Charlotte, N.C. — The fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer in Charlotte on Tuesday sparked protests that started off peaceful and quickly turned violent. Those protests continued Wednesday night in the middle of a busy intersection in Uptown Charlotte, a night full of tear gas and at least one attempt to hurl a Molotov cocktail. One person was reportedly shot, and another was reportedly beaten in a parking garage. Here’s what it was like in the streets.
I pulled off of Interstate I-77 into downtown Charlotte, locally referred to as Uptown, and parked just a few blocks away from the intersection of Tryon Street and Trade Street where the crowd of protesters had collected. The roads were blocked off about two blocks in each direction and a line of crowd-control police officers had already formed.
When I first showed up at around 9:30 p.m., a man in business attire was filming the crowd with one hand and trying to push them back from the police with another. Another man, looking like he had come down from one of the buildings around us after work, was singing alongside someone playing guitar. Across the intersection and out of sight behind the wall of officers was a thin cloud drifting up from the street, and I tasted the first hint of tear gas on the back of my tongue.
On the south end of College Street next to the back entrance for the parking garage of the Omni Charlotte Hotel, where one person had already reportedly been shot Wednesday night, police beat their riot shields with batons and extended their line to completely cut off the intersection in four directions. There was initially an period of relative calm, with protesters shouting “Black Lives Matter!”, and another screaming “Ya’ll can’t kill us all!”
One woman chanted variations of “I am human too! My brother is human too! My daddy is human too!”
Another man wearing a t-shirt that read “Black Babies Matter” and holding a sign “Jesus Saves From Hell” was protesting abortion.
Someone from behind me then threw a bottle at the police, who hadn’t moved for about 10 minutes. An SUV guarding the entrance to the hotel parking lot began to pull back in, and that’s when the situation first began to feel out of control.
All of these people were here because Scott, who was 43 and black, was shot and killed by an undercover cop Tuesday afternoon at an apartment complex. Officers reportedly mistook him for a suspect with outstanding warrants they were searching for, but police said he was armed and represented a threat to them. Scott’s family maintains he was unarmed.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Scott’s killing, and that of Terrence Crutcher in Oklahoma last week, highlighted “in the most vivid and painful terms, the very real divisions that persist between law enforcement and communities of color.” Those divisions manifested themselves on the streets of Charlotte last night.
The buildings to my right housed an open-air shopping mall called The Epicenter, and more police arrived from one street over to clear out the three levels of balconies full of spectators. At the same time, a voice on a loudspeaker announced that the protest was an “unlawful assembly,” and the crowd would be arrested or subject to “other police action” if it did not disperse, which prompted one woman to chant “Or you will be killed!”
The Epicenter is typically just that—a center for food, entertainment and shopping in a very handsome outdoor environment right in the middle of the Charlotte skyline. Wednesday night, before police managed to move through the courtyard and balconies, the crowd had destroyed multiple patios and storefronts.
The crowd did not disperse, and a few minutes later two or three canisters of tear gas were fired a few feet in front of the police line. Some protesters immediately attempted to kick or throw the canisters back at the police, and the majority of the crowd quickly returned after a short panic.
Tear gas hits your nose first and quickly carries down into your throat and chest, like bad indigestion. It feels like huffing chili powder. My eyes weren’t affected until later police progression, but after the watering passes your eyes don’t lose the blur effect for a startling amount of time. I was taking photos with no idea what was in the frame or in focus. Meanwhile, the police line only seemed to move up about 10 or 20 feet.
I spoke to a guy who claimed he had been at Tuesday’s night protest, where he said protesters blockaded the highway and broke into a semi truck. He seemed calm and was genuinely concerned for the people around him, police and protesters alike. He brought water and rags to hand out to combat the tear gas, and said he believed that the police were just trying to end the situation.
“Some of them don’t care,” he said. “I’m not going to say all of them don’t care.”
An ambulance tore down the street behind me, and I followed a local TV reporter down to a parking garage where she claimed someone had been beaten. The medics informed us that someone was beaten in the parking deck and the medic, who was dressed in a Kevlar helmet and bulletproof vest, was awaiting police clearance to enter.
I headed back to the crowd on College Street and a few minutes later the police began to move up again. This time the atmosphere was different, far more tense. Tear gas lingered in the street much longer than the first round, and the crowd felt much more frenzied. One protester attempted to throw a full bottle of champagne at the moving police line, but ended up hitting another protester running from the gas in the chest about ten feet in front of him.
