I stood between police and protesters a year ago. What I’ve learned since about Charlotte

Toussaint Romain (right) stood between police and Keith Lamont Scott shooting protesters last year in Charlotte.
Toussaint Romain (right) stood between police and Keith Lamont Scott shooting protesters last year in Charlotte.

It was late and I had to get my kids home for bed. We were uptown at Speed Street 2017 and I could feel the crowds pulsating around me as construction workers jackhammered on College and Trade. Then it hit me. I had a flashback. I froze. The crowd suddenly resembled protesters as the jackhammer pounded like flash-bombs thrown by the police. A violent déjà vu of Charlotte’s protests after the Keith Lamont Scott shooting one year ago.

Fortunately, my temporary paralysis ended with a tug on my shirt and my son’s petite voice begging me to pick him up again: “Daddy, my feet reeeally hurt, please?” But as we walked all I could think about was that flashback. “It’s like hearing a car backfire,” a raspy old Vietnam vet told me once. “It reminds me of ’Nam every time – just learn to live with it, son.” So, 52 weeks later, I am “living with it” like many of you. But here are three lessons that I’ve learned over the past year.

Toussaint Romain

First, I learned that there are two types of good people here. Group 1 is folks who asked “how could this (the riots) happen in Charlotte?” This group is genuinely unaware of our city’s problems but eager to understand them. Group 1 is not “woke” yet.

On the other hand, Group 2 is comprised of people who are “woke” but who just don’t know what to do. Group 2 knows that “X” is a problem but doesn’t know how to fix it. Fortunately, these good people have allowed me and others to “wake” them up and to work with them in identifying viable solutions.

Second, I learned that Charlotte’s leadership is not determined by titles, but on how one responds to crisis. For example, the night that Scott was killed, I was on Old Concord Road when officers gave orders to disperse before shooting tear gas and flash bombs into the crowd. As the officers then marched with batons and shields toward the fleeing crowd I got on my knees. Seeing this, a young man with long dreadlocks anxiously asked me what I was doing. “Praying,” I said. He paused and then fell to his knees next to me moments before riot-gear officers pushed us over. But we didn’t resist. We stood up and backed up while peacefully asking officers not to hurt anyone. That young man stood by my side. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Braxton Winston,” he said. Crisis produces leadership.

Third, I learned that Dr. King was absolutely right about nonviolence. Although he understood why “oppressed people turned to violence in their struggle for freedom,” he believed that there was a better way. “True non-violent resistance,” he said, “is a courageous confrontation of evil” that brings about a deep-seated “transformation and change of heart.” I saw opponents of the Charlotte protests change their views and offer a helping hand once the protests became nonviolent.

So, on this first anniversary, don’t accept the notion that “nothing has changed.” Charlotte organizer Ash Williams says if you believe nothing has changed, then consider the son of Keith Lamont Scott. His daddy will never carry him again. Let’s make that count for something.

Thus, to the good people of Charlotte who are willing to face any crisis with nonviolence, change awaits you. And it will come.

Romain is an assistant public defender and adjunct professor at UNC Charlotte.