The racially charged protests that rocked Charlotte for several intense days – sparked by police killing Keith Lamont Scott – have eased. But now the arrests of at least 82 people will begin to grind through the legal system over coming weeks as lawyers and judges weigh the cases.
Those arrested vary from committed social activists who say they were on the streets to call for justice, to others who smashed windows and looted stores the night of Sept. 21. One man was charged with gunning another man down on the streets. The youngest person charged over the past week for protesting is 16, the oldest 58.
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The protests broke out after the Sept. 20 fatal shooting of Scott, an African-American father of seven, who police said repeatedly refused to drop a handgun after they confronted him in his car, where they said they observed him in possession of marijuana. Family and neighbors said Scott posed no threat to officers, and that he was a victim of ongoing violence against African Americans by law enforcement.
Of those arrested in the last 10 days, about 50 people were charged with misdemeanors such as failing to disperse, curfew violations, blocking traffic and disorderly conduct. The others face charges including breaking and entering and larceny – related to looting – and violence such as assault on a government official and ethnic intimidation.
Police records show more than 70 percent of the people charged are from Charlotte.
One key question looms: Will officials drop the charges for those accused of non-violent offenses as sometimes happens after protests? Lawyers on both sides say it may take weeks before it becomes clear how cases will be resolved.
Charlotte’s own protest arrest history suggests some misdemeanor charges could be dropped, as many were in 2012 after arrests of Occupy Charlotte members and anti-deportation protesters at the Democratic National Convention.
In addition to the pending court cases, there are dozens of outstanding arrest warrants from looting and vandalism tied to protests. The number of arrests changes regularly as warrants are served.
Police used surveillance video footage and social media to help draft arrest warrants for people accused of smashing windows, setting fires on streets, destroying cargo from a tractor trailer on Interstate 85, looting and damaging at least six patrol cars – offenses that can be tried as felonies.
Rayquan Borum, 21, is facing the most serious charge – murder. He’s accused of shooting Justin Carr in the head, in front of the Omni Hotel on Trade Street during a protest held Sept. 21. Police have not released a motive.
Many of those arrested say they were unfairly detained.
Dejuante Marina, 21, of Charlotte, was arrested overnight Sept. 21 – the most destructive night uptown.
They didn’t even give me a chance to go to my car because they were blocking it with their shields.
Dejuante Marina, arrested in Charlotte
Marina, who had never been arrested before, was charged with assault for allegedly pushing a police officer.
Marina disputes that. He says he put his hands out in front of him as a line of CMPD officers in riot gear with shields advanced toward agitated protesters near uptown’s Epicentre.
He said in an interview that he was trying to leave and “they didn’t even give me a chance to go to my car because they were blocking it with their shields.”
Marina said he collided with an officer’s shield as he was shoved to the ground. A police spokesman did not respond to several phone and email messages from the Observer about protest arrests and how police handled the crowds. A CMPD records official said no incident report was available on Marina’s arrest.
Now, Marina is worried because he’s sought in connection with looting a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop. He says he was never there. Police have issued warrants for his arrest, saying he’s wanted for breaking and entering and larceny. He’d like to get an attorney, Marina says, but he doesn’t have money for one.
Defense lawyers bristle
Civil rights attorneys say they’re working for free on behalf of at least 118 demonstrators. They say they’re helping peaceful offenders – those charged, for example, with disobeying police orders to leave an area or violating a curfew.
In the aftermath, advocates for the protesters have argued that specific police decisions aggravated tension on the streets. A show of force with officers in riot gear, clearing streets, unleashing tear gas and deploying the National Guard gives a look of being “ready for war,” says Kristen Clark, director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“Those actions can be inciteful and can transform peaceful protests into a toxic situation,” Clark said.
I feel like the police could have handled it better ... It was like, if you said too much, you’re going to jail.
Michael Leach, arrested in Charlotte
The Lawyer’s Committee has banded with other groups to provide legal aid. Groups include the National Bar Association, various law school programs, the Durham Solidarity Center, the Black Movement Law Project, Tribe Charlotte, the Charlotte Queer/Trans People of Color Coalition and Black Workers for Justice Youth.
Arrested protester lost job
Some who were charged last week say officers made arrests by randomly plucking people out of the crowd when protests spiked.
“I feel like the police could have handled it better ... It was like, if you said too much, you’re going to jail,” said Michael Leach, of Raleigh, who was charged with failure to disperse and resisting during his arrest in the early hours of Sept. 22. No police report was available.
Government officials handling protest arrest cases say it’s too soon to say whether any charges will be dismissed in court.
Leach says he doesn’t dispute the failure to disperse charge.
But he takes issue with the resisting charge and says he was leaving the EpiCentre and walking back to his car at least two blocks away when several officers rushed him with little warning. His current charges are misdemeanors, but Leach is concerned police have mentioned possibly charging him with inciting a riot. His criminal background includes convictions for breaking and entering and larceny.
After spending the night in jail, Leach said, he lost his job with a contractor that does work with Duke Energy. And jailers did not return a bracelet his young son had made for him, he said. He plans to sell his motorcycle to make up for lost wages and he’s looking for work.
The whole ordeal, Leach says, now feels like a mistake. He says he regrets hanging around for too long in the late-night demonstrations but believed he needed to participate because of the injustice experienced by African Americans. Leach says he understands both sides of the tension – his dad is a police officer.
While mayhem on Charlotte streets at times overshadowed peaceful demonstrations, many who were arrested told the Observer their purpose was and is legitimate.
“I couldn’t just watch my family be out there protesting for what’s right, for justice,” said 24-year-old Michael Johnson, of Rock Hill, who’s black and whose preferred pronouns are she and her.
Johnson was arrested last Thursday, charged with resisting and failure to disperse. She said she was with a group of people on I-277 when she was handcuffed.
“It was so fast, and so shell-shocking to experience,” Johnson said.
‘Sacred rights’ of speech
While arrests came fast and may have seemed random, criminology experts said officers in the thick of a riot are making deliberate decisions.
When (police) get the ringleader out of the crowd, the people go home.
Geoffrey Alpert, criminology expert
“The theory (is) ...you can’t arrest everyone – but you’ve got to try to get the ringleaders,” said Geoffrey Alpert, professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina.
He says officers typically are trained to arrest people in large protests or riots who seem to be instigating the crowd. Arresting hundreds of people who are blocking a street – while technically legal – would be counterproductive, he said. “When you get the ringleader out of the crowd, the people go home.”
Alpert says the time of the arrest is what makes a difference for officers attempting to keep order and safety. If the charges for nonviolent offenders are dropped months later – as could happen in Charlotte – it still served a police purpose to quiet a disturbance.
Clark wants Charlotte prosecutors to consider whether it’s worth using court resources to deal with nonviolent offenders, especially given that her group feels police and government leaders’ actions agitated the protests.
Constitutional rights to free speech and to peacefully assemble, she said, are “the most sacred rights in our society.”
“These are communities that feel powerless, that feel marginalized,” she said. “The power to speak up is just about the only power that people feel they have.”