As tensions peaked in uptown Charlotte Wednesday night, a slender black man in a crisp white shirt and striped tie stood out like a beacon in the center of the crowd, a lone figure between the barricade of police in riot gear and shouting protesters.
Toussaint Romain, a lawyer in the Mecklenburg County public defender’s office, spoke to the civilians and waved his arms, gesturing for people to get back.
“Be mad,” he told them. “Be frustrated. Just do it the right way.”
CNN caught the scene live, and Twitter lit up with praise for the public defender, who has walked with protesters every night since Tuesday’s fatal police shooting of an African American man, Keith Lamont Scott, in the University City area.
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One Tweet said: “Toussaint Romain run for mayor Bruh. So I can vote for you.”
Another: “Toussaint Romain is a true hero. Thank you for being a mediator, a peaceful voice. A true servant.”
Romain, 39, a public defender for eight years, has received hundreds of texts and Facebook messages this week. But he says he was only doing what he was called to do.
“I’m there just doing my part,” he said. “I’m a lawyer. I’m a constitutional professor.…We were peaceful demonstrators, exercising our constititutional rights.”
Romain was late arriving to the first night’s protest, Tuesday at the scene of the shooting on Old Concord Road. He had worked on court cases all day uptown, taught an evening class at UNC Charlotte and then gone to a nearby gym. He saw news of the protest on TV as he worked out.
It reminded him of 2015, when he had walked for hours with protesters in uptown Charlotte, urging them to remain peaceful after the prosecution of former Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Wes Kerrick had ended in a hung jury. If he could be useful during that protest, in response to the killing of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed African-American, he thought he should try to help with this one too.
When he got to Old Concord Road, he said the protest was “very peaceful.” But it quickly turned violent. Romain, wearing gym shorts and no shirt, said he tried to get protesters to stay back from a line of police officers in riot gear. In doing so, he said he was hit in the back “with one of the explosives” thrown by police and subsequently felt the sting of tear gas.
Although he doesn’t condone the actions of some protesters who damaged police cars on W.T. Harris Boulevard and later stopped traffic and started a fire on Interstate 85, he said he could understand their anger. It had been only hours since the killing of another black man.
Scott’s family members said he was unarmed. Police say he had a gun. Even if he did, Romain said, “There’s nothing illegal about carrying a gun in the open.”
First, a prayer
The next night, Wednesday, a vigil started peacefully at Marshall Park uptown. Even though Romain was tired and still feeling the effects of the tear gas, he walked to the park, just a block from his office, dressed in his work clothes, white shirt and tie. As the crowd began to move, Romain said he and several other men held hands and “prayed for the city.”
By the time they reached College and Trade streets, they heard that a man had been shot. (Police quickly tweeted that it was a “civilian on civilian” shooting. The victim, Justin Carr, died Thursday, and on Friday, police charged Rayquan Borum with murder.)
Romain saw a wall of police officers, packed tightly and carrying shields, facing off with the demonstrators.
From his work, the public defender recognized many of the officers. He stepped into the fray, his white shirt stark against the black of their uniforms and shields.
CNN broadcast the scene around the world. “We can’t lose any more lives,” Romain told the network. “We’re here to say enough is enough.”
In the chaos that ensued, officers fired canisters of tear gas, prostesters backed off and then returned. Romain said his face got hit with mace when he tried to hold back one demonstrator from getting into an altercation with an officer. Romain’s colleague, assistant public defender Eddie Thomas, pulled him to safety and yelled for someone to bring milk to pour over his eyes.
Both Romain and Thomas had difficulty breathing and suffered from the “burning sensation” caused by the tear gas. But they stayed until most protesters were gone.
As he drove away early Thursday, Romain said, “It dawned on me that I might not have made it home.” He choked up remembering how he checked in on his three sleeping children, ages 8, 6 and 3. “I leaned over and just kissed them and said ‘I love you.’ But I knew I had to do what I was doing for their future. I gotta make this road better for them.”
The atmosphere changes
With little sleep, Romain came out for a third night Thursday, walking for miles, again in dress clothes and shoes. He worked with clergy to keep an eye on the most confrontational marchers and defuse potential clashes. He was pleased that, even with a state of emergency declared and the National Guard called in, the mood was friendlier.
“It was a different atmosphere,” he said. “There was laughter. There was joy. There was crying. There was frustration.…It was beautiful. There were old people, young people, clergy. They were rich. They were poor. They were black. They were white. They were Asian.”
A little after 1 a.m. Friday, the marchers reached the intersection of Caldwell and Stonewall streets. Most wanted to keep walking uptown, but some wanted to cross the bridge over Interstate-277 and move into South End. Romain walked onto the bridge and urged them to head back to Marshall Park.
One woman yelled: “You the police. F--- that.”
Romain responded: “I’m trying to keep you safe. You don’t trust the system? I don’t either. That’s why I’m a public defender.”
Slowly, a few at a time, Romain talked the protesters into heading back uptown. When he finished, at 1:30 a.m., he sprinted up Caldwell to join them. He was smiling, and his white shirt still looked crisp.