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Breaking down the reaction to the Kerrick mistrial 

Reading the signs

Shortly after a noon announcement on August 21, that jurors in the Randall Kerrick trial had come to an impasse and were deadlocked at 8-4, social justice organizer Ashley Williams was across the street from the courthouse at QTavern trying to speed through a lunch plate.

The jury had just taken an hour-and-a-half break, but Williams had no such luxury. She had been in the courtroom on most days throughout the trial to support shooting victim Jonathan Ferrell's family, taking some time off because of how much the process weighed on her. She was also spending free time standing at street corners around the courthouse with fellow activists holding up signs reading #JusticeForJonathanFerrell.

Kerrick, a CMPD officer, was standing trial for the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, a 25-year-old former college football player who was unarmed and had just wrecked his car when he was shot 10 times by Kerrick on Reedy Creek Road in September 2013. It was a high-profile trial locally, and everyone kept in mind the unrest in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore following the deaths of unarmed men at the hands of police. In contrast to those cases, Kerrick was arrested shortly after the killing and later indicted. Residents didn't know how the trial, nearly two years after Ferrell's death and with so much happening since, would play out or how people would react to any given verdict, but in the age of social media, opinions were plenty.

At lunch on Friday, Williams, a UNC Charlotte student who has been working with the Black Lives Matter movement, didn't like being away from her fellow activists, especially as things seemed to be coming to a head in the trial. She was also visibly uncomfortable by the nearly exclusive crowd of guards from the nearby jail at the tables surrounding her. She sat in the furthest corner she could away from her fellow lunchers and spoke about the unsure precipice on which Charlotte stood in terms of how the city would react to potential trial results.

Protesters lie, sit and stand on Stonewall Street where fans were streaming out of a Panthers preseason game on Saturday, August 22.
  • Protesters lie, sit and stand on Stonewall Street where fans were streaming out of a Panthers preseason game on Saturday, August 22.

I asked about the comparisons to other cities that have seen unrest following police killings, some experiencing violence and serious property damage, and how Charlotte would compare to those.

"What's happening here is a representation of years and years of police mistrust and police misconduct and violence from a community perspective," Williams said. "With everyone kind of prefacing everything with, 'We don't (riot) here, we don't accept that here, we are a little more respectable than that,' I think that's just respectability politics. Of course they want to say you can't expect anything like that here, but nobody can account for that."

I pointed out that much of the unrest in places like Baltimore and Ferguson came out of frustration with a lack of accountability in the way of indictments and trials. Williams agreed, and credited the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department with curbing the potential for unrest by arresting Kerrick quickly following the shooting in September 2013.

"I think it was awesome that the police department came out the way that it did in terms of charging Kerrick in the first place, but a part of what this movement is about is we're tired of people throwing us a bone," Williams said. "It is not enough that Kerrick was charged; we needed the indictment, and we need a conviction. So from our perspective, anything less than that, we have every right to be upset."

She said a mistrial would be seen as a loss, and was unsettled by the jury foreman's admission that he didn't believe any jurors would change their minds. Just before I spoke with Williams, Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin had ordered the deadlocked jury to do whatever they could to reach a verdict, while also admitting he had never seen such an order work.

"There hasn't been a need for people to get turned up in such a way (as other cities), because things have been progressing the way things are supposed to happen. When police officers kill people unlawfully, they're supposed to be charged. But with the way that this just happened earlier today, I don't know what's going to happen."

About three hours later, a mistrial was declared and Williams was soon putting herself in another situation in which she could have potentially found herself surrounded by Mecklenburg County Jail guards yet again.

Directly following the Mistrial declaration on Friday afternoon, a group of protesters upset with the non-decision were laying face down across 4th Street, effectively shutting it down.

The position was a symbolic one, used during a die-in on the same street on Aug. 10 to symbolize the way Jonathan Ferrell was handcuffed lying face down after being shot on that September night two years ago.

Protesters soon marched to the intersection of 4th and McDowell streets, shutting it down in the midst of rush hour. The action would be the beginning of a string of civil disobedience actions and marches through Uptown that would lead to the praising of both police and protesters for each side's committal to remaining peaceful.

Minor confrontations led to three arrests for assault on police officers over the next two nights. None of the assaults resulted in injury, nor was any property damage reported.

Sporting events in Third Ward were a consistent rallying point for protesters, who repeatedly looped around to a doubleheader being held at BB&T Ballpark on Friday night and then to a Panthers preseason game at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday night.

The CMPD Civil Emergency Unit, a force of about 20 police in riot gear, were deployed to the ballpark shortly after 9 p.m. on Friday following allegations that protesters were throwing rocks at officers. On multiple occasions, police officers blocked off different entrances and exits to the ballpark, although it was never put on lockdown. Families leaving the baseball game were left alone, although protesters engaged fans inside the park that threw beer at them over the fence along Mint Street.

The night's most tense moments came at the Charlotte Transportation Center, a main hub for CATS buses in Uptown. Police tried to barricade the CTC, but following a short confrontation, protesters broke through, leading to tussles with police and resulting in two arrests; one by CMPD and one by Transit Police.

Much of the night consisted of protesters marching through Uptown traffic, chanting slogans like "No justice, no peace, fuck racist police" and "All lives matter when black lives matter."

Police officers on bikes rode alongside protesters, stopping any traffic coming from side streets that may interfere with the march. CMPD Deputy Chief Jeff Estes was one of multiple deputy chiefs to walk alongside protesters on both nights, chasing people down who became disorderly and getting between officers and protesters when things became heated.

Protesters shut down the intersection of 4th and McDowell Streets following the announcement of a mistrial in the trial of Randall Kerrick on Friday, August 21.
  • Protesters shut down the intersection of 4th and McDowell Streets following the announcement of a mistrial in the trial of Randall Kerrick on Friday, August 21.

"Overall, I think things went great," Estes said. "The objective in the beginning was that people would be able to express their frustrations and practice their rights – because that's what our country is founded on – while making sure nobody is damaging property or getting hurt. Our country has a long history of citizens taking to the streets to voice displeasure. As long as it's done peacefully, we're 100 percent for it. By and large, that's what happened. It was an exercise in democracy."

On Saturday night, the CMPD tightened up, not allowing protesters onto the streets and keeping them to the sidewalks.

"From a police side, I feel like we displayed a great deal of restraint," Estes said. "We tried to give great latitude on Friday. We really wanted to make sure people had a venue to vent and we allowed people to express that in the streets."

Unlike protest marches during the Democratic National Convention in 2012, in which the targets of most protesters' anger were banking executives and others looking down from many floors above, in these protests the marchers were face to face with the objects of their frustration.

As Friday's protest wrapped up near BB&T Ballpark, two men went down a line of the remaining riot police jokingly insulting each one in a row and guessing how each one would do in a fight while laughing. Some police smiled or laughed behind their masks. Some looked straight ahead, stone-faced.

"We train for that. We let the officers know that, at all times, we have to be professional," Estes said. "We know that no matter how personal the protester tries to make it, we can't allow it to become personal to us. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to be able to stand and hold your bearings when you're being...I don't have the words for it, but it's visceral. I can think of no other time when restraint is more at a premium. It really is like holding a match to tinder."

In the middle of Saturday's march, protesters stopped at Marshall Park. The park provided a quiet place away from police for protesters to address each other about what they were fighting for. Protesters young, old, black and white took turns giving impassioned speeches regarding how they had gotten to that point.

Ayende Alcala spoke about the importance of creating a legitimate, organized movement. The message was relevant coming from Alcala, who participated in Charlotte's Occupy movement, which mainly dissipated following the DNC. Alcala urged protesters to look beyond the marches to tackling policy issues that target black people and the system that creates those policies. He said he was proud to march on Saturday night, but didn't want to stop there.

"If we just march in these streets and shut shit down for a night but don't follow through with action, then we aren't really doing anything," he said.

As Alcala spoke, a group of about 15 men in suits and bowties representing the Nation of Islam appeared in the atrium where the protesters were congregated. Corey Muhammad, student minister with Muhammad Mosque No. 36 in Charlotte, gave a speech that seemingly rejuvenated protesters.

Muhammad stated that "Charlotte would never be the same" after the previous night and praised the drive of those marching.

"The youth I see out here right now have no fear, and that terrifies an enemy that does not have your best interests at hand," he said, adding that he saw things get out of hand at some points during the previous night and urging those around him to unite by nonviolent means. "Collective unity is more powerful than any atomic bomb."

