but I think this is a turning point in history where people are going to come together and fight against racism in a big way.”
On Monday evening, while city council grilled Jennings about police tactics, Putney answered questions from local media, and Trump threatened military action against American civilians before ordering the tear-gassing of protesters in Washington D.C. so he could pose for a photo-op across the street from the Rose Garden, Ottley herself was busy leading Seeking Justice CLT’s first official protest since the death of George Floyd.
Ottley’s “Justice Walk” served as the antithesis of Friday night’s Beatties Ford Road protest, as she held it in south Charlotte’s Myers Park. One of Charlotte’s oldest and wealthiest neighborhoods, Myers Park was built in 1911 and was the first to implement widespread racial restrictions in property deeds, stating in many of the deeds, “This lot shall be owned and occupied by people of the Caucasian race only.”
In the early 20th century, John Nolen specifically designed Myers Park’s curved streets to disorient unwanted guests and send them right back from whence they came, but on Monday, June 1, 2020, Ottley and about 1,500 of her supporters wouldn’t be turned away. They marched through the neighborhood for around two and a half hours, led at times by Carolina Panthers defensive players Shaq Thompson and Tre Boston.
The crowd chanted loudly, stopping at the intersection of Queens Road and Selwyn Avenue to take a knee for nine minutes in memory of George Floyd. Throughout the march, Myers Park residents looked on from their lawns, some showing passive support, others setting up water stations for passing protesters.
The Two Charlottes
Ottley said she had received calls from concerned residents throughout the day leading up to the protest worried that she and the people she brought would stir unrest in the well-to-do neighborhood, but she was pleasantly surprised at the reception.
“I didn’t know how we were going to be received,” she told Queen City Nerve a couple hours after the protest ended. “It’s like, OK, are these people going to be really pissed off and confrontational or are they going to embrace us? You don’t know what’s going to happen. Some people joined us, even the kids coming out, handing out the water, it was really, really nice. I was glad we had a lot of young people with us, because they want to be a part of what’s going on but they also don’t want to be a part of something violent.”
She added that there was still too much police presence for her liking, though the way they interacted with the crowd on Monday was markedly different from the interactions she witnessed on Beatties Ford Road on Friday.
“How police engage in black communities and how police engage in white communities is totally different,” Ottley said. “The tone is different, the conversation is different, there’s a whole different level of respect. I’m like, ‘Wow, maybe if you tried to do that in the black community, maybe you’d get a better response.’ It was ridiculous [on Friday], to just be snatching people and carrying on and tear-gassing people. It was just ridiculous.”
She pointed out that, earlier that Monday, police shut down the entire SouthPark Mall and parts of surrounding neighborhoods for a protest that attracted only a couple dozen people.
“They thought that there was going to be some action there and then they shut down that neighborhood pretty much. They protected those people but they didn’t protect Beatties Ford Road. They had people out there [on Friday] with [AR-15s] and all types of nonsense and they left that neighborhood wide open and vulnerable for those people to do whatever they wanted, and they came in and they did it,” she said, referencing the presence of heavily armed Boogaloo Boys at the Friday protest. “If you’re going to protect some neighborhoods, you need to protect them all.”
For Ottley, the ongoing protests following George Floyd’s death remain about cultivating the movement by welcoming newcomers and teaching them why it’s important to stand against police brutality and harassment.
As for Williams, who was on the streets every night of the weekend taking tear gas, went to jail on Friday, and marched peacefully through Myers Park on Monday, she said she’s optimistic that the widespread protests will bring change, even though she’s disheartened that it had to come to this.
“I hope that black people are able to take their seats as full citizens of this country, that our rights discontinue being diminished just because of the color of our skin, that we are seen as full participants in this society, and treated as full participants in this society, not second-class citizens,” Williams said. “I’m very saddened that this is what we have to do in order to see a change. We can’t just have a democracy where change is representative of all the people in the room, and not just the voice of a few. I wish Black people had more access to the democratic process.”