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Police, activists seek peaceful protest in Charlotte’s police shooting trial

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Det. Garry McFadden, left, listens as Gene Winchester, President of the NC Local Barbers Association speaks to the media about the upcoming peace rally called Arms Around Charlotte during a press conference at CMPD Headquarters on Thursday, July 9, 2015.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Det. Garry McFadden, left, listens as Gene Winchester, President of the NC Local Barbers Association speaks to the media about the upcoming peace rally called Arms Around Charlotte during a press conference at CMPD Headquarters on Thursday, July 9, 2015. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Detective Garry McFadden has a vision of black, white and Hispanic people, Christians and Muslims, straight and gay, gathering in Freedom Park on Sunday afternoon, all committed to making sure Charlotte’s police-shooting trial doesn’t tear the city apart.

So far, public reaction to the September 2013 fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white officer has not included the violent demonstrations seen in other cities. But Charlotte’s fatal shooting came nearly a year before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo., long before a string of deaths of unarmed black men raised national tensions.

And in a time when video accelerates outrage like gasoline on a spark, the police dashcam video that led to the officer’s arrest will become public for the first time during the trial.

McFadden and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department leaders have spent months working in the city’s black neighborhoods and talking to disaffected youth, trying to make sure peaceful protest prevails. Sunday’s “unity and peace” rally is designed to illustrate the bonds they’ve built.

Rally is from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Freedom Park bandshell.

Also preparing for the July 20 trial is a rapidly changing network of activists, who are turning their eyes toward the Mecklenburg County courthouse where CMPD Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick will face a voluntary manslaughter charge. He is accused in the death of Jonathan Ferrell, 24. Ferrell had crashed his car after 2 a.m. on Sept. 14, 2013, and was apparently seeking help at a house. Police responded to a report of a possible home invasion. Ferrell was shot 10 times.

In January, at Kerrick’s only court appearance so far, he was cursed and yelled at by people in the courtroom and outside. This month, as lawyers begin picking a jury for Kerrick’s trial, the first surge of street activism is likely to emerge.

Everybody wants a piece of the spotlight.

CMPD Detective Garry McFadden on hearing from activists about the upcoming trial

Opening vigil

The NAACP plans to team with elected officials to hold an opening prayer vigil, and Ferrell’s mother will join NAACP courtroom observers for a news conference at the end of the day, said Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch President Corine Mack. McFadden said queries from other groups started coming in the past few days.

“There are groups growing by the dozen,” he said. “Everybody wants a piece of the spotlight.”

The trial could take weeks, and most of the street action will depend on what happens, activists say.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of independent actions planned around the trial, because people want to be sure that there’s justice,” said Aisha Dew, a Mecklenburg Democratic Party leader who is tapped into the activist network. “If it turns violent,” she added, “that completely defeats the purpose.”

McFadden says Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have learned from other cities’ mistakes, whether that’s coming on like military invaders or failing to communicate with the community. As the trial gears up, he hopes all the personal contacts pay off. “You hear people talking every day about not snitching,” he says, but a word to an officer you have a personal relationship with might avert riots or tragedy like the recent Charleston murders.

For potential protesters who don’t trust police enough to share contact information, McFadden gives them his number and asks them to keep him in the loop. The more prepared everyone is, he says, the more likely the city will avoid violent confrontations.

Eye to the future

Whatever the jury decides about Kerrick’s guilt or innocence, the verdict won’t resolve overall issues of race and criminal justice, activists say.

Nor will it end the domestic and street violence that kills far more black people than police brutality, McFadden said. That’s why the community partnerships won’t end when the spotlight moves to new issues.

“People think we’re doing it for now,” McFadden said. “Everything we’re doing is for the future.”

The following three groups – young adults, working-class men and the faith community – provide a window into activism in Charlotte’s African-American community as the trial nears.

The Tribe: They saw a need to organize

Bree Newsome, a 30-year-old community organizer, and Ayende Alcalá, a 33-year-old Rock Hill teacher, personify the new wave of protest.

Three weeks ago, they were little known outside activist circles. On June 27, spurred by racially motivated murders at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, they were part of a team that removed the Confederate battle flag flying over South Carolina’s State House.

Within hours, viral video and social media had turned Newsome into a national celebrity. Alcalá, who planned the action and watched from the sidewalk, says what no one saw was the planning that went into defusing potential violence from passers-by.

It’s a time when we need all hands on deck.

Bree Newsome, Charlotte activist who took down the Confederate flag at the S.C. State House, on Charlotte’s coming police trial

During Kerrick’s trial, they say, they’ll be ready to stand up for the value of black lives. “It’s a time when we need all hands on deck,” Newsome said.

