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800 march through Charlotte, decrying financial system

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Portraying Charlotte as an emblem of a financial system gone awry, a police-estimated 800 chanting and sign-wielding protesters demanded reform Sunday as they marched through uptown.

Organizers said more than 1,000 took part, but even that estimate fell short of the 2,000 to 10,000 protesters police had expected. What one organizer called a “family-friendly” march ended with few clashes between police and protesters.

Among the isolated signs of trouble: a man with large rocks in his hand, looking like he was getting ready to throw them, spotted by police on an overpass on the parade route. The man dropped the rocks and ran when officers approached, police Chief Rodney Monroe said. He has not been apprehended.

Police arrested two people during the two-hour march. Medics treated two people struggling in the 92-degree heat.

The protesters came from a coalition of more than 90 local and national groups, from Students for a Democratic Society to Veterans for Peace.

For many of them, Charlotte was a natural target. The parade route took protesters past the bank towers that make the city the nation’s second-largest financial center and the uptown headquarters of Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electric utility.

The Occupy movement and other causes argue that the big banks have done too little to prevent home foreclosures, saddled students with high-interest loans and funded environmentally destructive practices.

“Banks got bailed out. We got sold out,” demonstrators chanted, waving homemade signs.

Environmental groups blame Duke for its use of coal, a major source of air pollution and greenhouse gases, and for not investing more in emission-free renewable energy.

Some protesters lamented the lower-than-expected turnout, which exceeded protester numbers last week at the rainy Republican National Convention in Tampa.

“Why aren’t there more young people?” asked Atlanta resident Richard Conely, 61, who remembers protests from the 1960s.

“The issue (then) was the war and the draft,” he said. “There’s nothing like that that’s really made people say we have to get out there today.”

Officers on bikes and on foot walked along either side of the street as the protesters walked. Chief Monroe walked at the front of the march, issuing orders through a headset.

Hundreds of spectators also turned out to watch the marchers, who stretched the length of a city block.

“It’s fun, a heck of a parade,” said Charlotte City Council member Andy Dulin, who stood along Trade Street wearing a Romney/Ryan hat. “This is the American process taking place, and I made sure I came down to watch.”

Blasting banking giants

Several hundred police officers from Charlotte and other N.C. cities lined the sidewalks near the Bank of America headquarters at Trade and Tryon streets, where protesters spoke out about the big banks.

“At this point, we are literally foreclosing on our neighbors every day with our tax dollars,” said Detroit foreclosure attorney Vanessa Fluker. “I have friends fighting in the war in Afghanistan and Bank of America is trying to throw them out on the street every day.”

Several speakers told the crowd that they believed Bank of America is damaging the country and the environment. They called for an end to foreclosures, and for bankers to be prosecuted for their role in the financial crisis.

Bank of America has said it doesn’t comment on individual protests.

Wells Fargo, which has its East Coast headquarters in Charlotte, says its foreclosures and delinquency rates are below the industry average, partly because of efforts to prevent foreclosures.

“Our priority is to prevent as many foreclosures as possible by working with financially distressed customers – and we want them to know we are there to help them,” the bank said in a statement.

Activists took aim at the energy giant in front of the Duke Energy Center.

Beth Henry, 58, a former Charlotte corporate lawyer turned environmentalist, told the crowd that Duke’s actions have led to climate change and drought.

“To leave our children a ruined world, all we need to do is let companies like Duke Energy keep doing what they’re doing,” Henry said. She charged that the nation’s largest utility has chosen profits over in clean, safe energy production.

In a statement, Duke said it had shut down 23 coal-fired power units in the past two years, and plans to shut down more in the years ahead. The company said it has opened 13 solar-power projects in recent years and buys more solar electricity from other companies.

Duke has spent $7 billion in recent years to build four state-of-the-art power plants – two coal-fired, two natural gas-fired – featuring some of the world’s most advanced pollution controls.

Two arrests

Police arrested two people during the march.

Anna Marie Wright, 23, was arrested for wearing a mask and carrying a concealed knife, Charlotte Mecklenburg Police said. Chris Wright Stephens, 32, was charged with disorderly conduct, assault on a government official and resisting arrest.

A new city ordinance bans some items and actions, including masks covering people’s faces, during “extraordinary events” such as protest marches. The ordinance gives police the ability to search backpacks if officers suspect they’re carrying potential weapons.

A number of protesters who wore backpacks Sunday weren’t searched by police. Some protesters had scarves covering their faces and weren’t bothered by officers.

Staff writers Ely Portillo, Cleve Wootson, Steve Harrison, Lindsay Ruebens, Caroline McMillan, Gavin Off, Joe DePriest, Gary L. Wright, Bruce Henderson and Ames Alexander contributed.

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