The crowd had now backed up into the intersection where East 4th Street meets College Street. The medics who had been called to the parking garage were pulling away while an older man was trying to leave the Omni Hotel parking garage in a Hyundai SUV. He attempted to turn left, towards the police line, and couldn’t understand what the protesters were directing him to do. He eventually figured it out and turned right.
In the middle of the street a man sat in a chair, facing the police line. He went through the motions of flipping officers the bird, sitting relaxed, and holding his arms up. Some of the protesters taking photos were instructing him. It was one of the night’s most striking moments.
After a few minutes police began firing plastic balls filled with white powder into the crowd, which may have been a reaction to a protester throwing something at the police line. The first few shots were terrifying as my brain processed what was happening. I mostly just thought about running.
The crowd was pushed back almost completely into the intersection, with some taking shelter behind a box truck parked on the side of the street. The wind seemed to be blowing the powder from the pellets into the crowd, which burned our eyes more than anything else.
Another quieter period passed, and the crowd around me began to thin out. One protester began to rally the crowd, attempting to form a line across the street.
Then the attempted Molotov cocktail happened. It was the same asshole that I had seen throwing a plastic bottle earlier in the night. He held a small green bottle in his hand with cloth sticking out of the neck, while another man lit it for him behind the white box truck parked on the side of the street, obscuring the two from the police. But from my vantage point, it was obvious what it was.
I said something like, “Fuck, he’s going to throw a Molotov cocktail,” and I lingered just long enough to see him throw it before running down the street, absolutely fucking mortified. And then, surprisingly, almost nothing happened.
The crowd didn’t seem to react, there was no shouting, no canister explosion, and after walking back to the intersection, there was luckily no fire.
You can see the guys in Deadspin’s second Periscope livestream. One was wearing a solid black rag around his head, black shirt, with a red backpack. He had disappeared after throwing the dud, but returned a few minutes later.
This is where our night turned into chaos. Having very nearly faced a fatal escalation to the protest, and with a fresh cloud of tear gas, I decided it was time to leave.
To the right of the crowd, down East 4th Street, was a city bus with “Not In Service” flashing on the roof. Its windshield had been completely smashed in, with three bricks sitting on its bumper. The driver’s window was gone, and one of the passenger windows was, too. The door was open, with some piece of it laying into the street. I took photos and I felt another brick cut through the air next to my head, imploding the windshield and landing in the drivers seat.
For some reason normal traffic was heading towards the protest crowd I had just left, and I shouted to them that the smoke they were driving through was tear gas. I asked some cops sitting in 4x4s why the traffic wasn’t blocked off, and they didn’t respond.
I pushed down the street farther, one block down behind the Time Warner Cable Center, where a massive mob of people were running, choking, gagging, and dragging street barriers, escaping a growing wave of uniformed officers up the street. The intersection in front of me became a pile of barriers. The cars began to back up. Someone stopped in the middle of the intersection to throw up.
More protesters came running from the police line, and some stopped to move the traffic barriers mostly out of the intersection. To the left, three or four guys were smashing up a business van in a parking lot with metal poles. The police fired more canisters into the lingering clouds of tear gas, and I painfully started blindly walking back up the street I came from, which was full of a mix of both crowds of protesters, none seemingly spirited.
I pushed back up East 4th Street, where the College Street intersection had been completely enveloped in officers. I continued one block over, and eventually crossed back over to College street where my car was parked about four or five blocks away from the protests. The city around me was dead quiet, and my drive home on Interstate 77 around 11:30 p.m. was uneventful.
Around 3 a.m., WBTV, the local CBS station, spoke with Governor Pat McCrory and Mayor Jennifer Roberts over live video feed of protesters and rioters blocking highways and a light rail station. The reporters asked when the National Guard would arrive, and neither the Governor nor the Mayor provided an answer.
Roberts said a curfew would be discussed with the City Manager and Chief of Police, and that the investigation into the killing of Keith Scott would be transparent. She also said more details would be made available when asked about police bodycam and dashcam footage, but couldn’t provide how comprehensive the details would be, or when they might be released.
Wednesday night was full of confusion and anger and chaos. As of now, the protests have subsided. We will wait and see what tonight will be like.