Almost three months after demonstrators said police cornered and tear-gassed them, law enforcement release troubling footage of the encounter.
Denise Duncan remembers the panic.
Two groups of protesters were squeezed by advancing police, who’d set off tear-gas canisters at either end of the street.
“The gas hit me and someone running knocked me down,” Duncan told Cardinal & Pine.
“I was trapped,” she added.
Duncan has bone spurs in her left foot that prevent her from running fast, but she saw frantic demonstrators ducking under the gate of a nearby parking deck to escape the gas. Duncan followed, scrambling through the parking deck and into an elevator, which took her to the lobby of an uptown Charlotte hotel.
“It took me at least three to five minutes to get back to breathing properly,” she said.
It was June 2. And protesters were marching through the streets of Charlotte for the fifth night in a row, about a week after George Floyd was killed during a disturbing encounter with Minneapolis police. Demonstrations of police violence against Black Americans were reported in most major US cities.
Charlotte’s had been mostly peaceful until after 9:30 p.m., when protesters said they were cornered by police and pelted with rubber bullets and tear gas. Some said police even fired on them from above in a nearby parking deck.
Police said at the time that they were responding to reports of criminal activity in the area, although demonstrators have insisted that the march was peaceful.
It was video of this incident, “livestreamed” by alternative newspaper Queen City Nerve, that supported, in part, Charlotte City Councilman Braxton Winston’s call to defund the police budget for chemical weapons like tear gas.
“It was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever been through.”Sarah Hahn, a Charlotte resident who attended the June 2 protest
It also prompted bristling responses from some state and local leaders who questioned Charlotte police tactics.
That state report indicated there was no “body-camera” footage of the incident because Civil Emergency Units are unable to mount the cameras on their uniforms, although that was apparently not true.
After a petition to the courts, CMPD released 51 videos Wednesday from surveillance and “body-cam” footage of the incident, WBTV reported. Police also said one unidentified officer was suspended because of comments captured in the videos.
Among the scenes in the “body-cam” footage, a Charlotte police officer explains the plan to a fellow officer at the :58 mark.
“We’re going to stay here and watch the show,” the officer says in the video. “[An officer] has a platoon on Tryon, out of sight. [Another officer’s] platoon is staged now on College, out of sight. We’re gonna push their ass straight up 4th. Soon, as they get up on 4th, we got a bottleneck now, [the first officer’s] squad is going to step out and hammer their ass. They start running down, [the second officer’s] squad is going to step up and hammer their ass, with gas. We’re going to [expletive] pop it up.’”
At the 2:00 mark, protesters pass, and the officer says, “Wave goodbye, they’re all about to get gassed.”
‘Unnecessary and unacceptable.’
“The whole night was extremely peaceful up until that moment,” another demonstrator, Sarah Hahn, told Cardinal & Pine.
Hahn was “livestreaming” the event, she remembers, because she wanted to show people that the demonstrators were peaceful and respectful.
She wondered why there were so many police out on the streets, she said, and she thought it was curious that some officers were even blocking entrances to parking decks.
“I heard a loud sound on the other end [of the street] and people started running towards me,” Hahn said. “[The police] started throwing smoke bombs and flash grenades. In my video, I say, ‘This is terrifying.’”
As two lines of civil-emergency unit (CEU) officers advanced from both ends of the street, Hahn remembers that the protesters huddled together. There was nowhere to go.
“They started shooting at us,” Hahn said. She recalled a constant stream of tear gas. “Every time one started to go out, they threw two more.”
Bombarded with tear gas and pepper balls, Hahn, who is asthmatic, began to panic.
“I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I think I passed out.” Hahn remembered falling down and hitting the ground. Someone grabbed her and helped her across the street.
“I sat down to catch my breath … and they started shooting at us. My back was to them and I got hit with a rubber bullet,” Hahn said. “During the attack, my friend got hit in the head with something. She had a huge bump on her head for weeks.”
The new footage is the latest twist in the June 2 incident, which attracted the attention of city and state leaders. On Wednesday, state Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat and a Captain in the JAG Corps with the US Army National Guard, said on Twitter that the new footage offers a “definitive” version of events.
“These tactics were unnecessary and unacceptable,” Jackson wrote of the incident in his updated review, which originally published on Medium in June.
Representatives for Charlotte police did not respond to Cardinal & Pine requests for comment for this story.
In the “body-cam video,” you can see CMPD officers position themselves at the end of an alley near 4th St. in uptown Charlotte moments before the protesters walk past, Jackson wrote.
An officer directs his men to throw flashbangs to force the crowd up 4th St. into the pocket where officers are in position to attack, Jackson writes.
On June 4, WBTV in Charlotte reported that then-CMPD Chief Kerr Putney promised to petition a judge to allow the department to release “body-cam” video worn by officers during the incident, but he also said that not every officer on the CEU is equipped with a body-worn camera during protests. (Chief Putney retired at the end of June and was succeeded by Johnny Jennings on July 1.)
In a press conference Wednesday, Jennings said department policy was followed, but he doesn’t want to see something like the 4th St. incident happen again, according to WBTV.
“We also see the other side of that although the tactic was acceptable, when you look at the aesthetics of it, and how the people in the protest thought they were boxed in because of the smoke and the cloud and they could not see on the other side of it, we realized very quickly that is not something we want to repeat,” Jennings said.
According to WCNC in Charlotte, Jennings said the department has also made policy changes following the incident, including “giving additional dispersal orders if a dispersed crowd assembles at another location; communicating dispersal orders and exit routes loudly and repeatedly; not intentionally blocking exit routes by riot control agents, officers, or physical obstructions; and not using riot control agents to intentionally contain crowds.”
“I can’t think of a more disgusting transcript to read as a citizen and a veteran,” Jason Baker, a former US Army ranger from Charlotte, told Cardinal & Pine. Baker, who was a tactical instructor at Fort Lewis in Washington, emerged as a CMPD critic on social media after the June 2 clash. At the time, Baker compared CMPD’s tactics to those he trained soldiers to use against enemy combatants.
“Those people have a right to peacefully protest and they also have a right not to have an attack made on them by the people who are supposed to protect them,” Baker told C&P this week.
Hahn said she tried to watch the CMPD “body-cam” video.
“As soon as [the officer] started describing [their plans], I had to stop,” Hahn said. It brings her back to that night in uptown Charlotte.
“It was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever been through.”