© 2023 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

A Look Back At The Protest Movement Born After Keith Scott Killing

Protests in Charlotte Sept. 21, 2016
David Boraks
The police shooting of Keith Scott a year ago sparked protests that led to the creation of Charlotte Uprising. These protesters stood on a wall outside CMPD headquarters on Sept. 21, 2016.

Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott – and the birth of a protest movement called Charlotte Uprising.

The street protests that followed Keith Scott's killing brought all kinds of people to uptown Charlotte - longtime activists, students, uptown professionals, and local clergy. Within a couple of days, many were rallying around a social media hashtag - #CharlotteUprising.

[One Year Later: The Anniverary of the Keith Lamont Shooting and Protests]

It was no accident. Organizers from several organizations picked the name to help communicate with and unify demonstrators, said organizer Ash Williams.

Ash Williams of Charlotte Uprising led the vigil.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Ash Williams of Charlotte uprising led a vigil at Marshall Park in August, after the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va.

“We formed this group as a way to build community and reach other folks in Charlotte who are concerned about the same issues,” Williams said.

Issues such as police killings of black people, a demand for more transparency from Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, and societal racism, says Williams.  In the midst of the protests, the group issued a series of demands – seeking the release of police video from the shooting, firing of the officers involved and defunding of CMPD.  

A year later, Charlotte Uprising remains a coalition of social justice activist groups. Tin Nguyen of the Southeast Asian Coalition was one of the founders.

“It's a loosely organized group … like a brand. A lot of people recognize Charlotte Uprising and it being connected to different social justice campaigns. And so I think since all the protests last year, the group has just been really focusing on a lot of local issues,” Nguyen said.

Those include gentrification, police shootings, arrests of immigrants here illegally, and what Williams calls the "prison industrial complex." They've held teach-ins, organized vigils and protests, and spoken at City Council meetings.

A year ago, some Charlotte Uprising followers were among the more than 80 people arrested during the protests. Since then, members of the group have held marches and disrupted public meetings and court hearings. Those tactics sometimes draw criticism.

“We do want people to know that we're serious, and that we're upset about something, and that we're also rising against something,” Williams said.

“We don't really let what people think about us get to us, because I think we would've stopped a long time ago.”

Disruptive protests aren’t meant to be malicious, but to gain attention, said another activist, Kass Ottley. She runs a Charlotte group called "Seeking Justice," and has helped organize Black Lives Matter protests around the state.  

“Sometimes you have to make people uncomfortable for them to understand what's going on, and for change. When everybody's comfortable, nothing really happens. When people get uncomfortable that's then when they want to do things to change that,” Ottley said.  

But those in-your-face tactics don't sit well with Greg Jackson. He runs a group Heal Charlotte, born out of last year's protests as a way to bring change, neighborhood by neighborhood. He agrees protests can build awareness of a problem, but said that's only half the job.

“The power is in the actions which you do after the protest, and how you plan to affect and change your community. You don't have start with the whole city. Start with where you live at first,” Jackson said.

Jackson's group started by organizing entertainment events - a hip hop festival and a Christmas party - to unite lower-income residents in northeast Charlotte. Now he runs neighborhood after-school programs for youth and leads constructive dialogue training for CMPD officers.

For Charlotte Uprising, action has meant not only protests and education, but also advocacy - for people caught up in the court system. The group raised money last spring for a "Black Mama Bailout," to get a half-dozen African-American mothers out of jail. And they've shown up at court appearances to support protesters who were arrested last year. That includes Rayquan Borum, whom they believe police framed for the murder of fellow protester Justin Carr.

Ash Williams said that a year after the protests, there's still an "illusion of inclusion" in Charlotte.

“I know that for me as a person of color, there's a lot of dissonance. I know that white folks in Charlotte are just not experiencing the same things that I am,” Williams said.

Over the past year, Charlotte Uprising has gained a following and earned respect as a voice for the community, said Nguyen.  

“And what they're saying is actually resonating with a lot of people, you know, in the community, that maybe perhaps in the past have not had the courage to speak up,” he said.  

For another protester - Braxton Winston - change is happening, just not fast enough.

“I do think conversations have changed. But we have a lot of work to do to create the systemic change that I think there seeds are there, but we really gotta cultivate this plant,” Winston said.

For these activists, the big question is whether that plant will be thriving - or withered - after another year goes by.

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.