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The following are personal accounts by two participants from the 2nd day of riots and protests that have shaken Charlotte in the aftermath of the Kieth Lamont Scott’s murder. On the first night, impromptu protests escalated into battles with projectiles, a 3-hour highway takeover and bonfires on I-85, and an attempted looting of Wal-Mart. On day two, the Governor declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard is now patrolling the city. Large protests have continued, including a third takeover of the highway, albeit with a generally more peaceful character. You can donate to help bail folks out of jail here.
I rolled into Charlotte, a town that I’ve visited for years but never lived in, full of apprehension and skepticism. Charlotte is a banking capital of the South, known more as a sprawling corporate suburban hell than a bastion of resistance. But the first day of the uprising was inspiring and irresistible from afar, all the more so knowing the deep oppression and dispossession that goes into making the wealth that Charlotte is known for. So me and a couple friends packed a car with some cases of water and banners and other supplies to share, and made our way down for Day 2.
By 7pm, Marshall Park was already packed—between 500 and 1000 people easy. People were milling about, mostly ignoring the rotation of men on bullhorns at the front of the open amphitheater, and instead taking the time to give hugs to friends or debate the unexpectedly militant tactics of the night before. As a crowd it refreshingly lacked the highly managed, ‘nonprofit activist’ feel of most demos where I live now.
The march left fast, and quickly took over one, then two lanes of traffic. Before almost any time had passed, the crowd was led by a few folks into a church parking lot. There were audible displays of disappointment immediately—most folks didn’t seem to know that this was where we were going—and people started yelling and muttering shit like, “Fuck this Jesus shit,” “It ain’t Sunday,” and “We don’t need that submissive religion.”
One brave woman just started screaming, “I wanna march!” as she started to leave the parking lot by herself. The entire crowd followed her, heading in the direction of the police station downtown. I felt that rare feeling of new things being possible. It was only 7:45.
The crowd ascended the stairs of the Epicenter, a three story open-air mall, and started gathering on the second floor. As more people amassed, I heard folks asking each other, “Now what? Why are we here?” Other curious voices continued, “This is a weird place to march to; it’s so enclosed. Where are our exits?” Crews started exchanging their observations. “We could get out that way if we needed to. Yo, over there’s an exit.” As more folks poured into the space, I heard a woman shout, “The only way to go is up!” and folks started climbing the stairs and the escalators. A minute later, we heard the first glass shatter. Some people ran but quickly calmed as I heard shouts of, “Stay together! Don’t scatter. We good, y’all!” There was a mixture of groans and cheers, laughter, “hell yeah!”s. Immediately some folks grabbed a huge rolling cooler and started wheeling it towards the interior railing of the third floor. Others warned, “Hold up. Tell folks to move!” People by the railing shouted, “Hey, everybody, move out the way!” And once it was clear below, folks tossed that fucker over the edge.
The crowd was just getting dense enough at the intersection of Trade Street and Tryon Street to really stop cars from passing through. I was standing next to a child on a bike when a slow-moving car sped up to halt right in front of us, nearly hitting us. “What the fuck?!” I screamed at the car while the kid stood firm behind his bike, stoic as fuck and glaring at the young man driving. Then the car lurched forward, bumping me and the kid’s bike. I slammed my hands on the passenger side of the hood of the car and shouted, “Fuck no! The fuck is wrong with you, tryna run over a kid?!” I heard a woman next to me cry out, “That’s my son! You ain’t gonna run over my son!” I kept my hands braced on the hood as people started to swarm the car and yell at the driver that he better fall back. Though the night was young, people were amped and it was clear after the Epicentre that folks already felt powerful as a group, down to wreck some shit and ready to look out for each other.
As I stared at the dude in the driver’s seat, my friend ran up to me and put an urgent hand on my shoulder. “I saw what happened, and I know you’re really mad right now, but that dude is packing. Did you know that?” I spun around silently to face my friend. “Yeah, I didn’t think you could see it from here. You do you, but he’s dangling a revolver out the window right now.” Some folks on my side of the car, the passenger side, started hitting and kicking the car. The driver got out and walked slowly around to the people fucking with his ride. They all started yelling and flexing at each other, and a handful of cops soon rushed in to surround the shitbag driver, telling him to get back in his car and GTFO. He complied, and the crowd let him drive off.
