Here's how WFAE covered the biggest stories of 2021
We thought 2020 would be a tough one to top when it came to big stories. Well, 2021 sure gave the preceding year a run for its money. An attack on the U.S. Capitol, a second impeachment trial for President Trump, big trial verdicts and the end to a 20-year war were just a handful of the biggest events to happen nationally.
But, of course, for the second year in a row, there was no bigger story than the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic dominated headlines for the second full year. First, there was the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, the lightning-fast scientific achievement that we had pinned our hopes on ending the pandemic. President Joe Biden originally targeted having 70% of Americans vaccinated by July 4.
Then came vaccine hesitancy and skepticism. Still, the pandemic seemed to be turning a corner mid-year until … the delta variant. The new, more contagious and more deadly variant of COVID-19 led to North Carolina approaching its record number of hospitalizations for the disease by early September.
And just when hopes had been rising again that we might be nearing the end of the pandemic, we received news just weeks ago of the newest variant, omicron. It’s supposed to be far more contagious than anything we’ve seen and studies show vaccines have not been as effective in preventing disease caused by this variant. But it’s still unclear how lethal it might be … and how long COVID-19 is going to stretch into 2022, now.
Jan. 6 was supposed to be a routine day where the 2020 presidential election results were formally approved. But it turned into something violent and frightening.
Supporters of President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, clashing with Capitol police, damaging property, breaking into the Senate chamber and offices, and forcing the House and Senate into lockdown. They were challenging the tallying of Electoral College votes that affirmed and declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election. Four people died in the chaos, more than 50 people were arrested and at least a dozen officers were injured.
Two weeks later, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt reflected on the chaos in an interview with WFAE’s Gwendolyn Glenn.
The fallout continues as a House committee is in the midst of investigating what led to the violence that day.
President Trump’s second impeachment
And the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol directly led to another big story in 2021: the second impeachment of President Donald Trump. He was charged with inciting the attack on the Capitol, and it marked the first time a president had been impeached twice.
The trial began after Trump had left office, and in the end, just seven Republicans joined with all Democrats and independents to vote to convict the former president. That 57-43 tally was short of the two-thirds vote needed.
Among the surprising votes to convict Trump was North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr. In a statement, Burr said, "I do not make this decision lightly, but I believe it is necessary."
He continued: "The President promoted unfounded conspiracy theories to cast doubt on the integrity of a free and fair election because he did not like the results. As Congress met to certify the election results, the President directed his supporters to go to the Capitol to disrupt the lawful proceedings required by the Constitution.
"When the crowd became violent, the President used his office to inflame the situation instead of immediately calling for an end to the assault."
The North Carolina Republican Party voted to censure Burr for his impeachment vote.
Burr previously had announced that he will not seek reelection in 2022.
Election redistricting and election reform
And in another case of one thing causing another, the 2020 election directly led to two major shifts in politics: redistricting maps drawn based on the 2020 census by the newly elected state legislatures, and numerous new election laws enacted in several states aimed at preventing election fraud.
Redistricting in North Carolina meant the Republican-controlled General Assembly has been accused of gerrymandering after drawing maps that appear to give the GOP an 10-4 edge in congressional seats. As a result, The North Carolina Supreme Court has delayed the state’s planned March 8 primary until May so state courts can review lawsuits claiming illegal gerrymandering.
Meanwhile, after former President Trump’s repeated false claims of voter and election fraud in the 2020 election, several states passed stricter laws that restricted voting access in many cases. Georgia and Texas were among the most notable.
Colonial Pipeline cyberattack and a gasoline shortage
There was never actually a gasoline shortage back in May. But after Colonial Pipeline endured a cyberattack that resulted in its main East Coast pipeline being shut down, fears of a potential gasoline shortage led to a run on gasoline.
So gas stations throughout North Carolina went dry – including 71% of gas stations in the Charlotte area – even though there was plenty of gasoline in the country. It was just a matter of getting that fuel to the correct places.
Still, for about a week in mid-May, it was a time of fuel conservation.
The debate over masks in schools and parents vs. school boards
In 2020, the big debate with COVID-19 and schools was whether to stick with remote learning or attempt in-person instruction. This year, with most schools conceding that in-person learning was vital, the debate shifted to whether students and school staff should be required to wear face masks in school.
There was a deep divide that often went along party lines, with more conservative districts opting for mask-optional policies. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has continued to require face masks.
Both nationally and locally, the debate led to some heated moments in school board meetings, as parents have challenged decisions and lobbied for more autonomy.
The Tokyo Olympics … one year delayed
Originally scheduled for the summer of 2020, the Tokyo Olympics finally were held – to empty arenas and stadiums – from July 23- Aug. 8, 2021. For the seventh Olympic games in a row, the United States took home more medals than any country. But in the gold-medal race, they just barely edged China.
Nationally, the big focus was on gymnast Simone Biles, who withdrew from most of the competition after experiencing something called “twisties.” She still won a bronze medal in the individual balance beam competition.
Locally, slalom canoe and kayak athlete Evy Leibfarth competed in her first Olympics at age 17, and track and field star Anna Cockrell was a surprise qualifier for the finals of the 400 hurdles.
Verdicts in major trials
The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, rocked the nation and launched weeks of protests against police brutality and systemic racism. In 2021, Chauvin was tried for the murder of Floyd. The trial concluded on March 20 with guilty verdicts on all charges — unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. In June, Chauvin was sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison.
During that trial, an old Charlotte case made national headlines again. The Graham v. Connor ruling in 1989, laid out the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion of “the reasonableness” of a police officer’s use of force.
Another case drew or collective attention in 2020 and 2021. On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia.
Three white men, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan, suspected Arbery of committing recent break-ins in their neighborhood. They chased Arbery down, later saying they intended to make a citizens arrest. During a brief physical altercation, Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery.
The McMichaels and Bryan were arrested in May 2020, charged with felony muder along with other charges. In November 2021, the three men were found guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery.
The nation’s attention was griped by a third trial in 2021. On Aug. 25, 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse, then 17 years old, fatally shot two men and wounded another during protests against the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse, from Antioch, Illinois, was in Kenosha that night to help protect businesses from protesters he said.
From the beginning, the case touched on many of the major issues the country faced in 2020 — gun rights, police brutality, perceived unequal treatment by law enforcement of Black and white people and self-defense.
Rittenhouse faced seven charges for shooting and killing Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and injuring Gaige Grosskreutz. In November 2021, he was found not guilty of all charges.
Homelessness became more visible
Homelessness in Charlotte is not new, but the coronavirus pandemic amplified the problem. As people lost their jobs because of the pandemic, tent encampments sprang up around the city. One of the largest became known as “Tent City.” Sitting on a vacant lot at 12th and Poplar streets, east of Interstate 277, the encampment sheltered as many as 100 people in 2020 and grew to more than 200 people in 2021.
In February 2021, residents of Tent City were moved off the property, many to hotels Mecklenburg County leased. The county’s Communty Support Services worked to find permanent housing for them but struggled to find landlords who would rent to the former residents of Tent City. By July, only 16 people had moved into permanent housing.