What’s next for the Queen City rebellion?

October 11, 2016

In the days after Keith Lamont Scott was killed by police, Charlotte, North Carolina, was the site of daily protests that spread out and mobilized people around the state. Todd St Hill and Giancarlo M. recount the story of the struggle so far, look at the challenges that protesters face and outline elements of a strategy that can achieve justice.

FOR OVER two weeks, hundreds and thousands of people have kept the rebellion against police terror alive in the Queen City. Despite the ramping up of police repression, organizers have continued to build protests and push through with their demands for justice.

It all started on September 20, when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) officers shot and killed 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott as he sat in his car, waiting for his son to get off the school bus.

That same night, hundreds of Charlotte residents took to the streets in protest, launching what has materialized into #CharlotteUprising, a collective of local organizations with support from statewide and national organizations such as Tribe, the Queer and Trans People of Color Collective, Southerners On New Ground, Black Youth Project 100, Showing Up for Racial Justice, the Southeast Asian Coalition and Workers World, among others.

On the second night of marches, riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, injuring many. During the protest 26-year-old protester Justin Carr was shot and killed. While several witnesses say they saw Carr struck by a rubber bullet fired by police, the CMPD and city of Charlotte continue to defend their claim that Carr was shot by a civilian. Later that week, 21-year-old Rayquan Borum was arrested on charges of first-degree murder.

Protesters march to demand justice for Keith Lamont Scott
Protesters march to demand justice for Keith Lamont Scott

The blatant display of brutality and abuse of power continued throughout the following days.

On Saturday, thousands of people gathered at Marshall Park for a rally and march that made stops at various locations around Charlotte, including the courthouse, CMPD headquarters, the county jail and Bank of America.

At each stop, speakers highlighted the connections between police killings and the immense amount of money that flows through Charlotte--a major corporate hub for Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Duke Energy--and the systemic racism embodied in those institutions.

The multiracial and multigenerational crowd also stopped outside the Omni Hotel, the site of the killing of Justin Carr, for a moment of silence.

AFTER THE march, demonstrators returned to the police station where a press conference was underway to announce the release of a police body-cam video--a decision undoubtedly forced by the protests as well as the release of cell-phone footage taken by Rakeyia Scott, Keith's wife, which went viral a day earlier.

The first body-cam video footage was incomplete and without audio, raising more question than answers. Suspicions of an attempted cover-up grew stronger as other videos were released and police acknowledged that the officer who killed Scott "failed to turn his camera on." Video from a patrol car dash cam showed Scott walking backwards with his hands by his side, contradicting the already questionable report by the CMPD.

The next day, hundreds of people were back in Charlotte's Uptown, this time at the gates of the Bank of America Stadium to protest outside a Carolina Panthers football game, which authorities decided to keep in Charlotte despite the state of emergency declared by city officials.

During the national anthem, protesters took a knee and raised their fists, following the example of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has inspired other athletes to follow his decision to not stand for the anthem in solidarity with oppressed people and in opposition to police killings.

On Monday, fast-food workers with Raise Up for $15 went on strike in solidarity and to make connections between the low-wage workers' struggle and the Movement for Black Lives.

Later that evening, hundreds packed the City Council's community forum, with hundreds more rallying in the lobby of City Hall. With very few exceptions, speaker after speaker took the podium to demand justice for Scott and condemn the lack of action. Many also demanded the resignation of Police Chief Kerr Putney and Major Jennifer Roberts.

The forum lasted over two and a half hours and was full of passionate and emotional speeches, including that of 9-year-old Zianna Oliphant, whose moving words went viral:

It's a shame that our fathers and brothers are killed and we can't see them anymore. It's a shame that we have to go through that graveyard and bury him. We need our fathers and brothers to be by our side...We are Black people, and we shouldn't have to feel like this. We shouldn't have to protest because you are treating us wrong. We do this because we need to, and we have rights.

THE POLICE repression in Charlotte has reached a level similar to what we've witnessed in Ferguson and Baltimore.

National media outlets reported that National Guard was dispatched and a curfew implemented to "restore peace." What wasn't as widely broadcast was the presence of state and local police stationed at every highway off-ramp to Uptown and outside major businesses. Police from the city of Greensboro, located two hours away, were spotted throughout Charlotte, and the personnel from the security firm AlliedBarton Company Police patrolled the Uptown bus terminal.

The presence of the National Guard, state troopers, local police and private security clearly gave the CMPD the opportunity and confidence to ramp up their racist and repressive practices.

From almost the beginning of the protests, activists report police targeting and arresting organizers on trumped-up charges and holding them in jail for anywhere between from two and 12 hours. The Charlotte Jail support team reported that while white protesters were typically released with two to four hours, Black demonstrators were held from four to six hours, and sometimes as long as 12.

