There’s the faint smell of tear gas when I hop in the back seat of Justin LaFrancois’ car on Wednesday afternoon. Stacks of newspapers fill the seat next to me and the trunk. A gas mask sits within arms reach.
It’s delivery day for Queen City Nerve.
LaFrancois, publisher of the local alternative paper, was out late the night before reporting on the fifth day of protests here in Charlotte since the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last week. In those five days, he estimates he’s broadcasted demonstrations on Facebook Live for a total of 40 hours — about eight hours a day of unfiltered and unedited content.
Late Tuesday and through Wednesday, the whole city was talking about 97 seconds of those 40 hours when police officers were shown cornering and tear gassing hundreds of protesters, trapping them on 4th Street.
LaFrancois and Ryan Pitkin, the paper’s editor-in-chief, have been hit with tear gas, shot with pepper balls, and cornered by flash bangs alongside the protesters they’re there to cover.
Queen City Nerve‘s live streams have been viewed by more than 1.5 million people. But Tuesday night’s broadcast was different.
For one, Tuesday marked the largest crowd in Uptown yet — as many as 10,000 demonstrators, Mayor Vi Lyles said at a press conference Wednesday.
At about 9:30 p.m., a group of protestors marched down 4th Street in between College and Tryon when flash bangs and a fog of tear gas rolled in from one direction, and then the other direction, and then from above.
With nowhere else to go, protesters pried open a security gate for a parking deck and crawled in.
Across the city, Charlotteans watched the incident live as LaFrancois coughed and panted and tried to process what he’d witnessed. “Oh my God. Oh my f***ing God,” he said once inside the parking garage, the iPhone camera still rolling.
“I cannot believe what just happened.”
I first met LaFrancois and Pitkin at the now-closed Solstice Tavern the day they both lost their jobs at Creative Loafing: Halloween 2018.
Pitkin had written for the alt-weekly for years, covering numerous protests, and had recently become its editor-in-chief. LaFrancois had worked in sales for six months after a career in the food and drink industry.
At around noon that day, Creative Loafing publisher Charles Womack III announced the paper would shift to a digital-only model and swiftly laid off the entire staff. As they joined fellow journalists from around the city and pounded drinks to commiserate that warm afternoon, Pitkin’s phone went ka-ching every few minutes with a notification from his Venmo account.
But what started as “pity money,” as LaFrancois calls it, for beer and the like, laid the groundwork for a new venture: Queen City Nerve.
The sounds from Pitkin’s phone that day in 2018 are not unlike this day in 2020. Notifications to both men’s phones have not stopped since their broadcast Tuesday evening.
Words of support mostly, and other reporters (like myself) reaching out to see if they can share a clip from their live stream.
Then, there’s the notifications from PayPal as people donate to support the paper’s efforts. They say they raised about $10,000 on Tuesday and Wednesday alone.
It’s not the first time Pitkin has been part of a viral post. His 2015 Creative Loafing story, “Homer’s Night on the Town,” about a young man who stole the Knights’ mascot costume, was one of the most widely read — and funniest — stories in Charlotte in the 2010s.
This time, it’s a little more meaningful, of course.
But while their celebrity as a voice for protesters was growing Wednesday, another hashtag emerged, accusing LaFrancois of being racist. The posts under #cancelqcnerve say he called a Black woman the n-word when they were teenagers.
The 27-year-old LaFrancois responded on Facebook, saying, “I know that in the past I have been an asshole, I have been mean, I have been an aggressive bully. I had my problems, I still have my problems — but I have never been a racist. As much as it pains me to confront the fact that I have used the word in groups of close friends in the past, I must do so publicly because my own personal growth does not erase any of my past actions.”
LaFrancois says it’s not recognition he and Pitkin are after. They just want to show people what’s happening. And now, after Wednesday, he says he wants whoever made the call to surround protesters on Tuesday night to be fired.
“Some of us thought we were going to die,” he says. “It was impossible to breathe. It was like we were standing in a gas chamber. It felt like we were swallowing bleach.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said it coordinated the operation to disperse protesters after giving several orders because of “violent criminal activity they were engaging in throughout the night.”
Throughout the night, protesters did throw objects at officers — at least 18 incidents according to CMPD — but none were seen in Queen City Nerve‘s live stream minutes before the officers started closing in. Additionally, no dispersal orders could be heard in the video.
CMPD’s statement continued by calling the incident “regrettable,” and announced it would be under review by the State Bureau of Investigation.
Many local elected officials have spoken out against the incident. City council member Braxton Winston tweeted, “The deployment of chemical agents in Charlotte needs to end tonight.” Winston was arrested on the first night of protests in Charlotte and charged with failure to disperse. His arrest is one of 113 related to the city’s protests as of Wednesday afternoon.
At a press conference Wednesday evening, Mayor Vi Lyles said the incident has been “particularly hard to deal with.” Later that evening she took a knee with protesters Uptown.
While other publications are focused on more traditional means of covering news events — written articles, TV segments, and radio broadcasts — Queen City Nerve is transforming how Charlotteans consume news.
But even with some viral live streams, they’re not abandoning print. The free paper’s pick-up rate has held steady throughout the coronavirus pandemic at about 93 percent, though it decreased its distribution. Queen City Nerve also launched a subscription model where readers can get the paper delivered for $9.15 a month.
As we drive through Uptown, on the same streets where hundreds of protesters stood just hours before, Pitkin hops out of the car every block or so to drop off a stack of papers. It’s the same way news have been delivered since the wheel was invented.
At sun set, though, they press record on their smartphones for another night of live streaming, and another night of Charlotteans watching.