Editor's note: The original version of this story has been updated with post-CIAA news. Also, we've corrected it to reflect a statement Georgia Ferrell's attorney sent us about Barnett. Barnett is not and has never been affiliated with the family, though neither the attorney nor the family take issue with Barnett's efforts.
With tens of thousands of people in Charlotte for the CIAA basketball tournament, civil rights leader John Barnett tried using the influx of high-profile visitors to spread the word that all is not good in the Queen City.
For months, Barnett has been working to publicize the case of Jonathan Ferrell, who was shot and killed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer Randall Kerrick following a car accident in which Ferrell ran off the road in northeast Charlotte in September. Ferrell was unarmed when he was shot 10 times and then handcuffed as he lay wounded. Kerrick has been charged with voluntary manslaughter.
Barnett and others spent CIAA weekend reaching out to entertainers and tourists alike who were in town and asking them to support Ferrell's family in any way. He hopes some performers will be able to put the spotlight on Ferrell and the struggle his family is going through.
"If I ask most members of the youth in this community, they can't tell me where the local NAACP office is, but if I ask about Lil Wayne or Jay Z, they can tell me every song on the album," Barnett said. "We're going to use that influence that rappers and artists have to make an impact on the youth."
Before the tournament had even started, Barnett called representatives of celebrities such as T.I., Steve Harvey, Roland Martin and T-Pain, who grew up in the same Tallahassee neighborhood as Ferrell. Most of his efforts during CIAA weekend, however, involved trying to send volunteers to nearly 100 events at local nightclubs, many of which were hosting celebrity performers. Barnett organized a team of seven people who visited about 20 parties over the weekend. He said that there were more volunteers who had not touched base with him as of press time, but he is hopeful the number of parties attended reached 50.
Barnett and seven volunteers attended parties hosted by Kevin Hart, Biz Markie, 2 Chainz and others. Each team member presented a "civil rights package" to party hosts with requests that these packets be delivered to performers. Packages included pamphlets with attorney referrals and information about the Ferrell case. They also used the social nature of day parties to simply raise awareness about the case.
"We were able to connect with people from Atlanta and Virginia who may have only heard about Jonathan Ferrell in passing," Barnett said. "Regular people were ready to get on board and help in any way they could, just not from a celebrity standpoint."
Volunteers are hoping more people will take action the way that R&B singer Sunshine Anderson has. Anderson, who lives in Charlotte, has sung at rallies calling for justice for Ferrell and has promised to work with Barnett to raise awareness about the case. On Feb. 26, Barnett said that he had already received word back from T.I.'s management team wanting more information on what could be done. His assistant is now following up on informing them about the case.
Barnett's efforts during CIAA weekend were part of a larger push for awareness about the struggles the Ferrell family faces and will continue to face as they prepare for Kerrick's trial. In the week following CIAA festivities, Barnett planned to set up a press conference with local celebrities including Anderson, former Power 98 morning show personality/comedian Tone-X and comedian Nick Lewis during which they would show support for the family.
Joseph Guzman, who moved to Charlotte two years ago, thinks it's important to find people who are willing to speak out in support of Ferrell that young, black males can look up to. Guzman knows the Ferrell family's pain all too well. He was shot 16 times by NYPD officers in 2006 in an incident that took the life of his friend, Sean Bell, and made national headlines. He still has four slugs lodged in his leg to remind him of what can happen when police become trigger-happy.
"It's about role models," Guzman said. "When I was a young boy, my father was a businessman, but I wanted to be like the rappers."
Guzman works with Barnett regularly and the two are friends, yet he is aware of the generation gap that stands between black youth and many of today's civil rights leaders. Guzman's fitted New York Yankees cap starkly contrasted Barnett's fedora while the two spoke side by side in the days leading up to the tournament.
"It's going to come across differently when I talk to a kid than if it's coming from Al Sharpton," Guzman said.
Guzman is a promoter for Caviar Nightlife, a nightclub that his wife Robbie owns. The club threw parties hosted by T.I., K. Michelle and Rich Homie Quan, among other performers during CIAA weekend. Guzman helped bring volunteers into the parties to hand out business cards and deliver their packages. As of Monday evening, Barnett had not heard back from any rappers throwing the parties, but he remained optimistic.
Barnett hopes to plan future rallies similar to the one held in Miami on Feb. 22 to celebrate Trayvon Martin's 19th birthday. Jamie Foxx attended that peace walk and spoke to the crowd about gun violence. The event raised money for the Trayvon Martin Foundation.
Barnett said that he is excited about what the CIAA brings to Charlotte but hopes that a certain amount of awareness accompanies all the merriment.
"We want people to know that they can have fun, but the reality is that five months ago, a young man was shot down. We want to make sure that when they leave they know the name of Jonathan Ferrell."