And, they say, they’ll continue to keep their action nonviolent.

“It’s our communities that are on the line,” Alcalá said. “We’re fighting for freedom. We’re fighting for our lives. We’re not fighting to burn our community down.”

It was the fiery eruption in Ferguson last summer that led to creation of their activist group.

As Ferguson raged, Dew and Davida Jackson spread the word on social media: Gather at dupp&swat, a studio/boutique in Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood, to plan a response.

Dew said there had been a smaller gathering there a few months earlier, after a grand jury in Charlotte declined to indict Officer Kerrick. But a second grand jury indicted soon after and then the Police Department announced it wouldn’t cover Kerrick’s legal expenses. “There were a lot of things that showed that killing someone was something they took very seriously,” recalls Dew.

The momentum faded. Until Ferguson.

This time dozens packed into the small space. There were elected officials and NAACP leaders, people who had taken part in the 2012 Occupy Charlotte movement and people who had practiced civil disobedience in the “Moral Monday” protests in Raleigh.

It’s our uncles and mothers and sisters and brothers who are out there trying to lift up their voices.

Ayende Alcalá of The Tribe

Alcalá, who moved to Rock Hill from California about eight years ago, was among them. He recalls that some of the people in their 20s and 30s were pushing for “radical action,” while older participants talked about working within the political process.

“They were urging the young people to take a step back,” he said. Nine or 10 of the younger folks gathered outside and exchanged numbers afterward, he said, and The Tribe was born. The website, illustrated with a black power fist, describes The Tribe as “a grassroots collective dedicated to community building, education and revolutionary action.”

Tribe members and other young activists took part in some relatively low-key actions, such as “die-ins” in Charlotte to protest police disregard for black lives, before the raid on the Confederate flag.

They didn’t loop in the NAACP or religious leaders before the action. But Newsome, Alcalá and Dew all say they’re grounded in and grateful to the traditional civil rights movement. In fact, Newsome says she recently joined the NAACP.

The barbers: Ears of the community and liaisons

At the heart of the preparations for Kerrick’s trial are some unlikely leaders: Black barbers.

Since February, the barbers have been acting as liaisons between police and the people who distrust them. They’re hosting Sunday’s rally for solidarity as the trial nears.

Their call to action came from hearing anger and distrust of police from their clients, and realizing their neighborhoods and livelihoods are at risk if national rage explodes on Charlotte’s streets.

“We don’t have to react like other cities have done,” said Gene Winchester, president of the N.C. Local Barbers Association. “We can make things happen, but we can’t make things happen by looting and burning.”

Shaun Corbett, owner of Da Lucky Spot Barbershop on North Tryon Street, says his customers don’t attend forums or plan protests. “The demographic that I represent, they feel like they don’t have a voice,” Corbett said.

Da Lucky Spot is less than 2 miles from the NoDa atrium where The Tribe was launched, but another world economically. It’s sandwiched between the Thrift Motel and Hope Haven, a facility for recovering addicts, on a street filled with braiding salons, mom-and-pop restaurants and small lots offering cars to people with bad credit.

Corbett and other black barbers – including Winchester, who counts former Police Chief Rodney Monroe among his clientele – say the anger built as Ferguson’s strife dominated the news. They talked about ways to ease the tension.

“Cops and Barbers” debuted on Feb. 1 – Super Bowl Sunday – as the barbers invited their customers and neighbors to meet police leaders at the community center in Charlotte’s Greenville neighborhood. About 250 showed up.

The town hall sessions have continued. So have countless casual dinners and chats between police and people who have never trusted them. In the thick of it have been outgoing police Chief Rodney Monroe; new Chief Kerr Putney, a veteran CMPD officer who replaced Monroe on July 1; and Detective Gary McFadden, who retired from homicide and returned to work on community relations.

It helps that all three are black, McFadden says, but white officers have also been key players in the community conversations. The main thing is to get people talking, even if all they do is find some common ground laughing about sports or women, he says.

Baltimore happened because nobody talked to the youth. Ferguson happened because nobody talked to Ferguson.

CMPD Detective Garry McFadden

Since February, barbers and police have visited schools together, talking to young men about how to handle encounters with police. They hand out cards that start with some expected advice: “Stay calm. Don’t run. Don’t argue, resist or obstruct the police. Keep your hands where police can see them.”

But the men also talk about protecting yourself from a bad cop.

T. Jake Jacobs, owner of Laporsha’s Barbershop, says he shares a strategy Chief Monroe suggested: If you’re being pulled over, dial 911 and say you aren’t sure who’s trying to stop you and ask the dispatcher to stay on the line. That way, Jacobs says, there’s a record of how the traffic stop plays out.

