Some wanted foreclosure relief and mortgage modifications. Some demanded an end to mountaintop-removal coal mining. Others came to protest war or urge immigration reform, and there was even a small group handing out anarchist literature.
One woman’s shirt simply read, “Stay Human.”
They had one thing in common: The belief that Bank of America, is, as they chanted often, “Bad for America.”
The protesters came from across North Carolina, and from cities including New York, Atlanta, Columbia, S.C., Boston and Oakland, where many, but by no means all, were affiliated with Occupy movements.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police said it was the city’s largest protest in years. Police estimated the crowd at about 500, while protest organizers put the figure somewhere above 700.
The chanting and marching, as well as the large police presence, are likely a portent of what to expect in September, when the Democratic National Convention is expected to draw thousands of protesters.
Wednesday, a few moments of tension between police and protesters were quickly defused, and the events unfolded with only six arrests. Last month, 24 protesters were arrested in San Francisco during demonstrations against Wells Fargo & Co.
“I saw Bank of America personally kicking people out of their homes,” said Luis Rodriguez, a Charlotte-based community organizer with the group Action N.C. He was wearing mock chains tying him by his neck to a giant black “debt ball” in the middle of the intersection at Fifth and College streets. “Ever since then, I haven’t been a fan.”
Sandra Diaz, who works for environmental group Appalachian Voices, stood in between Bank of America Stadium and the Duke Energy Center, symbols of her two main opponents.
“We want them to stop mountaintop removal coal mining,” she said, holding up a picture of denuded mountains. “They’re financing the whole cycle,” the Boone resident said.
Prepared for arrest
At about 9 a.m., as the protest gathered at Fifth and College streets in front of 1 Bank of America Center, organizers kicked off a “festival of resistance,” with musical acts and testimony of people who said they’ve been victimized by the bank.
In the almost celebratory atmosphere, shareholders waiting in line and protesters snapped pictures of one another with their smart phones.
Some protesters were prepared to be arrested, with phone numbers for legal help written on their arms. One of them was Johnny Rosa, who said he had traveled from Framingham, Mass., to protest his home’s foreclosure.
“We couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage,” said Rosa, who said his wife lost her job following an accident, and his pay had been cut. “We tried to make a deal with them. We’re fed up.” He was one of four people arrested when they rushed police barricades in front of the shareholder meeting.
Things turned ugly for a moment after the arrests, as a group of protesters began chanting, “Murderers, cops, pigs.” Organizers quickly quieted them and the chant changed to “Shame, shame,” and “No justice, no peace.”
A drumline thumped out a martial beat as protesters marched up Fifth Street and then turned south on Tryon Street, filling two lanes and stretching for about two blocks.
The groups mixed chants such as, “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out,” and “This is what democracy looks like.” They handed out flyers to curious office workers and restaurant employees, who lined the streets and snapped pictures.
Protesters then stopped in front of Bank of America Stadium. They called on President Barack Obama, who will speak there at the conclusion of the DNC, to do more to promote economic equality.
The other tense moments came after that, during a second march, when police repeatedly ordered protesters onto the sidewalk.
At least one protester was arrested when she didn’t leave College Street near the EpiCentre. Some protesters refused to leave the street, and briefly blocked traffic at Fourth and Brevard. With cries of “Hold the line!” dozens of protesters advanced on a line of bicycle-mounted CMPD officers in front of the intersection. But they quickly returned to the sidewalk after organizers with megaphones asked them to.
Organizers and police both called the event a success, and neither had any major complaints about the other’s behavior.
Deputy Chief Harold Medlock said the department had met with protest leaders last week to discuss march routes and other plans. “I think these folks want to feel safe. Folks really do want to have their voice heard, but they don’t have a problem sharing what their plans are,” said Medlock, who is overseeing the department’s planning for the DNC. “It’s not us vs. them.”
No banned items confiscated
The protests were designated an “extraordinary event” under a new Charlotte statute, which gives police expanded powers to search bags and bans certain items, such as helmets, from extraordinary events. Police said they did not search any backpacks or confiscate any banned items Wednesday.
Protest leaders also said they are planning several more “actions” during the summer, leading up to the DNC. Michael Zytkow, an Occupy Charlotte protester, said Wednesday’s protests are a sign of what’s to come.
“We’re such a big city, and we’re not used to this,” Zytkow said. “We’re trying to normalize protest culture in Charlotte. We have a lot of plans for the DNC.” Staff Writer Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed.