The recorder on my table made a hissing sound as I made DIY cassettes of my original music. I read a news report that a black man had been shot by police in Charlotte. This was only a day after the video of the death of Terence Crutcher at the hands of a Tulsa police officer was released. The graphic video of Crutcher bleeding on the ground was still in my mind.
Now police had shot another black man; this time in my hometown.
The man's name was Keith Lamont Scott, and his family members and eyewitnesses on the scene were saying all he had in his hand was a book. My mind went blank and my emotions shut down while feelings of helplessness overwhelmed me. I decided I needed to try to get on with the day. Life had to go on even as an uneasy feeling refused to leave me.
Word spread that people were showing up at The Village at College Downs, the apartment complex where Keith Scott lived and died. The rumors were of helicopters, police in riot gear, civil unrest. It was clear the neighborhood needed as much support as they could get.
The closer I got to the apartment complex, the more I realized this was not an ordinary protest. Police had blocked parts of Old Concord Road and people were walking from miles away. I parked my car in a dimly lit neighborhood and approached the site of the shooting.
The sun was setting and a dusty fog made for an ominous backdrop. Police were putting on riot gear and arming themselves with wooden batons. A helicopter flew overhead, placing its spotlight on hundreds of protesters. My stomach dropped. Text messages from my partner Joanne poured in, asking me to come home.
A car parked in the center of the crowd of blasted anti-police songs while a man stood atop and rapped along. The bass from his trunk shook the ground. The police had their own vehicle: a CATS bus filled with more police, riot gear and other equipment.
The tension increased as protesters confronted CMPD officers. They lined up in formation, face to face with the officers glaring through helmets. Some were baiting the officers saying, "Pull the trigger now, we're right here!" or "You're scared, you don't want to be here!" Others were lecturing officers, telling them how they are hurting the community with their actions.
One man, in a confrontation with a row of officers caught on video that soon became viral, said, "I love my fucking country, I've got brothers who died for this shit man." He raised his arm to show a veteran's bracelet. "You've seen this band, you know what it is. I don't hate you, I don't hate none of you. But why, man?"
- Ryan Pitkin
- A protester shows a police officer his veteran's bracelet.
As the numbers of protesters increased, police officers went in. The lead officer shouted a command and officers began walking, thwacking wooden batons on their shields. The crowd hurled water bottles at the CMPD officers and refused to move.
With water splashing in my eye, I followed the crowd as it pushed down the road. The deafening sound of a cargo train cut through the commotion. Protesters cried that the police were going to surround them. "They're trying to trap us! We need to surround them! Get behind them!"
- Ryan Pitkin
- Jamil Gill hopped on top of his car and began filming police on Tuesday night. His Facebook Live feed would later garner over 60,000 viewers.
Eventually the police were overwhelmed by hundreds of protesters. I witnessed my friend Charlie Comero streaming a live feed on Facebook, yelling at the officers. "You don't have to do this!" he said. "Why do you have batons? Why are you in riot gear?"
I flinched in response to a loud thump near me when an officer was hit with a brick in his helmet. Officers down the line became more aggressive with their batons. Protesters were being attacked, dragged away with force. Comero, after being hit with a baton, charged an officer screaming at the top of his lungs, "What is wrong with you?" The officers started to retreat.
Fifteen yards away, the officers started to regroup. At this point, the peaceful protest had turned dangerous. Protesters listening to police scanners warned others that tear gas and flash bangs would be used. The officers put on gas masks. Onlookers panicked.
Some protesters continued to push forward, some throwing objects, while other in the crowd pleaded for them to stop. The riot police tried to push them down the street. Protesters resisted. But the police were winning this battle. A canister of tear gas was thrown into the crowd and protesters scattered. Bottles, bricks and tree limbs flew through the air, some hitting fellow protesters.
My throat burned and it became difficult to see. Protesters began throwing tear gas back at police. As I ran to a safe location to regain my vision, more and more protesters pushed back at the police. The CMPD unit had no choice but to retreat.
A lone police vehicle became the target of angry protesters on Old Concord Road as police retreated and left them alone for some time, a helicopter spotlight and blue lights flashing in the distance the only evidence of their presence. A man climbed atop the vehicle and started to stomp on the roof. Attacked with bricks, tree branches and wooden poles, the vehicle was totaled. Protesters opened the car door and removed items from the vehicle. A laptop flew in the air and nearly hit another protester in the head. A small group of riot police eventually returned to the vehicle with guns drawn and the protesters ran away.
This continued through the night — ending with a complete blockade of Interstate 85 that included a fire fueled by the contents of a tractor-trailer stuck in the mayhem — until protesters dispersed for good around 3 a.m.
The second day of protest originally showed promise to remain more peaceful than the previous day. A gathering took place at Marshall Park. A group of mothers whose children had been killed by police were sharing their stories and grieving with the crowd. Around 200 people mourned with candles and signs.
From the beginning, I sensed the gathering was divided into two groups with different ideas about how they wanted to protest. One side was made up of those who were there to pray for the police and the victims. These individuals pushed for a peaceful and political approach to the situation. The other group consisted of those who believed the only way to bring change was to bring chaos. That group eventually left the park to move deeper into the city. Police scanners reported that around 400 protesters showed up near the Omni Hotel near Trade and Tryon Street.
As I arrived, it was clear this protest would be far from peaceful. People chanted "Fuck the police!" as they began throwing objects at CMPD officers in riot gear. The officers made the Omni Hotel parking garage their base and defended it with paintball guns loaded with pepper balls — paintballs filled with pepper spray. The officers began shooting any protesters who approached them. It quickly became difficult to breathe and my eyes began to burn.
I approached their lines at the Omni Hotel entrance as a black woman with angel wings pleaded for police to stop shooting black people. Clergy members stood between the police units and the protesters hand-in-hand in an attempt to prevent further violence. Across the street, a fight erupted when a white worker began to admonish protesters. A steady amount of flash bangs and tear gas were being thrown into the crowd.
Suddenly there was a loud sound that could have been mistaken for another flash bang. People began screaming.
"You shot him!"
"The police killed him!"
In front of the Omni, a man was plastered to the ground, blood pouring through his dreadlocks. A medic manipulated Justin Carr's seemingly lifeless body and took him behind the line of riot police. The mood in the air changed as everyone processed what happened. We were protesting the death of a black man and right in front of us another black man was dying. A pool of his blood seeped into the brick ground.
Who killed Justin Carr would remain a point of contention between police and protesters in the coming week, even as a prosecutor stated in court that Rayquan Borum had confessed to the killing. On the streets of Uptown that night, the sight of Carr's body on the ground in a pool of his own blood would fuel the anger of protesters.
Riot officers marched toward the crowd. Protesters threw chairs and garbage canisters into windows and hurled metal containers and large pieces of wood at police. Police continued their efforts to push protesters down Trade Street. A combination of tear gas, flashbangs, pepper bullets and physical force pushed back protesters.
Meanwhile, the windows and doors at EpiCentre Sundries Convenience store were broken. Protesters in makeshift masks began to loot the store. Canned sodas and packs of cigarettes fell to the ground as a looter ran through a broken window. From the Charlotte high rises, bankers watched the streets burn from their offices, while others dined on The Ritz-Carlton balcony across the street. They all looked down as their illusion of a clean, tidy Charlotte crumbled.
As clouds of tear gas spread through Uptown that night and my vision blurred, one thing that remained clear to everyone on the ground and looking down from the balconies is that Charlotte would never be the same again.