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A Conversation With Some Of Charlotte's Nonviolent Protesters

Protests in Charlotte Sept. 21, 2016
David Boraks

There was another side to Wednesday night. Although the clashes uptown were eye-catching, the overwhelming majority of protesters were not violent. We're going to hear a conversation with a few of them. Bria O'Neal, Khiana Ralph and Leah Wright are young African-American women who live in Charlotte and came to the protests together. WFAE's Michael Tomsic asked them why. 

"We're just kind of here to give a voice," O'Neal said. "A lot of people around the country don't really understand what's going on. And we need everyone to open their eyes and see, this is happening. It's here. You can't ignore it anymore."

"I feel like to see it happen directly in Charlotte," added Ralph, "it hit home that we are in the area where we can stand for this. We don't have to see it on TV or hear people talk about it, but we can be a part of this now. So it's time to do something."

The three friends agree the night started off peacefully.

"It was at the park, Marshall Park," Wright said. "It was really peaceful. Then we got word someone got shot outside the Epicentre. And we took that as a direct hit to the gut that we're out here trying to protest and stop police brutality, and something happens. So we marched down to the Epicentre. And it was peaceful until some bad apples decided to do things to the police that make them want to retaliate."

O'Neal said she saw people throw firecrackers and water bottles.

"With that happening, the police have to react to it," she said. "They can't just stand there and go oh, we're going to put up our shields and take what we've got. They have to react to it sooner or later, and they gave plenty of warnings before doing so. And some people stood their ground. And that's when it became very un-peaceful."

"There still are a lot of us trying to continue the peace so it doesn't get out of hand," Wright added, "because there's no reason for that. Nothing will be solved by us rioting or having any extreme levels of violence. We don't want any other casualties because of this protest."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said Wednesday the man who was fatally shot, Keith Lamont Scott, was armed with a handgun. Putney said police have the handgun. And yet, many protesters don't buy the official account.

"Because the police have given us no reason to actually take their word for it," O'Neal explained. "There's videos. They all have body cams. Why can't someone just come out and say oh, here's the video, take it for what it is and see for yourself. However, they want to be all secretive and deceptive about it."

"And it's not even just about how Charlotte people view cops," Ralph said. "It's like nationally, cops everywhere are attacking us. It's a national threat against black lives."

"It could be your mom," Wright chimed in. "It could be your grandmother. It could be your seven-year-old nephew. You never know. Or it could be yourself. Simply every time you see a cop behind you and you could get pulled over, you have the thought in your head, will this be the last time that I see anyone? Will this be the day I die? And everyone else doesn't have to deal with that type of anxiety every day and think about their family and everyone they love going through that every day all the time."

All three say that gut-check moment when they see a police officer is the same whether the person is black or white.

"Anytime someone is in that uniform, it's going to send a shock through me," O'Neal said. "There are definitely black cops that have shot people unarmed, and there are definitely white cops that have done it."

"What it is is the power that you get when you become a cop," Wright offered, "because you have so much of the power of America in your hands. For some people, it's almost like they play God. They pick who goes to jail, who doesn't. But yet they don't get the same consequences of every other American."

"And it's just crazy because I've had black cops come and speak to us," Ralph said, "and tell us: 'You guys should trust the cops. You don't know the full story. You don't know what the person did.' Just because you come out and you're the same skin tone as me, I don't have to trust you. You're still a stranger. I don't know your motives. I don't know anything about it."

Mayor Jennifer Roberts and other city leaders are calling on people to be patient and let more of the facts come out through the course of the investigation. Ralph said she's sick of waiting.

"I feel like we as black people have had enough of waiting," she said. "We've been waiting since we've been brought here. What is there to wait for?"

"We just ask people to put themselves in our shoes," O'Neal said. "If you're not out here protesting or using your voice, put it on social media. Educate someone. Educate yourself. The littlest difference can make the biggest change. Just do that for all of us and this entire United States will be a much better place, and a lot more safe, a lot more freedom-based, and a lot more equal, the way it was supposed to be built."

Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.