Hundreds of people gathered at two Charlotte churches to reflect on two recent killings of unarmed black men by white police officers and what attendees called a troubling pattern of injustice after the officers were not charged with crimes.
A group of 200 people met at Mt. Zion Church of God in NoDa. Hours later, about 100 people gathered at Park Road Baptist Church.
For many, it was a chance to commiserate on the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, whose killings have sparked a national conversation about whether the criminal justice system is lenient on officers who hurt or kill minorities.
Organizers also hoped to draw attention to Charlotte-area civil rights causes, including expediting police efforts to get body-worn cameras to record interactions with suspects and the upcoming court hearing of Randall Kerrick, a white Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer accused of killing Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man, in eastern Mecklenburg County last year.
“Charlotte has no excuse not to get involved with the civil rights community,” said John Barnett, the founder of True Healing Under God Civil Rights Initiative, which organized the event at Mt. Zion Church. “It’s 11 hours to Ferguson, but I can get on the light rail and come to Kerrick’s trial. A lot of people can’t connect with Ferguson, but they can connect with what’s happening right here in Charlotte – right here in our own backyard.”
Barnett is planning a rally in Marshall Park on Thursday. Afterward, demonstrators will walk across the street to the courthouse for Kerrick’s initial appearance. Kerrick is accused of fatally shooting Ferrell after Kerrick was dispatched to the Reedy Creek neighborhood in September 2013.
Civil rights activists are also planning to petition the City Council on Monday to find funding to equip Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers with body cameras faster. The department plans to equip two of its 13 divisions with the portable, weatherproof cameras by next year, but Barnett told the crowd at Mt. Zion Church that the city needs to get the entire department outfitted immediately.
Across town three hours later, more than 100 people reflected with Scripture, speeches and songs at Park Road Baptist Church.
“Why are we at such an outrage in this country?” asked the Rev. Madeline McClenney-Sadler, founder of The Exodus Foundation, which helps people released from prison re-integrate into society. “Because we face domestic terrorism on a daily basis, and there has been no indictment for the terrorists.”
Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9. On Nov. 24, a prosecutor announced that the grand jury had elected not to charge Wilson with a crime.
Several days later, a grand jury in New York City decided not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner. In July, Pantaleo used a banned chokehold to subdue Garner, who can be heard on a video recording repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe.”
The killings of Brown and Garner sparked protests across the nation, catching fire on Twitter with hashtags like #icantbreathe and #blacklivesmatter. The incidents struck a nerve in Charlotte, where they were compared to the killing of Ferrell.
The former Florida A&M University football player got into a wreck in September 2013 while serving as the designated driver after a night out with co-workers in Charlotte. His family’s attorney says he was likely looking for help when he came across officers.
Kerrick was suspended and charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Johnny Brown, a pastor who owns a screen printing business, attended the rally at Mt. Zion Church wearing a shirt he made in the wake of the killings. It read: “I can’t breathe. Injustice is snatching my breath away.”