By Ann Doss Helms
With hundreds of people marching through uptown Charlotte every night for the past week, many are wondering: Who are these people?
Some Charlotteans see a diverse cast of neighbors, while others talk about outside agitators. Confusion is understandable: Established local leaders and traditional civil rights groups like the NAACP are working with a newer, fast-evolving cast of activists, with acronyms such as TQPoCC (that’s Trans and Queer People of Color Collective), as well as protesters from around the nation.
People who have fought discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people are working with groups pushing for racial justice and other progressive causes.
Many local organizers who are on the streets now have been active since the 2013 police killing of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man who had wrecked his car, and the 2015 trial of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer who shot him. “Charlotte Uprising” is a name that emerged only last week as many of those groups responded to the Sept. 20 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.
The first two days of violence brought national attention. A group of young men and women from Ferguson, Mo., arrived in Charlotte Thursday after making an 11-hour drive to join local demonstrations.
One of the participants from Ferguson said Sunday that the group often travels across the country to support protests over police shootings of black men. Peaceful demonstrations are still held at least once a week in the Ferguson area, two years later after Michael Brown was shot to death by an officer there.
And, of course, some in the huge crowds are simply unknowns. Many wonder who’s to blame for last week’s attacks on police, smashed windows, damaged cars and looted stores. Uprising leaders have not encouraged such action, but they’ve been urging protesters not to distance themselves or focus blame on those people. They say that shifts attention from the police violence and racial discrimination that caused the rage.
“It’s important to understand that the amount of anger and hurt that is felt ... is not totally about the police killing that happened on Tuesday,” said Bree Newsome, a Charlotte organizer. “It is about the continuing violence that the African American communities in Charlotte have experienced for decades, from the police and from the city and local government.”
The Rev. Traci Blackmon, a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement that originated in Ferguson, Mo., said one of the biggest challenges in a situation like Charlotte faces now is a generational communication gap. Older activists tend to focus on traditional responses to the local incident, she said, while younger ones have been immersed in social media reports of police shootings across America. That means the younger ones are often angrier, more profane and sometimes more physical.
“People say, ‘How did you get from zero to 10?’ Well, I came on the street at eight,” the 53-year-old Blackmon said, describing the mindset of younger protesters.
It’s unclear how long street action will last in Charlotte. In Ferguson there were protests every day for more than a year, Blackmon said, though many were small.
And even if marches fade, the underlying issues and the efforts to deal with them will not. So here’s a guide to who’s been active on the streets and what to expect next.
Charlotte Uprising: New coalition
Charlotte Uprising is a new coalition spearheaded by The Tribe, a Charlotte group that describes itself as a network of grassroots organizers dedicated to the empowerment of underserved neighborhoods.
Uprising and Tribe members have been prominent in the recent rallies and street marches, instructing people in how to protect themselves, anticipate police action and present their story to the media. This week they have shifted from rallying crowds to pressing a list of short- and long-term demands for local, state and federal officials to deal with the Scott shooting and confront police violence in Charlotte.
Many people across the Carolinas learned about The Tribe in July 2015, when Newsome climbed the flagpole at South Carolina’s statehouse to take down the Confederate flag. Members were also active in monitoring the trial of Officer Randall Kerrick in Ferrell’s death, which resulted in a hung jury. Its logo is a raised black fist with the slogan: “For our community / for our freedom / for our future.”
Newsome is a field organizer for Ignite NC, which trains youth to become leaders against injustice. Ignite NC is funded by the Southern Vision Alliance, a nonprofit group created in 2014 to support youth-centered work.
The Charlotte protests have sparked social media comments speculating that organizers are paid by liberal billionaire George Soros. Newsome and Ashley Williams of the Trans and Queer People of Color Collective, another Charlotte group that’s part of Uprising, say their groups get no Soros money. Instead, they say, they solicit smaller individual donations – pitches for contributions have been part of the rallies and training that precede marches.
Other groups listed as part of Uprising are:
▪ Beloved Community Center of Greensboro, a nonprofit group that describes itself as “organizing for justice, equality, dignity, worth and the enormous potential of all people.” Police accountability and professionalism are one of its focus areas.
▪ Hip-Hop University, a Charlotte-based nonprofit group that provides mentoring, education and digital literacy for at-risk youth.
▪ NC Raise Up, a union-affiliated group working to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
▪ Peoples Power Assemblies, a national group that exists to “empower workers and oppressed people to demand jobs, education and healthcare while fighting racism, sexism & LGBT bigotry.” The group has been active in protests against “police terror” in other cities.
▪ Queer People of Color Collective of Greensboro, a community group that “promotes conversations across the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and gender identity.”
▪ Repower Our Schools, a group working in Charlotte and Durham to convert public schools to renewable energy.
▪ SAFE Coalition NC, a Charlotte-based nonprofit group created in 2013 to promote police accountability. Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP chapter, and TaMeko Williams, whose son died in 2011 after being Tasered by a CMPD officer, are board members.
▪ Southeast Asian Coalition, a Charlotte group that describes its mission as upholding “integrity, empowerment, inclusion, tradition, leadership and critical consciousness.”
▪ Together Towards Tomorrow, described as a group of educators working for the advancement of marginalized youth.
Flying in: National organizers
After two nights of violence, leaders of the national movement against police violence flew in to offer support and advice to Charlotte’s protesters. They’re expected back this weekend as the action moves into its next phase.
Pastor Mike McBride works for the PICO National Network, a California-based network of congregations that promotes community organizing on such issues as housing, education, public safety and immigration reform (PICO stands for People Improving Communities through Organizing). McBride leads the network’s Live Free project, which aims to counteract mass incarceration of people of color and reduce gun violence in those communities.
Blackmon is a United Church of Christ minister from a suburb next to Ferguson, Mo., where she helped organize the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged in 2014 after an unarmed black man was shot by a white police officer there.
White voices: SURJ
Showing Up for Racial Justice, a Louisville-based national network that mobilizes white people to speak up for racial justice, has also had a presence in the Charlotte action. The group has affiliates in Charlotte, Asheville, the Triangle and the Triad. The network encourages white people to speak and act against institutional racism and white supremacy.
The Charlotte marches and rallies have had a visible white presence, even as the chants have focused on black lives and African American pride.
Historic role: NAACP
Some of the names and faces at Charlotte’s rallies are familiar. The Rev. William Barber, North Carolina’s NAACP president, has become nationally known for his leadership of the Moral Monday Movement protesting a range of actions by the state legislature. He has appeared at Charlotte news conferences and rallies, most recently on Monday evening presenting a list of demands for counteracting police violence.
Mack, the local branch president, also has been active this week. Since taking the top post in 2015 she has worked at building relationships with LGBT groups, immigration activists and young people who might not readily turn to a civil rights group founded more than a century ago.
Peaceful presence: Charlotte clergy
The Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice, which represents about 70 local congregations, has had members on the front lines of recent protests, trying to act as a peaceful presence while ensuring that protesters are heard and treated fairly. The group, chaired by the Rev. Robin Tanner of the Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church, was created about a year ago and has announced plans to create a Commission on Reconciliation and Equity that will lead discussions and action moving forward.
Behind the scenes: Legal aid
Lawyers, including those active in the American Civil Liberties Union, have worked with protesters all week to provide legal advice, including assistance to those who have been arrested. The North Carolina ACLU has stated that it “stands in solidarity with Charlotte Uprising and others who are demonstrating in Charlotte, and we join them in demanding reforms in the wake of Mr. Scott’s killing.”
Anna Douglas, staff writer at the McClatchy Washington bureau, contributed.