Acts of kindness set a different mood for night No. 3 of Charlotte protests

Protesters gather and chant slogans in Romare Bearden Park in Charlotte Thursday.
Protesters gather and chant slogans in Romare Bearden Park in Charlotte Thursday. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

It was approaching 2 a.m. in uptown Charlotte, nearly two hours into the curfew set in place by city officials. The thinned out group of protesters remaining were quiet, and the mood, unlike the previous two nights, was peaceful.

The broadcast news crews were nowhere in sight in the early Friday hours – there was no friction left to capture here as there had been Wednesday, when protesters smashed storefront windows and set fire to trash cans.

Sweaty from marching miles around the city and hoarse from chanting, a local black radio personality who goes by the name Chewy Torres mused at their absence: “We killed them with kindness,” he smiled.

Torres addressed the small crowd still gathered at College and East 4th streets. He said he’d been saddened by the images still floating across American TV screens that showed Charlotte as a violent place full of rioters. He and others were pushing for peace moving forward – because, he said, that’s the Charlotte he knows.

“We have to be the ones out there who set the tone. People did that 60 years ago. We have to continue it,” Torres said.

“We showed the world what we represented today. We showed them that we’ve got peace, we showed them that we’ve got unity, we showed them we are Charlotte and we showed them we want change in our system.”

After the violent protests in uptown Charlotte Wednesday night that resulted in the arrest of 44 people and the death of one protester shot in the head, the mood for the third night of demonstrations Thursday night can safely be described as nearly the opposite.

Police on bicycles – watching Torres’ group from afar and scarfing down hamburgers someone had brought by – said there had been “a few” arrests they were aware of. CMPD later said three officers were treated for minor injuries; none were transported to the hospital. Save for at least one storefront with new graffiti, there appeared to be no new property damage.

A white protester earlier in the night had tagged “Blue li” on the window of Amélie's French Bakery on South College before others in the crowd yelled at her to stop. The message she presumably was unable to finish: “Blue lives matter.”

Justin Bamber – the attorney for the family of Keith Lamont Scott, the black man whose fatal shooting by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Tuesday had sparked the week’s local demonstrations – had implored protesters hours earlier to remain peaceful, because that’s what the Scott family wanted. Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts had similarly called for peace, calm and dialogue in a news conference Thursday.

The tone was set early at a vigil led by faith leaders in front of the Omni Hotel, the spot where a black protester named Justin Carr had been shot the night before. Five candles were lit; “We Shall Overcome” was sung.

As the crowd proceeded marching up Trade Street, someone started chanting “F*** the police!” before one black woman quickly shut the person down fast. “We are not going down that route,” she said, shaking her head.

Anticipating tear gas, a young group of black men wore surgical masks as they proceeded up Trade Street toward Graham Street with the protesters. “I bet I could get you one,” one guy who was riding on a bike told me.

A black Charlotte School of Law student named Justin Tolston zipped through the moving crowds yelling out the number to reach him and others providing free legal counsel in case protesters are arrested. “We can contact anyone they need to contact. We can also arrange for them to have pro bono representation,” he said.

A white volunteer named Jason Perlmutter was out with several friends handing out water bottles as protesters passed Romare Bearden Park on Church Street, heading toward Bank of America Stadium.

“We noticed water was lacking last night, and we noticed after walking around for two-plus hours, it’s pretty tiring,” Perlmutter said.

Public defender Toussaint Romain has been making national headlines for his role in calming protesters over the last several nights when tensions rise. “This is what happens when leaders show up. This is what happens when we come together as a nation,” he said of the peaceful atmosphere Thursday.

Of course, there were moments of tension Thursday. When the protesters cut across Morehead Street down to Interstate 277, the beltway that loops uptown Charlotte, police in riot gear sped in, forming lines to drive back demonstrators. Quickly traffic was stopped, a flash bang was thrown, and tear gas was deployed.

Things escalated quickly. For a moment, they started to resemble scenes from the previous two nights.

But the crowd didn’t antagonize the lines of police this time. I didn’t see any water bottles thrown at police cars. Several protesters handed out little white towels for people to protect their mouths and noses as the sting of the gas crept in.

Soon after, police radio crackled with word of shots fired in the EpiCentre, the entertainment hub that was looted and where tear gas was deployed multiple times the night before. Apparently nothing came of that report about the shots, though.

Back on College Street at the end of the night, Chewy Torres looked relieved when protesters started heading back to their cars with smiles on, without injuries from the night.

“Nobody was flipping over cars, nobody was hurting each other,” he said. “It ended in peace just now. It sucks because the news is not going to broadcast it that way.”

Protesters march through uptown Charlotte Thursday, in the wake of Keith Scott being shot by a CMPD police officer.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta