"Everybody wants to see us tear it up": How Charlotte protesters kept a fragile peace


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The protests on Thursday remained peaceful because of people like Cortney Pinkney.

Pinkney, 27, is a dishwasher at the Aria Tuscan Grill, where he helps former convicts like himself land jobs. While taking a smoke break on Wednesday, he said he witnessed the fatal shooting of Justin Carr, a 26-year-old marcher protesting the killing of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man who was shot by police.

"Where the police were last night, we were right in front of that. We actually had to leave in front of the teargas," Pinkney recounted.

Pinkney decided to join the demonstrations on Thursday. He was positioned at the head of thousands of peaceful marchers as they wound their way through Charlotte until the early morning hours, chanting "Black lives matter" and "We want the tapes," demanding the recording of the incident that ended in Scott's death be released. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney refused to do so, allowing only the family to view the footage. (NBC News has since obtained footage of the encounter, recorded by Scott's wife.)

In one of the most remarkable moments of the night, Pinkney led the marchers to the Charlotte jail on 4th Street. The crowd chanted "we see you, we love you!" to the inmates inside, who responded by flickering the lights in their cells and putting their arms up to their windows.

"I've been to jail several times. I've made my mistakes in the past, but now I'm a father of three," Pinkney said later, sitting on the curb outside the police department down the street from the jail. "I try to work hard, 10, 13 hours a day if I can. I'm trying to make a new life for myself. I'm trying to correct things."

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Pinkney and others repeatedly prevented protesters from escalating confrontations with police and the National Guard, darting back and forth to prevent parts of the crowd from charging the jailhouse doors or running up the steps of the government center.

For the most part, it worked. At several points throughout the night, tensions reached a near boiling point, only to cool down after interventions by fellow protesters. Amid days of demonstrations that have rocked Charlotte this week, the march on Thursday stood in stark contrast to the demonstrations of Wednesday, where police and protesters clashed repeatedly.

The self-appointed, unofficial leaders of the march made a concerted effort to keep the peace. They were instrumental in ensuring the march did not devolve into chaos. They also provided a glimpse at how those seeking justice for Scott will continue to apply pressure to the political leaders and law enforcement of the city, even when the television cameras leave. 

"It'll be Woodstock by Sunday."

A night of peaceful protests: Marcus Bass is a community organizer who has lived and worked in Charlotte for the past five years. 

Throughout the night, he guided the crowd through the city, from Romare Bearden Park to the intersection of Trade Street and Tryon, down Trade to the police department and jail and back around past Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers.

As marchers reached the police department, Bass led a remembrance of Carr, whose shooting and subsequent death was a potent reminder of the stakes here.

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"We've had too many deaths in this community. We need to take a moment of silence," Bass shouted on the steps of police headquarters, as the enormous crowd fell silent. "Somebody lost their life over this movement last night. Let's pay respect to the dead. Somebody came out here last night and he's not out here tonight."

At the end of the night, once it was clear that no major clashes with police would overshadow the peaceful protests, Bass cast the march as a progression in the extended goal of bringing change to Charlotte.

"The first night: local, raw emotion. The second night: more people coming in, showing support. By the third night, it builds. It becomes more organic," Bass said. "It'll be Woodstock by Sunday."

"We've been playing with different tactics of being centralized or not, which has been very strategic for us," Ashley Williams, another organizer from Charlotte, said. She said there was "less interpersonal violence" and that local activists were planning for an influx of more protesters on Saturday.

Fred Robinson credited law enforcement for taking a more hands-off approach on Thursday, in contrast to their actions on Wednesday, when they deployed tear gas to disperse the crowd. 

"It's more peaceful tonight," Robinson said, walking past the Omni Hotel, where Carr was shot. "I feel the police are doing a better job. Last night the police cordoned people off, and that made for a confrontation. But now they're letting people keep going."

Despite a midnight curfew, the police allowed the peaceful march to continue unabated. A police captain walking with the group said anyone acting peacefully would not be arrested, even if they were on the streets past the curfew.

"This is not going to be over overnight. It's going to take a sustained effort of folks coming, paying attention to this," Bass said. "There has also been a very intentional motive to keep the local folks lifted, and the organizers and the people who do these things understand their role and lift up those voices."

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One man, who would only give his first name, DeAndre, was a ubiquitous presence at the front of the crowd. Walking in a full suit for miles in the September heat, he constantly inserted himself between the more confrontational protesters and law enforcement, repeatedly persuading the mostly young black men against taking aggressive action.

DeAndre stood between angry marchers and a line of police in riot gear at the beginning of the march. He dashed up the steps of the government center when people were running toward the National Guard soldiers stationed at the top, convincing the protesters to keep moving toward the police department. He steered the main group away from the highway.

"Everybody wants to see us tear it up," DeAndre said to his fellow marchers. "So if we don't tear it up, they said we can stay out here all night long. If we go to the highway, they're locking us up! So let's just keep marching." They did. 

This approach was not universally appreciated. Small groups of young protesters argued for a more confrontational approach throughout the night. One contingent did eventually make it onto the highway, but were quickly dispersed by police. At another point, someone in the crowd hurled a water bottle at a group of officers, striking one in the leg. The action was quickly condemned by other marchers, who ran to stand in front of the police and shouted down the provocateurs.

The human cost: The march was more personal for some. DeShawn Jones, 17, identified himself Scott's nephew. Jones said he worked with his Scott and last spoke to him on Sunday, two days before his death.

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"I know my uncle. He was a good person. He was there for his son. He was out there everyday, just waiting [to pick up] his son," Jones said. He said his family was distraught over the loss and were committed to advocating for change.

Scott's killing has sent a jolt through this city, with longtime frustrations and grievances erupting over the course of the week. Marchers recounted other instances of police officers shooting black residents, with many bringing up the 2013 killing of 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell as he looked for help after crashing his car. 

Some see a silver lining to the protests and demonstrations, holding out hope that the relationship between the police and community could improve as a result. 

Garry McFadden, a former Charlotte homicide detective and fixture in the local community, stood on the corner of Trade and Tryon Streets at 1:30 a.m. early Friday. Protesters had gone home and an eerie calm descended on the city. Empty water bottles littered the intersection where demonstrators had periodically stopped to catch their breath throughout the night.

McFadden now works to improve relations between the police and communities. One of his initiatives was highlighted by President Barack Obama as a model for cities across the country. McFadden said the events in Charlotte over the last few days offer an opportunity to make positive changes.

"It's not good for everybody. But it's good in a sense that now I can see where we need to turn and twist and look at some things," McFadden said. "Something like this is a good wake up call."

McFadden, who spent 32 years on the police force and worked 800 homicide cases, said the police can learn important lessons from how they handled the events of the past few days.

"Are we handling this right? Now you can measure the effect of having riot gear. Is it good or bad? Does it antagonize? Does it make people do certain things?" McFadden said. "Or do you have bike patrol and let people just walk and walk and walk. Stop in the street for a minute, then walk."

"This a platform. We need more platforms for people to vent. Then we can move forward," McFadden concluded.