More than half a dozen people who participated in Wednesday night’s protest in uptown Charlotte say the mood changed palpably – and they could sense a turn to violence – when police appeared in military-style riot gear outside the Omni Charlotte Hotel at Trade and College streets.
None say they saw the actual shooting of Justin Carr, 26, who died Thursday.
But some are disputing the initial Twitter post from Charlotte-Mecklenburg police that it was a “civilian on civilian” shooting and that CMPD “did not fire shot.”
At a news conference Thursday, CMPD Police Chief Kerr Putney said the video from Wednesday’s protest and shooting is being reviewed “and we are investigating that to seek the truth.” He also said that the police Civil Emergency Unit only got involved to restore order after property was damaged near the EpiCentre uptown.
Thursday, Carr’s mother posted a plea for peaceful protest on her Facebook page, and said, “my baby was shot in the head for no apparent reason!”
Several Charlotte clergy members and a Mecklenburg County public defender blamed police for creating the atmosphere for violence on the second night of protests. Hearing that police said Wednesday’s shooting involved two civilians in the crowd “did not jibe with our eyewitness experience of being in the crowd,” said the Rev. Steve Knight, pastor of social justice for Missiongathering Christian Church. “The violence that occurred was escalated by police.”
The demonstrations came after Tuesday’s shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, an African-American man, by an African-American police officer, Brentley Vinson, who is now on paid administrative leave. Scott’s family says he was reading a book while waiting in his car for his son to return from school when police arrived at a north Charlotte apartment complex to serve a warrant. Police say Scott posed a threat and held a gun as they approached and that they didn’t find a book at the scene.
One eyewitness who spoke to the Observer supported the CMPD’s initial claim that Wednesday’s shooter came from the crowd.
Ryan James, 30, who wrote a story for The Daily Beast news website, said he’d been watching protesters walk peacefully through the streets of Charlotte on Wednesday for more than an hour until just after 8 p.m.
As the crowd neared the EpiCentre at Trade and College, he said he saw people throwing objects off the third-floor balconies. Then, as the crowd moved toward the Omni, he saw police in riot gear for the first time that night. He said protesters pushed to get into the hotel, some beating on doors.
Suddenly, things got loud and violent. Someone wrote “f--- the police” on a police car in the middle of the street, he said. Police fired tear gas. Protesters were throwing objects. And then, James heard a loud pop.
“I turned and looked and saw a guy with a raised gun who turned around and ran,” James said. When he looked the other way, he saw a man on the ground bleeding. Both men were black, James said.
The shooter, James said, had dreadlocks and was about 10 yards away as James looked back from the Omni toward the EpiCentre. “After that it was really chaotic. No one seemed to know that there was a shooter.”
Several ministers with the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice and a lawyer in the Mecklenburg County public defenders’ office gave differing accounts.
They gave this account: They began the evening with hundreds of others at a vigil in Marshall Park and then moved peacefully towards the center city. People were chanting, crying, holding signs. Police were on foot or on bikes. Members of the clergy coalition wore clerical garb and yellow bands to distinguish themselves as neutral witnesses and “a presence of peace and calm,” said Linda Flynn,executive director of the Charlotte Spirituality Center. Some linked their arms to form a human chain.
“It was the moment when the riot gear came out and they were marched upon that they got threatened and scared,” Flynn said. “That was when it turned.…People felt scared. They felt threatened. That's when it all kind of went awry.”
Flynn said protesters started yelling things like “You’re murderers” and “Why do I have a target on my back because I’m a black man?”
Police in riot gear marched single file toward the Omni parking deck, followed by a huge crowd of upset protesters. Flynn said the police turned around and, giving no warning, started to fire tear gas and “spark bombs.” She was about 10 feet away from the man who got shot – later identified as Carr – but didn’t see where the shot came from, she said.
Knight, with the Missiongathering church, said he also heard the bang and saw the victim on the ground. He helped another man who was vomiting in reaction to the sight. Before long, Knight said he saw two people wearing vests labeled Fire Department who picked up the victim, lifted him into the air, and carried him behind the police barricade.
“It was not until they sent in a squadron of police in riot gear that formed a line blocking Trade Street” that things got violent, Knight said. “It felt like an ambush.”
The Rev. James Leach, minister at Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte and part of the clergy coalition, said he was standing with another minister outside the EpiCentre when they saw “a phalanx of police in riot gear” on Trade Street. “We don’t need this,” Leach says he thought. “With this group, we don’t need this.”
Before long, Leach said he heard a gunshot and smelled something acrid. He turned and saw a young man fall to the ground, immediately encircled by about 20 protesters. People started yelling that the police had shot him.
Leach said he was as close as it was possible to be and “I have no idea who fired the shot.” He said he’s skeptical of anyone, police or protesters, who claims to know without doing a ballistics test or having some other evidence. “I don't know (who fired the shot) and I don't know how anyone else knows. It was complete chaos.”
Jimmy James Tyson, a Charlotte carpenter and businessman, said he was standing near Carr when the man fell to the ground and believes he was struck by a rubber bullet fired by the police.
"I saw them unleash a barrage of rubber bullets into the crowd, followed by several concussion grenades. And I saw the individual go down," said Tyson, who said he has been trained in emergency first aid.
Tyson said he owns guns, and "I heard no gunshot." He also said there was no commotion or confrontation among protesters, only between protesters and the police.
Asked by Megyn Kelly of Fox News Thursday night whether police rubber bullets hit Carr, Charlotte-Police Chief Putney said “the evidence disputes that. We have a lot of compelling evidence that disputes that.”
Eddie Thomas, an assistant public defender, said he went to Wednesday’s protest to “make sure everybody made it home in one piece.” But he too stressed that the protest was peaceful until police became “the aggressors” with their riot gear and tear gas. “You hear a loud bang from the police, and a kid is laying on the ground.…I definitely believe the police were responsible for that.”
Police Chief Putney said police accompanied the crowds uptown who were protesting peacefully and provided traffic control so they could march.
But around 8 p.m. Putney said, demonstrators began blocking traffic in the 700 block of East Trade Street and property was damaged at the EpiCentre.
At that point, the police Civil Emergency Unit with helmets and shields was sent onto the street to restore order.
Around 8:30 p.m., Carr was shot.
Gary Schwab, Ann Doss Helms and Mark Washburn contributed to this article.