Charlotte leaders weren’t sure what they were getting into when they got word that then-President Barack Obama would be accepting his renomination bid Uptown.
And this was 2012, and the wounds of the recession were still fresh. It had been only months since Occupy Wall Street left its mark on New York City and the nation at large, and the Occupy Charlotte offshoot was still camping outside the Old City Hall.
Following the lead of other cities, the Charlotte City Council passed an “Extraordinary Event” ordinance that would allow police officers to stop and search people who brought backpacks or gas masks into certain areas designated by the city manager. That would help keep anarchists from dangerous actions, or so the theory went.
September 2012 came and the Democratic National Convention went off with only a few minor hitches — a thunderstorm disrupting Obama’s planned speech at Bank of America Stadium the main one. Protests commenced peacefully. And then everybody went home.
Still today, the Extraordinary Events ordinance and its sweeping police powers remain in place. Tampa, which hosted the Republican National Convention in 2012, has long since done away with theirs.
Charlotte, on the other hand, has only broadened its scope. Originally intended to cover only events of international significance, Charlotte has used the ordinance to police events like the Charlotte Pride festival and college football games. Along the way, it’s garnered opposition from groups of all political persuasions.
There are few vocal defenders of the ordinance. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department referred comment to the city. When the ordinance was passed, city officials said “these are tools that the police department believes are necessary and will be effective in minimizing the disruption and harm to this community.”
Under new City Manager Marcus Jones, the city plans to conduct its first critical review of the ordinance.
“I understand there’s a need to protect citizens,” said Darlene Kannady, a Charlotte attorney. “I think that the law as it stands already provides another protection and provides police enough leeway to properly do their job.
“I don’t understand how somebody who believes in constitutional rights and protections can stand by this law.”
What is the “Extraordinary Events” ordinance?
The ordinance was discussed and voted on about nine months before the Democratic National Convention was set to descend on Charlotte. City leaders wanted to be fully prepared.
While discussing the ordinance, city officials cited incidents at the 2008 DNC in Denver where protesters went into portajohns and filled up plastic bags with excrement, carried them in backpacks and then threw them at convention-goers and police officers. They described another incident at the 2008 Republican National Convention where protestors donned helmets and gas masks to dismantle road signs and block four-lane streets.
It was against that backdrop that the final ordinance took shape.
In its final form, the Extraordinary Events ordinance bans a multitude of items — including lumber, backpacks, masks, police scanners, hammers, glass containers, aerosol cans and rocks — from an area declared part of the event. It also bans people from throwing anything (so technically, people who threw a football around while tailgating for the Panthers game against the Vikings were breaking the law).
The city manager is given sole authority to declare the event and its boundaries.
The ordinance defines an “extraordinary event” as a “large-scale special event of national or international significance and/or an event expected to attract a significant number of people to a certain portion of the city.
The council discussed a sunset clause that would end the Extraordinary Events ordinance in January 2013. But anticipating that Charlotte could host the World Cup or the Olympics in the future, the council decided to leave it in perpetuity.
Because it didn’t have the sunset, then-councilman John Autry was the lone vote against the ordinance.
When it was discussed in January 2012, City Attorney Bob Hagemann said besides the DNC, the ordinance would likely be used for Speed Street, the Fourth of July and the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration.
Councilman James Mitchell asked whether the CIAA tournament would be included. The reply from then-City Manager Curt Walton, according to meeting minutes: “Not in my opinion. We have a good history with the CIAA and they have never indicated that we need anything like this, so I would not anticipate that.”
But that’s now how things worked out.
The CIAA tournament was in fact declared an Extraordinary Event in 2015 and 2016. So was the Thanksgiving Day parade, numerous Carolina Panthers games, the Belk Bowl,soccer games at Bank of America Stadium, the Charlotte Pride Parade and Festival, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, the ACC Championship football game and annual shareholders meetings of Bank of America and Duke Energy.
“The frequency contradicts the name of the ordinance,” Charlottean Sarah Lynn told the council last week.
