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Protesters raise the volume, but keep the peace

Clashes over abortion, religion along streets stay non-violent under heavy presence of police

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Meghan Cooke and Ely Portillo
cwootson@charlotteobserver

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Day two on the streets of the Democratic convention morphed into a loud, free-flowing forum of ideas as demonstrators, street preachers, button vendors and conventioneers roamed uptown Charlotte.

Police presence remained heavy Wednesday, with packs of bike officers patrolling and traffic cops barking at drivers and pedestrians navigating fence-lined streets.

But no arrests were reported. And protesters seemed to find on uptown streets the audience that the official, but lonely, “free speech zone” couldn’t offer.

“That’s what the First Amendment is about,” Chris Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said of the uptown marches. “We think it’s a lot better than them being cordoned off into one corner of the city.”

Pro-life advocates debated abortion advocates Wednesday. Evangelicals went nose-to-nose with doubters. Sign-carrying demonstrators played cat-and-mouse, but peacefully, with the police officers herding them.

An early-afternoon demonstration near Duke Energy’s headquarters began with a dozen protesters from Greenpeace and other groups holding a gigantic cardboard phone.

The protesters demanded that Duke – and urged customers to call the utility – to sever its ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafts model state legislation that promotes a pro-business agenda. Duke has spent $116,000 to host ALEC meetings since 2009.

Duke said it supports groups that bring state legislators together, and that support of ALEC isn’t the same as endorsing all its ideas.

About 20 police officers, half on motorcycles, watched nearby.

Later, 50 protesters from the Occupy movement, Greenpeace and other groups returned to Duke’s Power Tower. Some wore haz-mat suits, a symbolic comment on pollution from Duke’s power plants.

Occupy Charlotte spokesman Michael Zytkow decried Duke’s contributions to the DNC, which Democrats had promised wouldn’t be funded by corporations.

“We’re in charge of the election,” he said. “We don’t want this convention to be a cheerleading convention where corporations bypass the politicians and make policy.”

As protesters chanted, Duke Energy spokesman Tom Williams came outside the building to give the company’s side. Duke’s emissions are down, he said, with many small coal-fired power plants shut down.

“We’re just here to keep the lights on,” he said.

The protesters later marched up Tryon Street. Police used roving roadblocks to block crossing streets but didn’t try to impede the marchers’ progress. The protest group grew to about 100 people, blocking the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets for about 10 minutes.

As the group shouted slogans about corporate greed, a nearby group of about six Christian protesters shouted back at them.

“There is a smoking section of hellfire, where if you don’t get born again, you will occupy a jail cell!” one of the Christians yelled at the “dope-smoking, tree-hugging atheists.”

Soon, the two groups were shouting “shame on you” at one another.

After marching for about an hour, protesters held a vote at 11th and Tryon and decided to walk back toward 5th and College streets. That’s the site of a checkpoint where delegates and members of the media are entering Time Warner Cable Arena, the convention site.

The site is popular with protesters – 10 undocumented immigrants were arrested there on Tuesday, and Code Pink, a women’s antiwar group, held its first protest there.

About 150 protesters were marching by then, but they were outnumbered by police almost two to one. They later returned to Marshall Park, where many protesters are camped.

Along the impromptu parade route, dozens of delegates and other convention attendees looked on, many taking pictures and filming with their smart phones.

Nancy Mallette was out with some of her family members including her grandson Spencer, 8.

“It’s a good lesson for him,” she said. “We wanted to bring him down because of that.” But she added: “I don’t think anyone changes their opinion based on this.”

Some protesters seemed amused by the attention.

“Come join us,” one of the protesters yelled to spectators. “The view is better from the street.”

Debra Jennings, an attorney from Houston, said she came to Charlotte on her vacation to see the demonstrators.

“I’m just overwhelmed with them,” she said while trying to cross Tryon Street. “They’re everywhere, it seems. It makes it a bit difficult to get around. But everyone has a right to speak.”

Clash over abortion

About 150 anti-abortion advocates, largely local Catholics, also took their message uptown Wednesday afternoon with a march that drew counter-protesters who tried to disrupt their rally.

Among the group were several women who said they’d had abortions and knew firsthand the pain they cause. Many of the abortion rights supporters were young women who chanted, “Women will decide their fate, not the church, not the state!”

The participants were quiet and escorted by only a handful of police on bicycles. Some prayed the rosary as they walked, carrying signs showing a fetus in the womb and reading “I am a person.”

Along the way, a few passersby yelled at the group.

“Get the government out of their lives,” shouted one man.

Pointing to the signs showing fetuses, one man said it was in its third trimester. Angela Harrigan of Charlotte, who marched with the group, yelled back to him, “Life begins at conception!”

Harrigan said she had an abortion 30 years ago. At the time, she was told the fetus was “a cell the size of a fingernail.” Later, when she became pregnant with her son, she had a sonogram and heard his heartbeat.

“I said, ‘My God, what did I do?’ ” Harrigan said.

At the square, the group heard from speakers who were nearly drowned out by “keep abortion legal” chants from a group of about 20 sign-holding protesters who gathered around them.

At one point, Andriana Howard of Mt. Holly, who was not part of the pro-life march, stopped to argue with a young woman holding a sign that read “keep abortion legal.”

“I don’t want the government to pay for your abortions,” Howard shouted.

“Take that up with the government,” the young woman told her.

Staff writer Caroline McMillan, Ames Alexander, Doug Miller and Bruce Henderson contributed.

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