Kass Ottley was trying to corral her 18-month-old grandson Tuesday morning while dealing with pains in her stomach.
She’s certain they’re from stress over the trial going on 1,200 miles away in Minnesota, and what the outcome might mean for the country the boy’s growing up in, but she plans to get a second opinion from a doctor soon anyway.
The 56-year-old grandmother and school office worker is one of Charlotte’s best-known civil rights activists. She led some of the most moving marches through the city in the days after George Floyd died under officer Derek Chauvin’s knee last summer.
Now she’s watching the Chauvin trial in spurts, because that’s about all she can take as the anxiety stews: Will a jury convict him, or not? And if not, what does a lifelong activist do then?
“I am praying they get this right,” Ottley told me Tuesday morning. “Because if not, the reaction is going to be like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”
Why it matters: In Charlotte and throughout North Carolina, chatter has been muted about the trial, which begins its third week Monday. But people are following, watching the excruciating video again, listening to witnesses break down on the stand. It’s the latest case that ignited Black Lives Matter marches to go to trial, and many people like Ottley see it as another moment of truth for the country.
CMPD chief Johnny Jennings told me Tuesday, “We are paying very close attention,” to what happens in Minnesota. He watched as Minneapolis chief Medaria Arradondo testified against Chauvin on Monday.
“I can feel what their chief was going through,” Jennings said.
The activist and the chief agreed on this point: They’ve seen too many trials and too many verdicts go in ways they didn’t expect to feel certain.
Both say they’re having flashbacks to one case, in particular, that still hangs over Charlotte and the justice system here: Jonathan Ferrell.
Most people who lived here in 2013 will remember Ferrell, the 24-year-old former college football player killed by officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick at 3am on a September morning.
For those who forget, or for the thousands of residents who’ve moved here since, here’s what happened: Ferrell ran off the road in the northeast Charlotte subdivision of Bradford Farms around 2am.
He knocked on a door for help. The woman who answered saw him, got scared, and called CMPD. Ferrell backed into the yard and begged her to call them off.
Ferrell was unarmed, but dash cam video shows that when officers arrived, he ran toward them. It’s unclear why. But when Ferrell was out of frame, Kerrick fired 12 shots, 10 of which pierced Ferrell’s flesh, killing him. Other officers handcuffed Ferrell while he lay lifeless in a ditch.
The case seemed clear-cut to many, including then-police chief Rodney Monroe, who arrested Kerrick within 18 hours of the incident.
It was a landmark moment for a police chief in the South — just a year after the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida and a year before the Ferguson uprising in response to Michael Brown’s death — to swiftly charge one of his own with murder.
Ottley has been an activist since moving to Charlotte from New York in the late 1990s. She befriended Georgia Ferrell, Jonathan’s mother, during the two years in between Jonathan’s shooting and Kerrick’s trial. She remembers going into the courtroom confident.
“I really thought we were going to get this right: This is going to be the one to change everything,” Ottley said. “And then every day [during the trial], Jonathan went from being Jonathan Ferrell to being a suspect.”
Here’s where she sees the similarities with Floyd most clearly.
Two months before Kerrick’s trial, the city of Charlotte settled with Ferrell’s family for $2.25 million. Two weeks before Chauvin’s, the city of Minneapolis settled with Floyd’s family for $27.5 million. She believes settlements influence juries in criminal trials.
Also, a toxicology report showed that Ferrell’s blood alcohol content was 0.06, below the legal limit to drive, but Kerrick’s attorneys said Ferrell was impaired and irrational when he knocked on the door.
- In the Floyd case, his girlfriend told the jury about his opioid addiction last week. Defense attorneys say drugs, hypertension and coronary disease combined to cause his heart attack, even as a doctor testified yesterday that it was a lack of oxygen.
“We’re sitting here and watching George Floyd be on trial instead of the person who murdered him,” Ottley says, and then she repeats herself saying she can’t watch it all.
So she goes straight to the ending sometimes.
