Saturday night in Charlotte looked something like a double feature, playing out at the same time, on two different screens, just two miles apart.
The first, and most important, was a story of civil rights, the most basic rights, to live without fear of police brutality or race-based violence. The other was the return of Saturdays, long lines, and drinks flowing in South End, as if a pandemic was a thing of the past, as if the other movie was taking place in another land.
Within the first film were two very different parts, sun up and sun down. During the day protests were peaceful. Multiple groups marched in Uptown throughout the afternoon. One group of about 100 blocked I-277 in protest of George Floyd’s killing. In the middle of it all, a conversation broke out, a poignant one, a passionate one, between three generations of Black men, discussing the best way through this.
“What I need you to do right now at 16 is come up with a better way. Because how we’re doing it right now, it ain’t working,” said Curtis Hayes Jr., a 31-year-old man representing the middle generation.
As they talked, police were in riot gear, marching toward them, chanting, “move back, move back.” They did. No pepper spray, no rods, no tear gas, yet.
When the sun goes down everything feels different. Not just during times of civil unrest but anytime. The pile of clothes in a chair in the corner of your room looks like a monster when you cut the lights. The drive home looks different, the trees all shadows as they zoom past, nothing clear when you’re navigating in the dark.
When the protests moved from day to night, they got different, too. And that made me nervous.
As my 20-year-old brother and I walked through Charlotte at dusk I thought about the small minority of protestors who may be there for the wrong reasons. I thought about the police reaction to the protests. I thought about how a young Black man or woman could be treated if things took a turn for the worse.
The protest continued hours after we left around 10 p.m. There was some property damage and a bizarre instance of a man falling through a grate on the sidewalk (Charlotte firefighters were able to get him out). There was what seemed to me, at least, a lot of pepper spray and some kind of loud smoke bomb device used by CMPD.
Seeing police march through billows of smoke toward protestors, protestors lighting fireworks in the direction of police, police arresting protestors, all under the cover of night is our first movie’s climax, I think.
But I’m not sure. Moving back to the Charlotte area for the first time since 2012, I feel like I don’t know this city. It’s grown, a lot. Of course restaurants and businesses have come and gone. I was working in West Virginia for my first full-time reporting job in 2016 so I missed the Keith Scott protests. It jarred the senses to see what I saw Saturday night in Charlotte, in Charlotte.
I’m glad to know this other side of my city, though. It’s certainly time for a change. Not just in Charlotte but everywhere. And these protestors know that. And they’re ready to fight for it.
But they’re not a part of a 1960s Dr. King, Malcolm X era movie; we still don’t know how this one ends. Are the protestors heard? Are hearts changed? Are policies changed? Are Black people ever safe in America?
I hope so.
The other movie played out in a completely different world.
Here, a group lines up outside a restaurant for the first time in the months since coronavirus-related restrictions kept them closed. They’re patronizing businesses that really need them right now. They’re enjoying the opportunity to be social, something we all miss. They’re doing what many of us like to do on Saturday nights: go out.
We’ve seen this movie before. It’s fun, lighthearted — a rom-com maybe. It stars people who don’t fear for their lives when they get pulled over for speeding, or have a knee pressed to their neck for almost nine minutes after being accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill. Those injustices don’t live in this movie, but Saturday night in Charlotte those protesting against them lived two miles away.
The contrast between these scenes was striking, but not surprising. We’ve known there were two Charlottes, certainly since 2014 when we were tagged last in upward mobility, meaning it’s harder to move out of poverty here than anywhere else in the country.
But on Saturday night the worlds felt oddly close together, people in one place just wanting to live, people in the other just wanting to not die.
Will the people in the first group pay attention to the people in the second?
I hope so.
After the long night Saturday, it was time for church on Sunday.
Church, not just in Charlotte but around the nation, is one of the most segregated places in America.
But this Sunday was a little different.
A couple of thousand people met at First Ward park for the It Ends Now CLT protest. It was organized and led by Charlotte faith leaders, black and white. The crowd was diverse, too.
White and Black protestors held signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “White Silence is Violence.”
Speaker after speaker specifically called on white Christians to be the catalysts for change.
“The church has appeared divided for too long, for at least my entire life. So it’s important that we demonstrate unity because that’s what Christ would’ve wanted,” said organizer Keyona Osborne.
Some speakers held white protestors’ feet to the fire more than others.
Pastor Ray McKinnon read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.'”
In the week following George Floyd’s death, the message, no matter how it’s been conveyed, has been clear: the season is now.
“I don’t think this is any better or righter than the way folks showed up last night,” McKinnon said Sunday.
Saturday night was intense, Sunday morning was hopeful.
“It’s uplifting, I know I didn’t want to come at first,” said Sasha Onyango, one of the protestors. “This last week with all the news that’s been coming out has been really tough and hard. I feel so much anger and pain. But to see people here and to see the support and to see our allies come out for us it makes me think that maybe things might change.”
Seeing a group that large, that diverse, unified in message, singing the Black National Anthem (Lift Every Voice and Sing), created a brief moment of hope. For those few hours Black Charlotteans weren’t alone in caring about violence against people of color and the fight to end it. Will those few hours translate into a few months, a few years, a few generations?
I hope so.
Right now it feels like America is cracking. To be honest, sometimes it feels like I’m cracking.
The heartache and anger caused by tens of thousands of coronavirus-related deaths, the financial loss caused by coronavirus-related restrictions, and now the anger and hurt caused by yet another incident of police brutality against a Black American is too much to take at once.
George Floyd wasn’t killed here, but people who look like him have certainly been killed by police here. Their names and their memories hovered over the weekend’s activities, spoken every now and then in chants, whispered in crowds more often than that: Danquirs Franklin. Keith Scott. Jonathan Ferrell.
Maybe, the two Charlottes can come together more often in the way they did on Sunday, not how they got close but ignored each other Saturday. And maybe together they’ll create lasting change.
And maybe that change will mean this is the last time a Black journalist, while mourning another Black life lost to police brutality, simultaneously has to organize their thoughts well enough to report on the injustice. Probably not. But I hope so.