At 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, 200 miles east of Charlotte, well outside the security fences that protected the suits and lanyards at the 2020 Republican National Convention, a bunch of people met at the intersection of the Intracoastal Waterway and Lockwood Folly River.
Pronounced “Lockers Folly” by the local shrimpers, the river gets its name from an old legend: The story goes that a man named Lockwood once spent years building the ship of his dreams, only to learn on his first trip to sea that it was too large for the shallow inlet. His mighty boat ran aground, becoming a folly and an allegory.
It was there, on Sunday, that more than 200 boats gathered under a cloudy sky, all adorned with giant flags to show their support for Donald Trump.
If you were looking for a true Trump party this weekend, one that would make you certain he’d again sail off with North Carolina’s electoral votes and the November election, this was where you had to go. They were on pontoons and jet skis, yachts and little get-around boats, mottos waving in the wind: “Keep America Great,” to “No More Bullshit.” They wore red T-shirts and hats. One tank-top had the emblem of a Folgers can, which read: “The Best Part of Waking Up is Remembering Donald Trump is My President.”
The Trump Flotilla cruised down the Intracoastal Waterway from Holden Beach to Ocean Isle Beach, blasting music and drinking beer and, they’d tell you, enjoying freedom. From the shores, people cheered them on, wearing hats and waving flags. More than 1,000 people took part by land and by sea, showing the president’s strength in Brunswick County, which happens to be the fastest-growing county in the state, and which happens to have favored Trump 63-34 in the 2016 election.
If you were anywhere in the vicinity of the parade, you’d probably think the president was on his way to a clear victory in the state November 3, no question.
Now move forward a day to Monday afternoon, this time in an urban park in the center of Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city. Now there are five Trump supporters, just five, and it’s five hours after the president himself spoke just a few blocks away, and they’re surrounded by dozens of anti-Trump protesters.
CMPD officers created a circle around them. A point of contention for the protesters was that the officers were facing them instead of the president’s supporters. Who and what gets protected in America, and who and what doesn’t, have been the questions dominating this summer in this country.
“F*ck you,” one anti-Trump protester shouted. “Lil’ bitch.”
The Trump supporters hurled back their own insults. To a young white man: “When they were handing out testicles they skipped you, didn’t they?” Or, to a young Black woman: “That’s why you’re an unwed mother,” causing her eyes to go wide in anger at the racist trope: “I’m not even a mother,” she said.
Eventually the crowd drowned out the men and they left, down Third Street and out of Uptown, which is the heartbeat of Mecklenburg County, which happens to be the center of the most urban part of the state, and which happens to have voted against Trump 62-33 in the 2016 election.
The anti-RNC protests, though, carried on deep into the night, long after the men were gone.
If you were anywhere around the events here, you’d probably think the president was on his way to being ousted, no question.
This is where we live, North Carolina, a state whose fastest-growing county went 63-34 for Trump in 2016 and held a Trump Flotilla this weekend, but also a state whose densest county went 62-33 against him in 2016 and barely applauded his visit and renomination yesterday.
National experts say it could come down to us, that what happens in North Carolina could decide the presidency. Of course this is not new. In 2008, Barack Obama won the state by the slim margin of 49.7 to 49.4. In 2012, he lost it 50.3 to 48.3. And Trump carried it 49.8 to 46.1 in 2016.
A recent poll showed Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a three-point lead on Trump in the state, and while August polls mean absolutely nothing, if you were in Charlotte on Monday, you could believe it. Even if you were one of the Trump supporters.
At 8 a.m., Steve Weiler whipped his Buick Regal into the parking lot across from the Uptown Cabaret strip club. A Trump decal stretched across the back window and each rear window had one, too. Weiler waved an American flag through the sunroof. He lives in Fort Mill, he told me, so he can’t even vote in North Carolina. But he said he wants me to know that Charlotte is “terrible.” He told me the city’s Democratic leadership is ruining what could be a great place. He handed me a card for his new independent rideshare business, Keep on Trumpin’ — which he started after he lost positions at bigger rideshare companies because, he says, they wanted him to take the Trump sticker off of his car.
After I left Steve with his flag, I walked about 10,000 steps in the Uptown streets in the Monday drizzle, and didn’t see another flag-waving person until nearly lunchtime. The hollowed-out city core was unsettling, even for a scaled-down convention. There were no convention signs outside the gates. Unless you were inside the barriers, honestly, without media coverage you wouldn’t have known the GOP convention was here.
Making the silence stranger was the fact that the worst-kept secret in Charlotte was that Trump was going to be here. That alone — even a rumor — usually brings crowds. But just before 10:45 a.m., vice president Mike Pence landed at Charlotte-Douglas and zipped into Uptown almost unnoticed. Then, as he spoke, Pence kept making reference to a “friend of mine” who would be there to speak. Just before noon, Air Force One landed. Soon the pool reporters made it official that Trump was headed into Uptown.
This is a city that will line up for hours for a biscuit if the right people post about it on social media. But news of Trump’s motorcade rushing toward the busiest intersections in the state fell flat.
Around that time, I was standing near the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, and a runner curled around the building only to see the barricade and scream a breathless, “Fuuu**kkk,” before going up to the next street and learning it was blocked off, too.
In a way, the RNC felt like that to many residents: A minor nuisance on our favorite running route.
Of course, it came drenched in America’s larger troubles. On Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights, protesters marched through Charlotte’s streets. But as the nights wore on, they became more aimed at police than the president.
Each day, CMPD was more visible, and the protests grew more intense. On Sunday night, at this spot near the Gantt on South Tryon, police say some demonstrators tried to move some barricades, and soon officers brought out pepper spray from cans, sending people diving to the ground. Five protesters were arrested. Countless more found themselves kneeling on side streets dousing their eyes from the chemicals. My friend and photojournalist Logan Cyrus, who has covered just about every protest in Charlotte over the past half-dozen years, posted a photo on Monday and wrote, “The main theme of the 2020 RNC protests have been the liberal use of pepper spray by CMPD.”