When the Ferrell case ended in a mistrial just before 5pm on a Friday afternoon in August, Ottley walked out into Fourth Street and laid face down on the hot blacktop — the same position Ferrell was in when he took his last breath.
Many sworn officers never forgave Monroe for his handling of the Kerrick case. Then came Kerr Putney, who had more of a reputation as an officer’s chief, having risen in the CMPD ranks over two decades.
Putney was the chief for the Keith Lamont Scott protests of 2016. The weeklong demonstrations altered the course of the city, but in some ways they were as much a delayed reaction to the Ferrell verdict as they were the Scott shooting itself.
Jennings took over after Putney retired on the last day of June 2020. Just two months into his term as chief, Jennings cited four officers and a sergeant for termination last September for their role in the in-custody death of Harold Easter.
“That’s a tough decision you never take lightly,” he says.
The case of Chauvin, and how Arradondo handled testifying about the officer, seem fairly clear to Jennings: “I think that was the right thing.”
Still he knows that his opinion — or any officer’s opinion, chief or sergeant or recruit — matters little when a case goes to trial. And matters even less when a verdict comes back and the public has a response.
He expects people will be in Charlotte’s streets regardless the result, whenever it comes.
“If you’re looking for a prosecution and a conviction, there’s going to be some — for lack of a better term — celebration of the outcome. And hopefully those will remain peaceful,” Jennings told me. “If there’s an acquittal, then there’s another situation that’s not going to sit well with the public that we also need to be prepared for.”
On June 1, 2020, the Monday a week after Floyd’s death, Ottley organized a rally in Myers Park. Before she started marching, she stood behind a table with pictures on it, including one of Ferrell.
She talks to anyone she can about him, in some ways on behalf of Jonathan’s mom, who lives in Florida. But also because she sees Jonathan as a family member of her own.
During that June march, Ottley stopped with a bullhorn and asked the crowd of thousand or so people kneel at the intersection of Selwyn and Queens. They did, for 8 minutes, 46 seconds, square in the middle of one of the most prominent crossings in the city, mansions in all four directions.
She still talks to some of the people she met during the protests, white people who tell her of the Floyd trial: “They have to get this right.”
It’s possible that they’re anxious for different reasons. To some, the June protests were an awakening. Others have been awake to it for far too long. “People are very tired,” Ottley said.
Protests happened all over North Carolina last June, in small towns and big ones across the Southern state that launched the sit-in movement in the 1960s. Grammy winner J. Cole was at a rally in his hometown of Fayetteville — which also happens to be Floyd’s hometown.
Floyd’s family lives in Hoke County. His sister Bridgett enlisted the help of Charlotte-based public relations guru and Fayetteville native LaToya Evans, to launch the George Floyd Memorial Foundation. They recently produced this essay for Allure.
Floyd’s death hit hard everywhere. Statues came down in Raleigh. High schoolers organized protests in predominantly white suburbs. People marched on the streets of Wilmington, where the only coup in U.S. history took place in 1898.
Whatever the reason and whatever the town, last June’s protests may have been pieces of a movement but they were in no way a trial. Even if they felt like one.
That’s happening now. And many Charlotte stomachs are twisting and turning over it.
Last week Ottley spoke at an arts event in South End, and when she walked in the door she saw paintings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, with one of John Lewis underneath, at the entryway. She broke down there. Then she watched other Black visitors walk in and have a similar emotional reaction, and saw white visitors pass by “like they were walking past daffodils.”
Ottley remains friends with Georgia Ferrell. She says they stay up for hours talking sometimes. She’s also gotten to know other mothers. (“Too many moms,” she says.) She’s marched for them and with them for years, and been disappointed by countless outcomes.
But if Chauvin is acquitted?
“I’ve been thinking about how this moves forward,” Ottley says. “That’s the part that’s scary.”
As she talked, her grandson tugged on her. It was spring break, after all, and she was home from work, and little boys should be able to play, even if their grandmothers can’t stop worrying about the world that awaits them.
“I will fight until my last breath for him to be free,” she said.