Safe: not able or likely to be hurt or harmed in any way. On the night of Sept. 21 we were not safe.
Initially a group of four Niner Times staff members ventured to Uptown to cover the protests in Marshall Park. When protesters split with some staying in the park and some walking up Trade St., our group split as well.
Hunter and Hailey stayed in the park, where they were later joined by Saba, while Jasmine and I trailed the crowd on the move.
Hunter, Hailey and Saba
Prayers, gospel, silence, peace: these are the words that could describe the gathering of mourners and protestors at Marshall Park in Uptown Charlotte.
Organized by the Mothers of Murdered Offspring, Marshall Park became a reverent ground to not only peacefully demonstrate for change in Charlotte, but also a hallowed space to mourn the death and celebrate the life of Keith Lamont Scott, the man who was fatally wounded by police Sept. 20.
Regardless of what one might think about the shooting of Scott, or the Black Lives Matter movement in general, this protest was moving every person in the vicinity.
Speakers spoke of disdain toward the protestors causing destruction, calling their actions “of the Devil,” while urging the crowd to “go with God” with peaceful demonstrations.
At this point, unbeknownst to us when we initially arrived, Saba, an intern for the Niner Times joined us mid-speech, surprising the team at with her eagerness and willingness to put herself out in the field in the name of journalism. Saba, who started as an unknown intern quickly became one of our greatest allies in this entire ordeal.
After a night of peace and togetherness amongst a tragedy, donations were collected for the family of Scott, ended with a rousing speech from public defender and UNC Charlotte adjunct professor Toussaint Romain gave an impassioned speech on stepping forward to challenge authority and to demand change in the black community.
“Together we win; alone, we get shot in our cars. Let’s do this together,” said Toussaint to the crowd, followed by him gesturing to a group of protestors breaking off to be rowdy, “Those brothers over there are not our enemies. They’re frustrated, they’re angry and they have the right to do so. We have to realize that we’re not only fighting for them, but also for our kids.”
This was the point in the night when texts began to pour in from the other half of the Niner Times team, Kathleen and Jasmine, about the events going on up near the Epicentre and that we might want to begin to make our way up there to check out the escalating situation.
Kathleen and Jasmine
The action began at the CMPD headquarters. It was verbally aggressive, but physically peaceful so we did what we came for, and captured the moment through pictures. The people were receptive to Jasmine and myself, allowing us to photograph them. They also would answer any question we asked. At this point, I still felt as though it was under control and that it would not become violent.
As the mob migrated towards the Epicenter we trailed them. While the group went up the street it became increasingly violent. The further we walked, the larger the pit in my stomach grew. The group hit a speed bump in the form of police decked in riot gear on their way up the street. This is when tensions began to rise and actions began to escalate.
The police stayed their ground in the formation of a circle, while protesters ran around yelling and chanting. Somehow the barriers of the police were penetrated and the police then moved to the sides of the road. After this, the swarm of people continued up the street. We followed as the sea of protesters ventured towards the Omni hotel.
We wandered closer and closer to the front of the crowd until Jasmine wisely advised we retreat further back.
We had been in our more removed spot for no more than a minute or two when we heard the crackle of gunfire ring out through the air.
Jasmine grabbed my hand, looked at me and said “RUN.”
With that we sprinted as fast as we could, but it felt as though we were moving in slow motion. At this point, we were no longer journalists, we were civilians trying to escape the danger.
We ran up the stairs and found an open door that led to the back of a restaurant. There we stood, panting and shell-shocked in a kitchen.
The workers looked at us as though we were aliens, they were unaware of what had unfolded outside. The crew allowed us refuge in their workplace for a few minutes until Jasmine and I went back out in search of the rest of our group. After talking on the phone with Hailey, we were able to find them and turned our search to safety.
Initially, we staked out in an enclosed elevator lobby. There we met a couple of men who were staying in the Omni on business from Kentucky. They noted our distress and invited us to go with them into the hotel. While walking from the elevator to the entrance, we had to cross over a bridge. I gazed at the scene surrounding me in shock.
On the street lay a man, helpless. All around tear gas was being blasted. My eyes began to fill with water and my throat raged with a burn as I became in contact with the propellant. I felt like I was in another world. No longer was I in the city I loved so dearly. I was in a war zone. I was in hell.
We followed them up to the lobby where we parted ways with the businessmen, thanking them for their help.
Almost immediately we were approached by an employee of Omni asking if we were registered guests. When our response was “no” they informed us we would have to find solace elsewhere. We explained our situation. We were student journalists caught in the middle of the increasingly violent situation unfolding outside. We were only looking for a safe place to hide out until we could return to our car, but still, we had to leave.
We went back down the escalators, where security guards informed us we could take shelter on a set of stairs in a hallway.
We sat there for a while until a police officer came and asked us where we were trying to go. “Towards Bank of America Stadium,” we replied. He gave us directions to go down a set of stairs and to the left, saying it was safe to exit. We walked quickly to the stairs only to be greeted by a crowd of people coming back up the stairs telling us it was not safe at all. There was a group wearing masks and riding around on dirt bikes outside.
We followed the group back into a the Essex Bar and Bistro, where we were welcomed with no hesitation. The people from Essex were the most welcoming people I have ever encountered. They offered us waters, assured us we were safe inside and we could stay there however long we needed to.
“I’m safe,” was the phrase that echoed throughout my head once we were inside the Essex. It was the phrase I sent out over dozens of text messages. It was the phrase I spoke over and over to loved ones whom I called. All of the sudden, the safety I have taken for granted every day of my life was the most valuable thing in the world. It was the only thing that mattered.
I sat huddled next to an outlet charging my phone while I made calls to my parents, informing them I was in Uptown and that I was secured in a hallway. I sat in the hallway for what seemed like forever when I ventured out to see what was unfolding on the streets. CNN was blaring from a television above the bar — I tried to tune it out, praying what I was seeing was in another city, not merely three or four blocks away.
The riots were headed the opposite direction of where we parked, so after consulting our new friends at Essex, we deemed it safe enough to walk back towards Bank of America Stadium where the car was parked. When we departed the bar, the scene we were greeted with on the street was eerie. Where once there was tear gas, gun shots and riot gear there was now nothing but silence. We walked as quickly as we could to the cars, and we were able to make it back safely.
The feeling of relief washed over me sitting in that car could not be described. Still, I held my breath until we made it safely back to the offices, feeling like I was in a dream. Reality came crashing down when I returned to my apartment and was greeted by my family and friends waiting for me. As I embraced them, the tears came pouring out. Once again, I was safe. We were safe.