Protesters took over a Greensboro City Council meeting on Tuesday night as the chamber erupted in outbursts of derision and disgust at a discussion about whether a motion by Councilwoman Sharon Hightower to request the district attorney to drop criminal charges against 16-year-old Jose Charles was legal or not.
The meeting broke down when Mayor Nancy Vaughan asked security to remove Black Lives Matter activist Irving Allen. Other protesters, led by Brian Watkins, surrounded Allen to block the security officer and police.
Councilman Mike Barber moved to recess the meeting and protesters stood up and began to sing the 1969 soul music classic “O-o-h Child.” As Vaughan ordered police to clear the chamber and council members filed out, protesters chanted, “Shame.”
The tone was set early in the meeting when, in the midst of a discussion about a downtown parking deck, protesters scattered throughout the capacity crowd raised pink signs reading “Justice for Jose,” “City council take action” and “We believe the PCRB.” The protest came on the heels of city council watching restricted police body camera video showing the July 4, 2016 incident involving the police and the then-15-year-old on Monday night, with discussion in closed session bleeding into the next day. Council members have made no comment about the video, citing a superior court judge’s order prohibiting them from discussing it. Also precipitating the protest was the resignation of three members of the police complaint review board. Lindy Garnette, the first to resign, was pressured by the city attorney and chair of the human relations chair after she spoke publicly about the board’s disagreement with the police department’s decision to clear itself of wrongdoing in a complaint filed on his behalf by Jose Charles’ mother, Tamara Figueroa.
Kirstin Cassell, who is white, said during remarks to city council that she has a white son who is 10 and a black son is 6. While she allows her white son to play in the creek and embark on adventures through her neighbor’s property, she doesn’t expect to allow her black son the same freedom when he gets older for fear that the police will question whether he’s in the right neighborhood and look at him as a menace.
“I don’t trust that if something goes awry with the police the system will have my back,” Cassell said. “I would love to trust that this city council would have my back should something go wrong with my kid. I need transparency from my city. I need the police department to hear that this white woman is afraid to call them. I need to know that I can take all of my children to Fun Fourth, and if one of them needs to go to the bathroom that all of them — my white child and my black child — will be safe waiting for me to come out of the bathroom.
“As for Jose, he’s just a kid — he’s a really cute kid,” Cassell continued. “And his mom’s asking for help from her community, from this city council. I’m asking for this city council to do what’s right. Make sure you saw the entirety of what the PCRB board saw. Direct the police chief to withdraw all the evidence in the case so Jose doesn’t face getting locked up. Make a motion and call a vote. Figure out a path to protecting this child.”
Following Cassell’s comments, Hightower asked the City Attorney Tom Carruthers if she could make a motion to ask the district attorney to drop charges against Jose. Carruthers responded that Hightower was within her rights as a council member to make the motion, adding, “It does in my opinion, violate the separation of powers between the legislative body and the judicial body.”
A series of derisive interruptions from the gallery as Mayor Vaughan asked for quiet to allow Carruthers to speak led to protesters surrounding Irving Allen to prevent his removal, quickly resulting in Vaughan’s order to clear the chamber. Before the official meeting came to a chaotic close, Hightower pleaded with people in the audience to show respect for council members and city staff.
After council members exited the chamber, some protesters announced they were reconvening the meeting. Those who had signed up to speak approached the podium and made remarks that they had prepared for city council. After a couple minutes, the sound was cut and they continued to speak, using the “people’s mic” method popularized by Occupy Wall Street. Meanwhile, Chantale Wesley-Lamine, a member of the human relations commission, prayed over Jose Charles and his mother, as several people laid hands on him.
Wesley-Lamin, who formerly served on the complaint review committee — the forerunner of the police complaint review board — said in an interview later: “I believe in the PCRB. I believe they act with integrity. If they say something happened, I believe it happened.”
Several women wearing pink took seats on the dais, facilitating public comments. About 10 minutes into the occupation, police Capt. Larry Thompson announced that the mayor had dismissed the meeting and anyone who refused to leave the chamber would be arrested. Figueroa urged protesters to comply with the order.
“I don’t want no one to get hurt,” she said. “Don’t do no resistance.”
The Rev. Nelson Johnson urged the protesters to be peaceable.
“I want to get arrested with everybody,” he said. “But I don’t want a fight because that’s what [the police] are good at — fighting, beating people, killing people, and saying you are the cause of it. If you all want to come and sit down in the front, let’s do it. They’ll arrest all of us. Or let’s say we had a victory and go home and do some more planning.”
In spite of Figueroa’s plea and Johnson’s counsel, the crowd remained in the chamber.
“I am terrified to live in this city if we cannot count on city officials to hold police accountable,” said Sarah Hamrick, a mother, social worker and guardian ad litem, speaking from the dais.
Eventually, Sgt. EA Goodykoontz gave a second order for protesters to leave. Dozens of officers massed along the far wall and pushed the protesters towards the door through a coordinate sweep, with the last of the crowd leaving less than 30 minutes after Mayor Vaughan dismissed the meeting.
Downstairs in the lobby, the women dressed in pink sat down on the floor in defiance of the order to leave the building. As activists conferred, it was apparent there was some confusion about planning for a civil disobedience. Meanwhile, three of the protesters also conferred with Deputy Chief James Hinson, and the police allowed the protesters time to figure out what they were going to do.
“Thank you for your help,” Hinson said.
Outside, protesters chanted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”
Eventually, the women got up without incident and the protesters marched the three-block distance from Melvin Municipal Office Building to the south side of Center City Park, where Jose Charles was allegedly assaulted by the police. As incense burned, some protesters faced down police on bicycles. Young black women with fists raised taunted the officers, who were mostly black.
“You do this to your own people,” one of them said with a tone of disgust.
By then the women in pink had sat down in the middle of Friendly Avenue.
“We’re at the place where a fellow Greensboro resident, a beautiful child was beaten last year on July 4,” said Isabell Moore. “We’re reclaiming this space for black and brown children, for justice, for transparency. You deserve to be able to enjoy a family festival without being in fear for your safety.”
Moore was among those arrested for misdemeanor impeding traffic, along with Sarah Hamrick, Becca Aubrey, Lindsay Caesar, Camille Hester, Kohai Lovingood, Betsy Oldenburg and Cristina Paynter. After those arrested were loaded into two police vans, protesters sitting on a concrete wall at the parking garage spotted Councilwoman Hightower stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of North Davie Street and Friendly Avenue.
“We love you,” one of them called out. “You’re our council member. You’re one of the few good ones.”
“You make it hard for me,” Hightower responded. “I love you, too.”
Many of the protesters marched from Center City Park to Guilford County Jail to await the release of the eight who were arrested. Organizers set up folding tables on the sidewalk and provisioned bottled water and snacks, as protesters used a bullhorn to speak, and to read poems and essays. Byron Gladden, a member of the Guilford County School Board, noted that he was the only elected official at the protest.
“The people we elected tonight retreated and left us to [the] police,” he said. “We hurt ’em tonight. Hurt ’em at the polls.”
Irving Allen, the organizer whose back-and-forth with Mayor Vaughan had precipitated the occupation, took a philosophical stance on whether the disruption prevented a vote on Hightower’s motion to request dismissal of the charges — likely without support of the majority on the nine-member council.
“It would have been something to have them on record again,” Allen said. “But they’ve already been on record. They had a 5-4 vote to see the [Jose Charles] video. We know who’s disinterested and hostile to us. The action tonight was speaking to the public because they cut the mic.”