Last week at this time, hundreds of people were gathering in Uptown Charlotte to march on the Bank of America shareholders meeting. Over the next few hours, protesters and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police engaged in an elaborate dance, balancing safety with the right to demonstrate. Both sides saw the day as a practice-run for the Democratic National Convention, here's an inside look at how it was orchestrated.
There was a moment last Wednesday as waves of drumming, chanting protesters took over the intersection in front of the Bank of America meeting that the police response felt almost choreographed. Without any hesitation or confrontation with protesters, police began re-directing traffic. They could have done differently. Blocking an intersection is illegal, after all.
"But what purpose do we serve in trying to make a mass arrest for impeding traffic?" asks CMPD Deputy Chief Harold Medlock was a few blocks away, watching the action beamed live from street cameras to a wall of TV screens in the command center at police headquarters.
The decision to let the demonstrators have the intersection was Medlock's. And while it felt pre-determined to onlookers, he says he made it in the moment, based on the size of the crowd and the few cars on the road.
"The fact that we were able to get that traffic out quickly and give those folks a safe space to demonstrate. . . it just made sense to allow those folks to have that intersection," says Medlock.
But he also had a pretty good idea what the protesters were going to do. His officers had watched them gather at various uptown sites all morning. Plus, just days earlier, Medlock sat down with protest organizers, at their request. Pat McCoy was there from the local group Action NC. He says they wanted some assurance from CMPD.
"We made it clear to (CMPD) we would like to be able to communicate that we have talked about our plans sufficiently that you are comfortable with what you expect we are going to do," explains McCoy, adding organizers wanted to be able to tell protesters they were comfortable police "were going to respect their rights and (would) not be over reactive in a way that might create a reaction out of people in the crowd." McCoy says neither side showed all their cards.
Protesters didn't say exactly what their march routes would be. And Medlock still won't share many of the details of his strategy for the demonstration. But he did assure the group that police would not start out in riot gear. CMPD escorts protestors along Tryon St. in Uptown Charlotte on May 9, 2012. Photo: Tanner Latham Coordination between police and protesters went even further.
That morning, McCoy huddled in negotiation with Medlock's commanders. For example, as the main protest in the intersection wound down, McCoy told police the group was planning to march to Bank of America Stadium. "They said, 'Fine, are you willing to stay on the sidewalk?'" recalls McCoy. "And I said, 'Honestly at this point I don't think we can direct people back onto the sidewalk. Are you willing to give us a lane to march back to the stadium?' And they said, 'Yes we can do that.'"
So protesters basically had a police escort as they marched down Tryon Street. The lesson Deputy Chief Medlock took from that was the need to be flexible, since he didn't know the demonstrators would head to the stadium. McCoy says communicating with police was important to having a peaceful, orderly protest. Scottie Wingfield's experience proves that. The protest went just as she expected up until she got arrested and "things fell-apart from my perspective."
Wingfield is a member of Occupy Charlotte. She'd been named a police liaison for the demonstration because top CMPD officers know her and say she's reasonable. Wingfield returns the compliment. But those relationships were no help as she led marchers from the stadium back to center city.
Police agreed to let them walk in the street, but wanted them as close to the sidewalk as possible. Protesters began to feel hemmed in and Wingfield worried they'd start to clash with police, but none of her CMPD contacts were around to discuss a compromise. "I kept trying to ask the officers, 'Who do I need to talk to? I'm your liaison?' and no one would tell me," says Wingfield.
Protesters got more agitated and Wingfield knew arrests were imminent, so she offered herself up first, by disobeying a police officer. She hoped to defuse the situation. It worked. Marchers fell back in line and there were no more arrests. But Wingfield worries things won't be as smooth during the DNC when the FBI and Secret Service are in town and CMPD brings in reinforcements. Deputy Chief Medlock says those officers will be well-supervised and trained to behave as CMPD did during last week's protest.
Long-time activist Lisa Fithian is skeptical. She's a consultant to protest groups and came to Charlotte for the Bank of America demonstration. She compliments CMPD for not enforcing the city's "extraordinary event" ordinance that technically prohibited many of the props protesters carried. But she thinks police were mainly doing it to stay out of court.
"They do not want these ordinances challenged before the Democratic National Convention," says Fithian. "So even though they threatened to use them - to scare people - they didn't actually really use any of it on the day of."
The fact that the city passed the ordinance - giving police broad powers to search and detain demonstrators - is proof, to Fithian's mind, that protesters can expect a more aggressive police response come September. And that will make protesters far less willing to engage in the cooperation and communication that made last week's demonstration so smooth for both sides.