Over 100 people have been arrested in connection with the protests so far, and some are yet to be released. Bail for some was set as high as $300,000.

Police harassment has continued in other ways. Police reportedly infiltrated a hub that demonstrators used to store food and supplies needed to deal with the tear gas, concussion grenades and rubber bullets being used against them. The jail support team has reported multiple attempts to infiltrate their operation. The #CharlotteUprising website, and especially its link to donate to the bond fund, has suffered multiple cyber attacks.

In another incident, police ran over and then arrested a demonstrator who was part of a protest that attempted to take over a highway. When other protesters tried to help the injured man, they were pepper-sprayed and pushed away.

It's clear to organizers and demonstrators that the intensified surveillance and repression by the CMPD was a reaction to the success of the uprising in garnering support from sections of Black, Brown and working-class white communities across North Carolina.

AS MANY people in Charlotte observed since Scott's killing, the eruption of righteous protests in Charlotte has been brewing for decades.

The police killings of Keith Scott, Justin Carr and Jonathan Ferrell can't be separated from the long and complicated history of racial integration and resegregation in the Queen City.

As historian Tom Hanchett explained in an interview with the Think Progress website, in the post-Civil War period, "Charlotte was one of several southern burgs where class solidarity briefly trumped racial division." According to Hanchett, the 1890s witnessed what became dubbed as the Fusion Movement, in which Blacks:

came together with ordinary white folks and voted out the men of property and standing. The landowners, the railroad owners, many of them former slave owners, got voted out of both houses of the legislature and also the governor's chair in 1896...The Fusion movement redrafted the state constitution, including a passage aimed at guaranteeing working-class economic security long before the American labor movement began.

Along with other eruptions of multiracial struggle during the high point of Southern Populism, this example didn't last long. When the white ruling class regained power, it embarked on a campaign of white supremacy meant to break cross-racial solidarity and solidify segregation in all modes of life.

It took until the 1950s and '60s before the rise of the civil rights movement finally defeated Jim Crow segregation, at least legally. Judged against other North Carolina cities, Charlotte led the way in desegregating schools. But that impressive feat has been reversed over the past 15 years.

Meanwhile, the number of people living in poverty in Charlotte-Mecklenburg grew from 159,000 in 2000 to 314,000 today. According to the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, the percentage of people in poverty in Mecklenburg County was 11.3 percent in 2005, compared to 13.3 percent nationally. By 2010, that percentage had grown to 15.3, tying with the national average.

Despite all efforts to keep them poor, many Blacks experienced socio-economic mobility and established neighborhoods such as McCrorey Heights and Brooklyn--home of the first free Black library in the South.

But as Charlotte rapidly expanded, city officials intentionally planned the construction of highways through these communities--which made the protesters' shutdowns of Interstates 77 and 85 all the more symbolic. Today, Charlotte has the worst statistics for social mobility rates among poor Black people of all large cities in the U.S.

WHILE THAT long and painful history continues to inform the present struggles of Black and Brown people living in Charlotte, it also teaches us important lessons about the power of solidarity and the importance multiracial organizing--lessons that are being relearned today as thousands are called upon to show up for more protests.

Within the first week, the demonstrations had already had a significant impact on the profits of many hotels and businesses, which were suffering financial blows due to boycotts in response to state's anti-trans House Bill 2 According to the Charlotte Observer, the Westin had nearly 4,000 room-night cancellations over the first weekend of protests, amounting to nearly $2 million in lost profits.

Much of the coverage by mainstream media highlighted how these financial woes for Charlotte business trickled down to the waiters, cooks and hotel staff--a blatant attempt to pin working people against one another. What the media failed to report was the fact that many of those marching downtown past curfew were these same workers, often still in uniform.

The events that led to the ongoing resistance in Charlotte have---like many other incidences of police brutality and murder---activated ordinary people, young and old, across racial identities, to demonstrate against racist policing. The particular social, economic and political landscape of Charlotte has fostered a certain resistance to efforts to divide the people who were in the streets over the last two weeks.

The conditions for many people who live in Southern cities like Charlotte provide the potential for bringing different people together under what could be a shared goal of stopping police brutality, divesting from and abolishing prisons, and divesting from the banks and corporate institutions that fund them and benefit from the militarism of the police.

The organizing on the ground in Charlotte has been done across racial line, by queer, trans* lesbian, gay, and straight members of the Southeast Asian community, Latinx community and Black community. This capacity for achieving solidarity has frightened the ruling class of Charlotte, leading to the intensified police crackdown--but it can and should be a beacon of hope for the struggle against capitalism and for liberation.

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