McFadden talks to young people about how a bystander should shoot video of a police encounter: Don’t get in the officer’s face. Stand about 10 feet away and say, “Officer, I’m standing at a safe distance filming you.” In that situation, he says, the police can’t take your phone or stop you from recording.

McFadden also tells students and adults to use the information to file complaints: “If you have a dirty cop,” he says, “let us know.”

Jacobs and Winchester say ears are open during barbershop gripe sessions as well. If a young person spouts off about violence, they say, older, respected men step in to set them straight.

Faith leaders: Tradition and change

After work last Thursday, dozens of people headed down I-77 to Sanctuary Charlotte Church, in a brick office park near the South Carolina state line.

A few months ago, the Rev. Percival Reeves and Assistant Pastor James Ford were content with their missions, Reeves leading his congregation and Ford touring the state as North Carolina’s teacher of the year. Both say they were jarred into action by violence. For Ford it was Ferguson. For Reeves, it was the Charleston massacre.

They called in Christian ministers and the local NAACP president for a forum on acting against racism, tapping institutions that have long led the black community.

But there was also a Muslim on the panel. The pastor of a southwest Charlotte church talked about having 37 countries represented in his congregation. An audience member said when he first came to North Carolina from Puerto Rico, neither blacks nor whites accepted him.

That’s the kind of religious and ethnic diversity McFadden hopes to see at Sunday’s rally. He chuckles at how he still stumbles over the acronym for the gay community, LGBT, but they’ll be represented, too.

Traditional church leaders, black and white, have been well-represented in Charlotte’s struggle with racial trauma. Little Rock AME Zion Church, a gathering spot in uptown Charlotte, hosted a prayer vigil after the Charleston massacre and a recent community forum on church burnings. MeckMin interfaith alliance is drawing hundreds to weekly talks about race and justice.

But that scene, too, is evolving. Sanctuary jumped in to push for a new coalition that’s ready to move past prayers and talk to take action. Mack, who’s a pastor as well as NAACP leader, voiced her own impatience with churches that get too comfortable: “Our responsibility in church is to be at the forefront of the issues.”

The Kerrick trial and the shooting that led up to it didn’t come up in Thursday night’s wide-ranging discussion of Charlotte’s biggest racial challenges. Ford says police deserve credit for keeping the tragedy from spiraling into a bigger crisis, starting with the prompt arrest.

“Our police force is not the Ferguson police force,” he said. “I can honestly say that I do feel safe when I see an officer with the hornet’s nest on the badge.”

Helms: 704-358-5033;

Twitter: @anndosshelms

Protest and trauma: A timeline

August 2012: Protesters and police from across the country come to Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention. Officials prepare for riots, but peace prevails.

Spring/summer 2013: NAACP-led Moral Monday protests create a statewide coalition of people opposed to GOP legislative actions on a range of issues. Hundreds are arrested in civil disobedience at the legislative building, drawing national attention.

September 2013: White CMPD officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick fatally shoots Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man who was apparently seeking help after a late-night wreck. Kerrick is quickly charged with voluntary manslaughter.

August 2014: Mass protests and violence erupt in Ferguson, Mo., after a police officer kills Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old. The #BlackLivesMatter movement emerges nationally and in Charlotte.

July 2014: Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, dies on a New York City street after police who suspect him of selling loose cigarettes place him in a chokehold. Citizen video captures his death after repeated cries of "I can't breathe."

November 2014: A grand jury in Ferguson decides not to indict the officer in Brown’s death. More protests happen.

April 2015: A white police officer pulls over Walter Scott, who is black, for a broken brake light, then shoots him to death when Scott bolts from the car. The officer is charged with murder after a bystander’s video shows him shooting Scott in the back as Scott fled.

April 2015: Protests and riots erupt in Baltimore when Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man, dies in police custody after an unexplained arrest.

June 17, 2015: Nine black worshippers are fatally shot during Wednesday prayer at Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church. A 21-year-old white man who displayed the Confederate battle flag and espoused supremacist views is charged.

June 27, 2015: A team of activists from Charlotte briefly remove the Confederate battle flag flying over South Carolina’s State House, just hours before a pro-flag rally on the grounds. Images of Charlotte’s Bree Newsome climbing the pole and taking the flag sweep the country.

July 20, 2015: Jury selection is slated to start in Kerrick’s trial.

Unity rally Sunday

The N.C. Local Barbers Association will host a “unity and peace” rally 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, July 12, at the Freedom Park bandshell, 1900 East Blvd.

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