“Stop throwing bottles!” “Don’t give them a reason to use violence!” I milled around the intersection of Tryon and Trade while some folks tossed plastic water bottles at the line of riot cops and others screamed at them to stop. One woman stood in the plant beds outside the Ritz Carlton yanking up handfuls of tiny shrubs, hurling them over the crowd and into the line of riot cops. I was wearing a mask when a young Black man approached me, looking at me with narrowed eyes. “I heard about you, white boy. I read about you outside agitating shit. I could drag your ass all through these streets, so I best not catch you throwin’ shit.” My gut reaction, from a decade of being misgendered, was to retort, “I’m a woman.” But, realizing that totally wasn’t the point, I tried to just say calmly, “Man, I haven’t thrown shit tonight.” He looked me up and down again and reminded me, “I better not catch you throwing anything. We ain’t about your kinda shit.”
It was clear that the cops were holding back. They were fucking scared all night, unprepared for the storm they had unleashed. People were furious—earlier that night a shooting took place near the Omni, and multiple protesters said it was police who shot the protester. The man’s name was Justin Carr, he was shot in the head at point blank range, and he died the next day.
For awhile folks came and went in smaller groups of maybe 50 from the intersection of Trade and Tryon, pushed to leave by a new wave of tear gas, and branched off into surrounding blocks with their anger. On multiple occasions a group of bike cops would follow us, only to be pelted by rocks and bottles from the crowd, and would bike off in a hurry. I tried to block them once by adding a trash can to the mix; I got it loose from the sidewalk but it was too heavy to do much with other than roll it somewhat pathetically in their direction. But wait! Two more people came up behind me after I left it—a perfect projectile! I ran back, and with our combined efforts we sent the trash can, which held discarded protest signs, hurling through a massive bank headquarters’ window. It’s a pity that capital itself doesn’t shatter so easily.
Down the hill from the line of riot cops, a hill that was now littered with clothes hangers and shoeboxes thanks to the expropriation of the Charlotte Hornets store, people were hanging out casually. Every now and then a flash bang grenade went off. Folks were sharing boxes of Snickers and Twix bars, beers, water, and other supplies recently donated to the movement by local capitalist shops. We threw in our own supply of liberated Gatorade and coconut water—it’s important to have health-conscious alternatives, and electrolytes are crucial y’all.
In thinking back a couple days later, that was maybe my favorite time of the night. Just hanging out, smiling and meeting people, talking about race and the police and the state, screaming ‘Fuck 12’ at the helicopter, being both sad and angry and joyous and exhilarated. I saw a sweaty older white man in a Sublime T-shirt and we sang the lyrics to “April 26, 1992” together. He said it wasn’t about race, but about fighting back together. I told him I thought it was about both.
A lot of the time I was one of only few white faces in a sea of deeply angry, fierce, and courageous Black folks who were risking their lives to do something many had only dreamed of. No 5 or 6 hours of rioting together was going to erase the suspicion and skepticism that a lot of folks held towards me, much less the real structural positions of privilege and power that come with white supremacy.
But with only a couple exceptions, the conversations I had and questions put towards me—about why I was there, about what I wanted, about who I was with—held an honesty that anonymous twitter-sniping and college campus-style identity politics can never approach. In between the flash bangs and bouts of coughing, I tried to be honest in return, to say I was there for Keith Lamont Scott, for all the Keith Lamont Scotts, but also that I was there for myself, because I hate the police deeply and personally.
Maybe it was because other folks saw our crew there the whole night, after a lot of other people had left, throwing down as hard as we could, or maybe it was those conversations about whiteness and the police, but by the end of the night I felt safer and more cared for than in a hundred peaceful marches, where I know damn well that most of the other people there wouldn’t do shit if I got snatched by the cops.
After teams of people re-purposed some metal gates to barricade Trade St. and failed to set fire to a dumpster, the crowd slowly retreated back to the intersection of Caldwell and Trade. Our numbers were a little smaller, as multiple crews had left earlier in cars to target other parts of the city, partly due to debates that broke out about what might be more materially and politically strategic to loot than Hornets gear.
When I got to the intersection, there were already a couple trash can fires, and the partly smashed window façade of the Hyatt hotel was completely covered in white tags of “Black Lives Matter.” Cars with spinning rims pulled up, filled with people leaning out the windows or standing on top, to block the intersection while we all danced to Lil Boosie. Besides “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” the most common chant of the night was probably, “Without a badge you a bitch and a half, Fuck the Police, Fuck the Police.” Periodically someone would run up and toss concrete through the hotel windows. I passed around a foamy can of Bud Light, and tried to remember ever feeling this happy.
