On February 1, 1960, four young men from North Carolina A&T sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro and asked to be served. They were refused, as Black people were at the time. Only these four young men — including one, Franklin McCain, who grew up near Charlotte and later spent his career here — didn’t leave. Soon a crowd built. The next day more people joined them. Within a week, other cities had their own sit-ins, including Charlotte, and it spread from there.
The International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro now occupies that old Woolworth’s, and one exhibit in the museum that shows how the sit-in movement bounced from one city to the next — “like wildfire,” the exhibit says.
We were reminded of that popular civil rights era rhetoric over the past 10 days in Charlotte. We were but one flame in the wildfire that spread out of Minnesota, after a Minneapolis police officer stole the last breaths of a Black man named George Floyd by kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds.
The demonstrations started here with a sorrow- and rage-filled night on Beatties Ford Road on Friday, May 29. Broken glass and tear gas filled the next few nights. Protesters and officers were injured. Dozens were arrested. But if you focused just on what was happening, you’d have missed what was coming.
Early last week, the protests left their standard routes in Uptown, and moved to neighborhoods like Myers Park, and towns like Waxhaw, where most of the residents are white. It wasn’t just here. Protests happened in Raleigh and Fayetteville and Greensboro. And it wasn’t just cities. People rallied in the hills of Lenoir in the mountains, in the barbecue capital of Lexington in the Piedmont, and in storm-soaked towns like Kinston in the coastal plain.
And in each location, instead of taking a seat, the people are taking a knee.
The Agenda’s been out every night over the past 10 days in the Charlotte region. Here’s a little of what we’ve seen, and how the protests have evolved and the wildfire’s spread.
Preface: May 28
The first photo is actually a preface. One day before protests began here, local photographer Alvin Jacobs sent us a few images from Minnesota, where he’d flown to document the protests there. His image accompanied Michael’s essay titled, “Why Minneapolis Matters Everywhere — Yes, Even Charlotte,” which we published on the evening of May 28, about 24 hours before Charlotte’s protests began.
It began with a peaceful march up Beatties Ford Road, from CMPD’s Metro Station to the intersection at LaSalle Street in the heart of a historically Black neighborhood. Then the protesters returned to the police station. Around nightfall, the mood shifted. CMPD officers on bikes tried to block off a return trip to LaSalle, and protesters eventually grabbed and stole a bike from one of the officers. Despite pleas for calm from many of the protesters, some kicked police cars and threw water bottles at the officers, and then several tossed rocks through windows of the police station. Fifteen people were arrested, including city council member Braxton Winston, who was charged with failure to disperse.
The first Saturday was “something like a double feature, playing out at the same time, on two different screens, just two miles apart,” our Paige Hopkins wrote. Demonstrations Uptown started peacefully in mid-afternoon. Protesters moved to the interstate, where a conversation between three generations of men went viral. As night fell, tensions rose. Thirty people were arrested for a range of charges. Meanwhile, just a couple of miles away in South End, lines of a different sort formed, as people made their way to bars — many for the first time since before the governor enacted coronavirus restrictions in March.
Thousands gathered for the It Ends Now rally in Uptown on May 31, a poignant demonstration that moved many to tears during the playing of “Rose Petals,” a song about Black lives lost, from Michael Brown to Trayvon Martin to Freddie Gray. After the moving service, another protest took place at Romare Bearden Park, and people left there and took to the streets for another night of marching. Tear gas again flew. And 25 people were arrested.
Organizer Kass Ottley heard from people all afternoon, worried about a planned protest for the prestigious Myers Park neighborhood, which was actually formed in the early 1900s with formal deed restrictions that prevented black people from purchasing lots there. But what happened over a few hours that evening was peaceful, beautiful, and again brought people to tears. Ottley led several thousand people on a three-mile walk through the tree-lined streets and then, in a staggering scene, they all kneeled at the intersection of Selwyn Avenue and Queens Road West.
As the protesters marched up Selwyn after that, several people cheered from the balcony of Queens Oak Condominiums, and from their yards young people held Black Lives Matter signs and handed out water.