Back near the Gantt on Monday afternoon, about 12 hours after that pepper spray incident, a woman walked up to the barricade wearing a Trump flag as a cape. She was Latina, and she asked the police officers if she could get through. She held up a sign that said she supports police, then said she was looking for the “the Black Lives Matter supporters.” She wanted to confront them, she said. The officer said he couldn’t help her with that request.
The big arrival came at 12:25 p.m.
The motorcade swooped up off of Interstate 277 and onto College Street, past a spot where three news reporters were, then hooked right at the intersection where the Gantt Center stands tall, named for Charlotte’s first Black mayor and a man revered here.
All day in my mind I heard words from Gantt from a conversation I had with him this summer, and what he said about early polls and North Carolina: “I suspect that, in a way, the president may be enjoying the fact that he’s down in the polls right now. Because he may understand some things about America that perhaps a lot of us don’t know so well. He may understand depths of feeling that we can’t see.”
From there the president looped in behind the back of the Charlotte Convention Center to a quick face splash of cheers from a few people who’d gathered near the Whole Foods. He took the stage at 12:36 to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” The crowd chanted, “Four more years.” And Trump responded, “If you really wanna drive ’em crazy, say ’12 more years.'”
Then he was off. He talked for nearly 53 minutes, swiping at his favorite talking points like they were pucks on an air hockey table. Universal mail-in voting is an attempt by Democrats to steal an election. The coronavirus is China’s fault. Governor Cooper wasn’t any fun to deal with when it came to negotiating convention size. And then he said, “The only way they can take this election from us is if it is a rigged election.”
If you were in the room, you probably could believe that; if you were were outside, you saw reasons to disagree.
It’s a lot for any state to handle: The coronavirus, and schools being shut down, and businesses closing, the relentless run of hurricanes, and being a swing state. If North Carolina was ripe for aggressive politics in previous elections, what will happen over the next 69 days?
Outside the convention center Monday afternoon, a group of people with something called The Hoop Bus, were outside. When I walked up, a young man named D.J. Little, who played at Butler High, was dunking on a rim attached above the front windshield. Inside are pictures of basketball legends, and of Black people killed by police in recent years — from Breonna Taylor to George Floyd to Philando Castile. The bus has traveled around to more than 60 protests this year. “It’s the people’s bus,” says Tyler Thompson, who works with the group. “We’re going around spreading community. We’re all locked down because of this (the virus), and it’s good to go out and take a couple jump shots.”
Next to them were a handful of Trump supporters waving flags along Caldwell Street. Naturally, they were met with protesters, and naturally they exchanged words, but nothing violent.
But the night mushroomed from there. By 5:30 p.m., an officer had already sprayed a protester with a shower of orange. After a brief calm during the dinner hours, the marches carried on into South End, where again, for the fourth consecutive night, things escalated.
A former colleague of mine who lives in Florida and now works for a national news service had been to Portland earlier this summer. He was in Charlotte for yesterday’s events. “This must be nothing compared to Portland,” I told him Monday evening. His response? “Actually, I heard it gets bad here late.”
Whether we like it or not, that, too, is a reputation developed over the weekend.
Just before 11 p.m. on Camden Street, in front of the Midnight Diner, demonstrators lit a small fire in the street. Officers wheeled up on bikes, and one ran into a protester who was a good ways from the fire. Other officers then tackled the protester. CMPD says the protester initiated it by pushing the officer off of his bike before the arrest.
Among the demonstrators was city councilman Braxton Winston. Winston had his camera on. His recording of the incident leaves room for doubt, but in his mind it is clear.
“Where’s our policy that allows us to crash into people and then rush them?” Winston said to officers in the video. “Which one is that?”
CMPD tweeted, “Demonstrators push bicycle officer off his bike while he attempted to extinguish a fire lit by protesters. Two arrests made and pepper spray deployed.”
Winston replied: “This is a lie.”
The other day I was with my wife and our nearly six-month-old son and our two-colored-eyed mutt.
Our boy looks almost too much like my father, who was a Chesapeake Bay waterman and sold rockfish by the pound to the back door of restaurants. Dad ran any number of diesel-gurgling fishing boats out into the Bay when I was a kid, but we never participated in a flotilla that I can recall. Working boats didn’t do that. We spent one Fourth of July on the river, but when a drunk came flying through and nearly rocked us off, Dad cussed and took us home. If you asked my father, the only real reason to have a boat is to get the hell away from everybody.
The baby was laughing and making faces I remember his grandfather making, and the dog was thrilled with his new squeak toy, and then I started scanning through videos of the protests from the night before. It wears on the soul, watching people hate and harm each other. And it restores it a bit, seeing them do otherwise.
Certainly on Monday, in the wake of the Republican National Convention’s brief stay in Charlotte, there was plenty of the hate and harm swirling.
But for sanity’s sake, consider one small scene. Early in the evening, as the insults went back and forth between Trump supporters and anti-Trump demonstrators while officers stood in between them, a young Black man in socks and sandals was watching it all and smoking a thin cigar. He was with the anti-Trump, anti-police group. But now he was outside the main crowd and all the cameras and recordings, and standing near a white officer who was behind the wall of bikes.
And in this trying time in this very heated state with less than 70 days left until a presidential election that’s only going to test us more, the officer noticed something on the ground.
“Watch out for the fire ant hill, man!” he said.
The young man jumped back, then looked down. Hundreds of mean-ol’ red ants were making highways on a mound.
“Thank you, thank you,” the young man said. “Damn, thank you.”