When Charlotte erupted in sometimes violent protests last week over Keith Lamont Scott’s death, some city officials and residents were surprised by people’s fury.
But that anger was on display two months earlier, at what first seemed like a routine City Council meeting but was a possible warning sign of escalating tension.
Many of the citizens who signed up to speak that night at the July 25 citizen’s forum talked about police accountability and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The tone was angry, and Mayor Jennifer Roberts and council members were heckled and shouted down.
Through other controversies – such as the trial of Randall “Wes” Kerrick in the fatal shooting of Jonathan Ferrell – citizens hadn’t repeatedly heckled the city’s leaders.
“I remember right before I spoke, I had a foreboding that things were going to get very, very heavy in our community if we didn’t take some drastic measures to turn it around,” said Theresa McCormick-Dunlop, a social worker who spoke at the July 25 meeting and again at Monday night’s council meeting, when citizens berated Roberts and council members for more than two hours over Scott’s death.
“When I did speak that night, I came with a prepared speech, but I abandoned that with a desperate plea for the City Council to see the severity of the situation and to pay attention to the climate in the neighborhood,” she said.
McCormick-Dunlop participated in the Scott protests uptown over the weekend.
The people who signed up to speak at the July 25 meeting were Charlotte residents, like most of those arrested during the civil unrest last week.
In the months leading up to the July meeting, there hadn’t been any high-profile allegations locally of police misconduct. But there were several national police shootings of African-Americans that had sparked civil unrest, including Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Minnesota.
At the July meeting, the Black Lives Matter speakers were upset in part by Roberts’ decision to use part of the citizens forum to discuss the city’s plans to build more bike lanes in the city. Even after Roberts apologized and gave Black Lives Matter speakers more time, the heckling continued.
Some in the audience shouted, “Where’s the recommendation?” in reference to City Council’s vote to recommend the bike lanes study to a committee.
Charlotte has not traditionally been known for civil disobedience and protest.
Earlier this summer, in an interview about the fourth anniversary of the Democratic National Convention, activist Michael Zytkow said one of the legacies of the Occupy movement that camped out on the lawn of Old City Hall was that it “legitimized” protest in the city.
Around the same time, a group of about 30 activists closely followed efforts to reform the Citizens Review Board, which was established nearly 20 years ago to probe allegations of police misconduct.
Former city manager Ron Carlee spent much of his three-year tenure trying to head off unrest in Charlotte while it erupted in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.
In January 2015, City Council approved a civil rights resolution for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. The city pledged that its officers would treat all people with respect and would not engage in racial profiling.
The resolution was passed a few months before Kerrick’s voluntary manslaughter trial. The trial ended in a hung jury. The jury deadlocked 8-4 for acquittal.
Within moments of the mistrial in August 2015, about a dozen white and black protesters lay down with hands behind their backs and blocked traffic outside the courthouse on Fourth Street, chanting “No justice, no peace.”
Later that night, police donned tactical gear as crowds grew. A crowd of about 100 people gathered outside BB&T Ballpark, where the Knights were playing. The scene became tense, as people inside the stadium and protestors yelled at each other through the fence.
The civil unrest after the Kerrick trial, however, was a fraction of what happened last week.
McCormick-Dunlop said in an interview Tuesday that many people in the black community “did not feel justice had been served” in the Kerrick trial.
Calls for resignations
Monday’s City Council meeting was supposed to have only 30 minutes for public speakers. But Roberts extended that time by two hours to allow protesters a chance to address the council.
A few minutes into the meeting, one man, Henry Lee, asked for Roberts and CMPD police Chief Kerr Putney to resign. Speakers cursed and heckled the city’s elected officials. Some said they should find out where the council members lived, so they could protest at their homes.
At 9:20 p.m., when the last person addressed the council, the mood remained incredibly tense.
Council members then addressed the crowd. Democrat Al Austin, who is black, said he does not condone destruction of property, though he “does understand.”
“We need action. I’m actually tired of task forces, committees and conversations. What things or actions can we begin to do?”
Council member John Autry, a Democrat, said no one should be in prison for nonviolent drug offenses.
Democrat Julie Eiselt said the state needs to reform its criminal justice system.
“I know some of you hate me, and I can’t change your heart unless you take the time to know who I am and what’s in my heart,” she said.
Protesters were still upset. One man shouted at Roberts to “shut your goddamn mouth,” at which point Roberts and council members decided to leave the meeting.
Republican Kenny Smith had received the most scorn, after Roberts. Speakers said he had a “smirk” on his face as they spoke. One person said he looked like Donald Trump.
As council members prepared to leave the chamber, Smith implored the crowd to let him speak.
“Coming into the night I may have misjudged some of y’all,” he said. “I’m willing to overlook everyone saying they are going to come to my house – my wife and kids didn’t have anything to do with this. But if you want to come over and break bread, let’s talk.”
Vi Lyles, the Democratic mayor pro tem, said there should be “no more talk. It’s time for action.”