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One Year After Charlotte Protests, Two Activists Are Running For City Council

Steve Harrison
Protesters kneel in uptown Charlotte on June 4, 2020.

Curtis Hayes Jr. gained name recognition last summer after a videoof him passionately addressing a teenage protester during a demonstration in Charlotte went viral.

“At 26, you’re going to be doing the same thing y’all doing,” Hayes told 16-year-old Raymon Curry.

Tears welling in his eyes, the now-32-year-old Hayes added, “So what you gotta do right now at 16 is come up with a better way. Because how we doing it, it ain’t working.”

Last summer, protests erupted in Charlotte after the murder of George Floyd. Roughly one year later, Hayes and another Black Charlotte resident, Kendrick Cunningham, are turning that protest into politics by running for City Council. Hayes is running as a Democrat for one of four at-large seats. Cunningham is seeking the District 3 seat currently held by Democrat Victoria Watlington.

“I can’t say, ‘Come up with a better way’ and not lead the charge in trying to find it,” Hayes said.

Hayes has lived in Charlotte for 20 years, where he owns a property maintenance company. He said it frustrates him to see footage from past protests and realize that Black people have been making the same demands for decades.

“Same fists raised, same mouths open, same chants, same yells,” Hayes said. “They can hear us all day long outside the building, but until you penetrate that building … (you can’t say) ‘I’m at the table with you. Now, let’s really speak and let’s figure out how we can really make some change.’”

If elected, Hayes said he would focus on building more affordable housing and putting additional city funds into infrastructure projects. While some protesters have called for abolishing the police entirely, that’s not what Hayes said he wants. But he does want the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to spend less money on weapons and riot gear and instead put those dollars toward social services like mental health and after-school programs.

All four of Charlotte’s at-large council seats are included in the next election, though it’s not clear when those elections will take place. They were scheduled for fall 2021, but census data delays may force the city to postpone them until 2022.

One of the at-large seats is held by Braxton Winston, who was elected after protesting the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in 2016. Winston ran as an outsider but was boosted by high-profile support from people like former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl.

“My life has changed dramatically,” Winston told WFAE in 2017. “There’s a sense of citizen reportage. A bit of social activism. I’ve been given the responsibility and privilege to amplify the voices of others who don’t have the same platform as I do.”

Kendrick Cunningham
Kendrick Cunningham
Kendrick Cunningham

In District 3, which covers most of west Charlotte, Cunningham said he can’t recall how many times he took to the streets in protest last summer.

“I try to remember all the time. I really do,” Cunningham said. “It felt like for three months straight, we were out there every single day and every single night.”

Cunningham is a community organizer with QC Family Tree, a community development organization in west Charlotte. He’s also president of the Young Democrats of Mecklenburg County.

“A lot of people feel that they’re not being listened to ... so I decided to lead and step up and be that person,” he said.

Like Hayes, Cunningham does not want to get rid of CMPD but wants some of the money the city allocates to police to be diverted to social services.

Can Hayes and Cunningham do what Winston did five years ago and go from a protester to a council member?

Maybe, said Charlotte political consultant Dan McCorkle.

“Name recognition is fantastic,” McCorkle, who is working as a consultant for Hayes and also managing incumbent council member Dimple Ajmera’s campaign, said. “But normally in these races, the candidates with the best resources and the best put-together campaign ... those folks will have the best chance of winning.”

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.