Their efficacy is unclear. In most cases, few if any arrests were recorded. It’s not known how many people were stopped and searched.
“A concern we had from the outset was that there would be a slippery slope here where more and more events would be deemed extraordinary,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “Unfortunately, we have seen that occur.”
Opponents run the political gamut.
The ordinance was received with criticism from the beginning. The American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights attorneys have always been concerned about the constitutional issues it raises, particularly that of unreasonable search and seizure and violation of free speech.
The National Lawyers Guild has also come out strongly against Charlotte’s continued use of the ordinance, implying that it is a “threat to democracy.”
Conservative activists worried about prohibitions on guns have also protested the ordinance.
Charlotte Pride spoke out publicly against the Extraordinary Event ordinance this past summer in anticipation that their event might be declared one. “As an organization, we are keenly aware of the implications that increased policing may have on our LGBTQ community, especially for trans communities and people of color,” their statement read.
Mel Hartsell, a regional organizer with Democracy NC and a Pride attendee, said she knows numerous people who did not attend the Pride festival last year because of the designation.
She said the ordinance opens up too many questions of racial bias. For example, would a white person and a black person both carrying backpacks both be searched?
“You can’t determine whether something was safer because it was over policed,” Hartsell said. “You can strip rights for the perception of safety, but you’re still stripping rights.”
Dissenters have also cited numerous other problems. Among them: How does somebody determine the boundaries of the extraordinary event? Why is the unelected city manager the sole determinant of an extraordinary event? How should extraordinary event designations be publicized?
Violating it causes real consequences, even if you didn’t do anything else wrong.
Even with all those questions, the ordinance has consequences.
Extraordinary Events ordinance violations are prosecuted as Class 3 misdemeanors, which are the least severe but not without consequences.
For first-time offenders without a criminal record, Extraordinary Events ordinance violators are generally offered a diversion program, where they can take a behavioral or educational class in exchange for the charge’s dismissal.
But the charge could also carry with it a fine of $50, lawyers say.
“To assume that people have the $50 to pay is very presumptuous,” said Kannady, the Charlotte attorney. “There are people that don’t have that money. There are some things they can do to get it dismissed, but that also takes money.”
People with longer criminal records aren’t so lucky. If a person has more than three convictions in their past, they could be jailed for the ordinance violation.
The Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office said it prosecutes these ordinance violations even if they are not accompanied by other crimes, like trespassing or resisting arrest.
In at least three cases, this has been what happened. Three people were arrested and charged only with Extraordinary Events ordinance violations during protests outside of the Carolina Panthers game on September 25. These were a continuation of the protests after the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott at the hands of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer. The officer was not charged with a crime.
One of the three, Armando Gallardo, had his charges dismissed in December.
Charges against the other two — Braxton David Winston II and Osiris Rain are still pending, according to the DA’s office.
Winston is contesting his charges and has a trial scheduled for February. He said he was arrested early on in the protest and accused of carrying a gas mask. He said he sat in jail for 10 hours before having to post bond to be released.
“I don’t think I broke the law,” he said. “Everything about the way (the ordinance) is implemented and used by city officials is troubling.”
What could happen now?
There appears to be momentum toward at least amending the policy, if not outright repealing it.
In mid-January, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Chief Kerr Putney identified the Extraordinary Events ordinance as one under review, along with body camera video policies, as the department works through recommendations of a national task force aiming to better relations between police and the community.
A few days later, City Manager Marcus Jones told the City Council that he was caught off-guard when he was asked to sign an Extraordinary Event designation for the Belk Bowl in December. That was just days after he began the job.
“I asked the purpose of it and it’s effectiveness as a public safety tool,” he told the public and council last Monday. “I’ve asked staff how it’s been used, whether it’s been effective and if there’s anything we should do to change or not have it.”
The city reports that the review should be done by the end of February, and recommendations will be brought to the City Council for discussion.
“We are heartened to see that Charlotte seems to be reconsidering,” Brook of the ACLU said.
Cover image by Robert Christopher