As the group resumed its march back to Bank of America Stadium, Nation of Islam representatives often worked to keep tensions down between protesters and police or residents attempting to provoke them. For Deputy Chief Estes, their arrival was welcome.

"One of the single biggest factors that lowered the temperature on both sides was the Nation of Islam," Estes said. "They did a really good job of moderating any potential property damage and injuries. They were a tremendous asset for the event. Without compromising their beliefs they showed how to express displeasure in a very peaceful way."

On the Monday evening following the protests, at a Charlotte City Council's meeting, Mayor Dan Clodfelter said he spoke for the council when he praised both protesters and police for their peaceful reactions to Friday's announcement.

"The (trial) result was perhaps one that was not conclusive as some wished it would be," Clodefelter said. "We want to thank the whole community about the way you all responded regardless of your views about what did happen last Friday. Those who demonstrated, with very, very rare exceptions, honored the requests of the Ferrell family and exercised their rights peacefully. On the same note, the men and women of the police department who were on the ground in connection with those protests handled themselves with the highest degree of professionalism even when things got a little intense. Chief Putney has reemphasized the department's promise...that it will not interfere with people's right to demonstrate but will maintain a safe environment for the whole city. I think that is exactly what happened this weekend."

Just a block from the meeting, a group of 12 protesters arrived at CMPD headquarters. A helicopter hovered above, but there was no visible police presence on the ground as the group marched past the CTC, waiting at crosswalks while chanting, "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! If we don't get it, shut it down!" They arrived with little fanfare at the police department and were all soon lying silenty, face down with hands behind their backs, in front of the entrance.

Before marching off toward the government center, the group rose and sang a song that promised a continuation of protests until a retrial was announced.

"All he wanted was some help, when they killed Jonathan Ferrell," the group sang somberly. "So keep your eyes on the prize, hold onnnn."

Charlotte native Shani Salih El Bay said she attended the trial every day with her mother and is optimistic a retrial will occur.
  • Charlotte native Shani Salih El Bay said she attended the trial every day with her mother and is optimistic a retrial will occur.

For Robert Dawkins, organizer with SAFE Coalition, which planned the Aug. 10 die-in and worked to push through a civil liberties resolution recently passed by Charlotte City Council that aims to curb racial profiling by police and other issues, the weekend's events showed how a city can come together to push for reform while not justifying the fear-mongering and racial incitement bred by national media platforms.

"Implicit bias plays such a role in what gets reported in the mainstream media," Dawkins said. "There's this bias that says that anything African-Americans do is automatically going to lead to people running down the street, breaking windows and there's going to be violence. When you covered the DNC, people weren't nearly as worried about Anonymous or any of the other groups who have been responsible for way more violence."

The relatively peaceful marches in Charlotte over the weekend got minimal national news coverage.

Dawkins praised the CMPD's transparency throughout the process while also crediting organizations working toward change in the establishment.

"In Charlotte, not only has the establishment been transparent, but people here, advocacy groups and houses of faith, took a different stand. Instead of saying, 'We're going to do this through direct actions,' we said 'We're going to do this through policy means.' We've been working for the past two years on policy. That still doesn't make what was going on in Baltimore or Ferguson any worse or any better. They didn't have an outlet to make any policy changes because the city and county wouldn't sit down and work on it, so they were stuck in a situation where the only thing they could do was try to bring awareness around the country to help make change."

While continuing to help plan street actions to raise awarenes, Dawkins said his organization will now try to build on the momentum of the civil liberties resolution by focusing on reform regarding the subjectivity of police training and quick decisions officers are faced with, with which he saw many problems during the Kerrick trial.

As for those in the streets, they say they'll continue to march until a retrial for Kerrick is announced. Keanka Jackson, a 31-year-old native Charlottean, said he plans to continue fighting for justice until he and his peers feel they are as valued as the police officers who are supposed to protect them.

"Something has to change because all it's going to do is get worse," Jackson said. "I was born and raised in Charlotte, and I'll be damned if I'm going to stand back and not do anything as I watch my city be brought down the way they let Baltimore go down. As long as no justice is done, we are going to continue to sit here and do what we have to do."

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