“They’re not just going to be detached from what’s going on,” Ottley said of the folks who live in Myers Park. “We’re gonna bring it in your backyard. We’re gonna bring it in your front yard. We’re gonna bring it in your neighborhood. We’re gonna be heard. We’re not going to stop until only are we heard but that people start changing.”
The local branch of the NAACP, along with the group Kidz Fed Up, put on quite a display on Tuesday, June 2. Started at the government center, the crowd swelled to more than 10,000 people. “People are finally feeling that it is their responsibility to be out here and to hold people accountable,” NAACP president Corine Mack told Katie Peralta that night. They marched through the streets peacefully in the evening.
But as night fell, a different storyline emerged. As protesters broke up into different groups and smaller marches, one group found itself between two walls of teargas on Fourth Street. Queen City Nerve captured the scene, showing people squeezing tight with no escape before they found refuge by pulling up the gate on a parking garage. The video went viral, and it dominated much of the conversation for the rest of the week.
City council met for three hours on Wednesday, trying to learn more about the Fourth Street incident. Then they emerged and said they’d meet with citizens on the steps of the government center and answer questions. It was at times awkward, but the mayor was there, and so was the police chief. Soon a primary concern emerged from the audience: the use of chemical agents. Then the demonstrators marched again through Uptown through early morning.
Several hundred people gathered for Black lives on Thursday, June 4, in Waxhaw, where the population is 75 percent white. The protest was arranged by local students, and standing there in downtown under the water tower, they all took a knee and raised their fists for nine minutes.
On Friday night, protesters went to the most Friday night-est spot in Charlotte — South End. They marched right up to people standing on patios at bars and breweries and asked them to join in. Several did. Also Friday, medical professionals at Levine Children’s Hospital went outside at 1 p.m. and took a knee for 8:46. And city council member Braxton Winston unveiled his proposal to defund chemical agents in CMPD, which will be discussed at the city council meeting on Monday night.
On Saturday evening, high school students from Lake Norman Charter organized the Unified March and encouraged participants to wear business casual attire. Organizers told the Agenda this is to “change the narrative” and stop Black stereotypes. The group of students, which merged with a larger group of protesters at the government center, paused and took a knee at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“We’re gonna keep marching like he did,” said one of the organizers, who goes by “Shocker.”
By Saturday, demonstrators had established a clear system of protesting. A group of bicyclists and skateboarders would go ahead and hold the next intersection to ensure safety. Then a front line of protesters would keep their arms locked to keep the group in order and make sure no agitators or police could get through. A handful of organizers would stand in between hyping up the crowd and giving directions. As the group marched through Uptown, a man on rollerskates would pick up trash and someone also walked through the crowd to help others register to vote. Water and other supplies were always available. All the while, police stayed one or two blocks away with Captain Brad Koch marching with protesters to monitor.
Day 10: The ‘burbs
The Ballantyne Hotel probably hasn’t seen many protests, but Sunday it got one. Hundreds joined here in the evening and marched along the busy streets of this enormous and influential south Charlotte neighborhood that was cut out of farmland in the 1990s. This area of Charlotte is no stranger to difficult discussions about race. Ardrey Kell High School has had a number of high-profile incidents in the past few years, most recently when the school’s principal allegedly used the word “colored people” in a meeting with staff, according to a Charlotte Observer story. But Sunday they joined the growing list of towns and cities across America, marching and chanting that Black lives matter.
Meanwhile, clear across the county in the northern suburb of Huntersville, Alex Drakeford looked out into a crowd at Veterans Park and choked up. She graduated from Pine Lake Preparatory School on Sunday, May 31. Two days later she was among the 10,000 strong marching in Uptown when she turned to her friend Joyce and said, “We should do this in Huntersville.” Five days later, they and a few friends — all under the age of 21 — pulled it off.
They were joined by hundreds of neighbors and friends and community members, including Congresswoman Alma Adams and Sheriff Garry McFadden. Then they marched through downtown and returned to the park. During the moment of silence, many people kneeled, and others sat, but all stayed quiet.
Paige Hopkins and Katie Peralta contributed to this report.