One year ago, the nation saw a stream of stories about violent protesters breaking windows and looting in uptown Charlotte after Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer.
Organizers who were in the thick of that action want people to hear another story, one in which freedom fighters responded to years of police violence against black people, only to see riots and violence incited by police.
“It was not what the news had portrayed. It was resistance. It was power,” Myka Johnson, a Charlotte Uprising activist, told dozens of people at a “Disrupting the Narrative” forum Monday. “You can’t tell somebody how to respond when it boils to a head and you can’t take it anymore.”
Charlotte Uprising is a coalition of activists who came together after Scott’s killing on Sept. 20, 2016. Monday’s forum at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte was the first of a series of events marking the anniversary this week.
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Speakers said one of many distortions about last year’s protests was that they were convened by outsiders who paid people to protest. Uprising leaders were already active in local environmental, immigration and criminal justice reform movements, said Ash Williams.
“We weren’t folks who came out of nowhere. … We were people who were organizers already,” Williams said.
From the beginning, Uprising talked about shaping the narrative, from making sure people interviewed at protests kept the focus on Scott’s death and police abuses to using the term “uprising” instead of “riots.” When Justin Carr was shot in the head during protests Sept. 21, activists and witnesses disputed the police account, which was tweeted almost immediately, that he had been shot by someone in the crowd, not by police.
Uprising continues to challenge the murder charge against Rayquan Borum, who has pleaded not guilty in Carr’s death. Signs and T-shirts at Monday’s event said police killed Carr and framed Borum. Uprising speaker Jamie Marsicano said the city owes reparations to Borum, as well as the families of Carr and Scott.
One of the most emotional moments came when Carr’s aunt, Bonita Graham, asked the speakers what they know and whether they believe the truth will come out. “We are struggling with this,” she said. “We want the truth. Do you think the truth will come out?”
Braxton Winston, an Uprising organizer and Democratic candidate for Charlotte City Council, said he was about 15 feet away from Justin Carr when he fell, and the one clear thing to Winston was that police created the situation that led to Carr’s death.
“I don’t care if a protestor killed him, if police killed him … Justin Carr did not have to die that night,” Winston said. He said heavily armed police near the Omni hotel “would retreat and rush, retreat and rush,” then came out shooting and pepper gas filled the air. Even after Carr lay bleeding, Winston said, police continued firing while medics could not approach.
Police have said they fired pepper gas but not rubber or real bullets. Borum’s lawyer has said Borum fired a gun that night, but that Carr’s death was “a terrible accident,” not murder by Borum.
Uprising issued a list of demands soon after Scott’s shooting. One of the most startling to many outsiders was a call to defund the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Moderator Jasmine Hines asked the panel to talk about how a society without police might look.
They talked about turning to family and communities for solutions, rather than to the state, and about having a system of justice that relies on rehabilitation rather than isolation and punishment. They cited the Sept. 6 death of Rueben Galindo, a Spanish-speaker shot by police after he called 911 to try to turn in a gun.
“We really do believe that a world without police and prisons would be better for everybody,” Williams said.
Speakers said numerous systems, including the Observer and other news media, continue to work against real change in Charlotte. “Media is a tool of empire,” said Glo Merriweather. “Our narratives get skewed in trying to tell the truth.”