I remember one tall woman who started chanting, “Smash that shit white boy!” at a kid who was kicking out the windows, to cheers. She saw me laughing and gave me a strong hug. A white dude in a collared blue shirt who worked at the building tried to stop some people from smashing it; he was jumped and chased away by the crowd.
“We been here too long, y’all.” “The riot cops are getting closer.” “They can just surround us here.” “Ok, y’all, let’s move!” And we headed South down Caldwell from Trade. As we approached the Hilton Inn’s glistening glass facade, somebody at the front of the crowd yelled out, “That looks too good!” I laughed with dozens of people in agreement. “Don’t that look too good?” the same voice asked. I shouted back, “That looks way too good!” among a chorus of “Hell yeah!”s and “We need to get that!” As folks grabbed shit to smash the place, I heard people looking out for each other, “Okay, y’all, move back!” “Watch out now.” Somebody with a 2×4 like a battering ram charged the window. On the fourth try, it shattered, and everyone cheered. Folks threw rocks through the other windows, and somebody tagged” R.I.P. Keith Scott.”
We spilled over the on-ramp and the grass, my friend shouting at me, “This is fucking crazy!” People went racing onto 277 with no lights or anything to make them more visible to highway drivers, and a couple cars sped by. I arrived to just a few brave souls standing their ground in one lane in front of one car. The car was stopped, but still had plenty of space to get around with some maneuvering. It lurched forward at an angle towards me, and in the moment that I saw those headlights, I thought I was about to be run over. I juked to the left in terror, and ran right into a brave man who was sturdy as hell and giving no fucks. When I crashed into his body he didn’t respond at all, but to me it was an immediate and visceral reminder that if we were brave together, maybe we could get some shit done. Reorienting in that collective power, I wrapped my hands around the rock in my pocket as I ran towards the car.
“It’s a fucking beamer?!” I shouted as I got close. Folks on the highway were having words with the driver, but I couldn’t hear what was going on. I heard a woman say, “He’s Black, let him through.” And he found the space he needed to drive away. A man called back to the woman who’d spoken, “I don’t care if they Black. If they don’t stick their fist out in support of us, they ain’t getting through. They gotta stick their fist out!” A few minutes and several passed cars later, someone else said, “Man, we gotta stop lettin people through. If we’re taking the highway, we gotta take it 100%.”
The group I was with moved quickly up the highway, and we started to get separated from the dozens and dozens of folks continuing to amass near where we met that first car. I decided with my crew to head back towards that group to get stronger numbers and feel out what people wanted to do. As we approached, I saw a huge swath of riot cops coming down the on-ramp. “Y’all, there’s as many of them as there are of us,” I said to my small crew. “Yeah,” my friend agreed. “It’s time to get off the highway.” We had agreed earlier to exit up a hill that didn’t have fencing like the rest of the highway, and now dozens of people were using the same narrow route. The hill was steeper than I expected, and as folks scampered with me, I was nervous about the possibility of a human landslide, us all tumbling over each other and down this hill into the highway. “Help each other!” I heard my friend say. Others echoed, “Y’all let’s take care of each other!” A man next to me was just standing next to a wall, helping everyone who ran past him. I saw a man fall from a tight spot, grabbed his outstretched arm, and yanked him back up, “I got you, man, you’re good.” “Thank you!” he said as he scuttled up. We poured out right onto the rocky rail track of Stonewall Station, where people started scooping up rocks as we ran. I could hear a faint clinking sound as rubber bullets fired by police on the highway below struck the railing nearby.
I saw a man throwing rocks at the glass of the waiting area, so I stopped running to avoid behind hit by a rock or having glass shatter on top of me. “Hold up!” I called to my crew to alert them, and the man with the rock saw me, dropped his hand down, and told us to run on. Somebody called, “Man, not now, we gotta go!” and the dude joined us as we ran. We followed the crowd turning left into the stairwell of the station, a disconcertingly finite space. Still people hurled rocks through glass doors as we descending the tight stair case. Running as fast as I could without tripping, and jumping the last half of each set of stairs, my arms kept slapping against those of the shirtless man I was racing next to. Again I was reminded of the physical power of our group. I thought, “I don’t know how long this staircase is, and I don’t know how many cops will be at the bottom of it, but I’m ready to fight next to this dude.” When we poured out onto the street, there were no cops, just another group of people who’d taken a different staircase. “Alright y’all, let’s regroup!” someone shouted, and we kept moving.