When the protests began in Charlotte, committees of volunteers began offering free emergency medical services and supplies, mental health support, and more.
On May 29, the national wave of protests surrounding the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police hit Charlotte, North Carolina. The first hastily promoted demonstration took place Friday, drawing hundreds of demonstrators to a Metro division police station in a historically Black neighborhood. It ended in dozens of arrests of area residents, including mediators, medics, and a city councilman.
Evelyn Lewis, a long-time community advocate, was appalled. Unseasoned protesters “went out there unprepared for battle, ready to be slaughtered,” she said. “The protest needed a true coordinated effort, instead of a sporadic network of people” acting without guidance.
Despite that initial chaos, within hours Charlotte’s established protest network galvanized into high gear. Veteran activists like Kassandra Ottley and Kristie Puckett Williams, as well as the Charlotte NAACP and other local organizations began collaborating to coordinate daily protests, and committees of volunteers began offering free emergency medical services and supplies, mental health support, legal aid and education for people taking direct action on the front lines.
While social media and the increased adoption of newer technologies have helped protesters better support one another, Charlotte can thank its history of civil unrest for stronger coordination between activists.
Though not at the forefront of civil rights protests, Charlotte leaders had profound national impact. Lawyer Julius Chambers successfully argued the school busing decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education before the Supreme Court. Reginald Hawkins desegregated the Charlotte Douglas Airport and Charlotte Memorial Hospital; and the Rev. J.A. DeLaine worked with the South Carolina NAACP to file one of the five cases argued under Brown vs. Board of Education.
More recent events across the country, such as Michael Brown’s killing in 2014, continued to spur community members to action, but an incident in 2016 touched off a spark for an entire wave of activism in the Queen City.
On Sept. 20, 2016, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police fatally shot Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old African-American man, when searching for an unrelated man in Scott’s apartment complex. The ensuing weeks of vigils, protests, and police violence brought in the National Guard, and saw a new generation of activist organizations rise. Each focused on different systemic issues that contributed to a lower quality of life for Black citizens of Charlotte, from police brutality to educational inequities to lack of affordable housing. Many of these groups continued to be active in Charlotte communities in the following years, leaving them well-positioned to take the lead this past week.
Charlotte Uprising, perhaps the most well-known group born of the Scott protests, immediately recognized the need to educate communities for more effective protests.
“We did a lot of different things in 2016, and this time around we want to be more strategic about how we show up in the community,” said Ash Williams, an Uprising leader. “Folks want more context. They want to learn more.”
To that end, Charlotte Uprising, Southeast Asian Coalition (SEAC) Village and Seeking Justice CLT hosted a teach-in called People’s University Thursday. Attendees learned about direct action, jail support, and safety tactics for protesters, as well as providing a historical context for resistance in Charlotte. Charlotte Uprising is also planning an upcoming street medic training.
Williams, a Black trans person, centers their actions around racial and gender-based equality and bodily autonomy for people who have been traditionally marginalized.
“We want to get our community skilled up and prepared for more protesting. The number of bodies in the street means a global pandemic isn’t going to stop our voices from being heard,” they said.
A coalition of organizations—including SEAC Village, Community Justice Charlotte, Charlotte Uprising and The Bail Project—is providing jail support and accepting donations of water, snacks, Milk of magnesia, and charged batteries for phones. The group, working in conjunction with Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry L. McFadden, has representatives posted 24 hours a day outside the drop-off point in front of Mecklenburg County jail, 801 E. 4th St., so donations can be accepted from cars without violating social distancing guidelines. Monetary donations go to a bail fund and for rides home as protesters are released.
But jail support is also moral support, and the coalition is looking for more overnight volunteers to greet protesters as they leave and help coordinate any assistance they might need.
“We need more trained volunteers,” said Tina Marshall, who is directing the action. “It’s vital to bring people in who have been protesting in the streets without any strategy.”
The coalition is working with a cadre of independent attorneys, including Cedric Rainey, Tim Emry, Marcus Aurelius, Darlene Harris and Harrison Lord, who are providing pro bono legal representation for anyone arrested while protesting.
Reia Chapman, LCSW, is the owner of the Center for Family and Maternal Wellness, a practice centered on providing support for Black, brown and trans people of color. Chapman founded the Charlotte Emotional Response Collective (CERC) in 2016, in response to Scott’s death. CERC is providing free mental health support to George Floyd protesters and people affected by systemic injustices in Charlotte, triaging folks who are exhibiting signs of psychosis, substance abuse or suicidal tendencies—the more acute reactions people may be experiencing—and assigning them to counselors.
“Calling 911 or mobile crisis units is not the safest move, particularly for Black trans people of color,” Chapman said. “These emergency systems that are in place were retraumatizing and criminalizing our folks for needing support. We had to leverage the resources, expertise within our own community to take care of our folks.”
Close to 100 counselors have volunteered and been vetted based on their experience and whether they’ve had anti-racist or anti-bias training, and CERC prioritizes providers who are people of color. White providers are not excluded, but deployed if people indicate they don’t have a racial or gender preference.
“We recognize that there are multiple layers of violence that impact people of color, and we want to minimize any risk of exposing our people to further violence,” Chapman said.
Lewis, a collaborator with numerous networks including the national Center for Popular Democracy, had been facilitating activism around COVID-19 and housing insecurity before the protests. She emphasized the need for steady, regular community protest training, so people are activated before, during, and after protests take place.
“We all have different categories and areas of concern, but this way it’s still a solid movement and a united front,” Lewis said. “Learn how to protest, get medic training, get trauma training.” And when protests wane, “keep that same energy,” she continued. “If we do our part every day that’s how we make change. At the end of the day, we all have to be there for each other.”