I photographed the Charlotte protests.

This is what I saw.

Sean Rayford (Columbia, SC) / Getty Stringer

This scene, a standoff between police officer and protestor, repeated itself over and over again on I-85 in the early morning hours of Charlotte on Wednesday. It was a big stare down.

I found the group of protestors headed toward the interstate on W.T. Harris Blvd. after driving around the area for about thirty minutes, listening to the police scanner. A local TV news guy saw me gearing up and rolled down his window outside of the Walgreen’s where I parked. “Be careful, there aren’t a lot of cops following out there right now.”

When I got out there on Harris Boulevard I didn’t feel as though I was ever in danger — except for the fact that I was walking up and down a major boulevard with cars going in both directions. That was the dangerous part. Traffic laws ceased to exist.

Harris Blvd. is currently under a bunch of construction. As the hundreds of protestors marched by and plucked up anything orange that would block traffic. It was pretty surreal. The group made their way down an on ramp and big grassy hill carrying construction barrels and signs. When they got to the highway they hurled the barrels into the road, bouncing across the asphalt. Reinforcements came and set up metal signs and whatever else they could carry.

At one point a man tried to remove a speed limit sign with his bare hands. Another protestor made fun of his effort and we all laughed. I felt a bit more comfortable.

But it had a mob mentality. people were getting away with stuff they wouldn’t normally be able to get away with because law enforcement had bigger fish to fry.

Sean Rayford / Stringer

At one point, protestors opened up some tractor trailers, pulled out the contents inside — wooden pallets and office materials — and lit them on fire in the middle of the highway. They created a bonfire in the middle of the highway and it was allowed to burn for a while to avoid a confrontation with the protestors.

I was standing near a bus that had been stopped because of the fire. It was full of passengers going to New York and the bus driver looked at me out his window. “I’ve got a bus load of people who are scared to death!” The police assembled on the southbound lane and chased them back across into the northbound lane. A car did donuts in the north bound lane and the crowd roared.

Sean Rayford / Stringer

After being down on the interstate I climbed back up the hill and perched on the overpass to get a birds-eye view of the whole thing. The south bound lane was open and the police had chased the protestors back up onto the northbound side. It was a weird situation. The onlookers speculated as to what was going to happen next. Vehicles passed below at high rates of speed.

And then protestors started breaking rocks and or bricks and throwing them into traffic. The rocks bouncing off tractor trailers, hitting cars. Then the people on the bridge began yelling at the people below to stop throwing rocks.

For the police, it was pretty difficult scenario. They were severely outnumbered. At one point they assembled on the shoulder and then retreated up another ramp. Non lethal projectiles were fired, gas canisters and flash bombs were set off as they retook the highway

Sean Rayford / Stringer

On my way home, I gave a ride to four college kids from UNCC who were protesting. They were mainly talking about what time they had class tomorrow and if there would be more demonstrations.


Wednesday Night: Day 2

As I drove to Charlotte that night, I was listening to the police scanner trying to figure out what was going on and where. I heard that people were assembling at a park in Uptown, so I went straight there. I found a few hundred people engaging in a peaceful protest.

Eventually, one guy asked the group, “Are we gonna stand around or are we gonna march?” The crowd took off downtown and I followed along.

Around eight it seemed like another group of protestors met up with the group I was with. Shortly thereafter there was looting.

I followed one group to second floor, watching as they smashed front doors and windows, vandalizing a nightclub. Someone took a cash register from inside and threw it off the balcony. Several people turned and screamed, “No cameras! There better not be any pictures!”

I didn’t make any photos.

On the street, two young men almost got in a fight with a mob of protestors when they got out of the car to confront the people blocking the road. The cops convinced them to get back in the car.

He threatened to run them over.

It was at this time that a man was fatally shot outside of The Omni Hotel. I was around the corner. I had no idea what happened.

When I got there the police officers were standing in a line at the entrance to the garage at the hotel. There was a religious man and a handful of citizens standing in between the protestors and cops. Tear gas and smoke was in the air.

I found my way to ground zero and there was this pool of blood. When a camera light hit it, it reflected a sinister shade of red. More tear gas was deployed. Flash bangs. A young woman dressed in all black and wearing angel wings kicked a smoking canister back at the police. Most of the people dispersed.

Sean Rayford / Stringer

It was chaos.

A man was trying to break the storefront window to a dessert shop. He was using a velvet roped pedestal. Less than five minutes later, protestors faced off against police in full riot gear. A woman next to me had blood on her hands and up her arm. It was splattered on her shirt. She was screaming profanities at the police.

Sean Rayford / Stringer

When shit hit the fan, when police were shooting rubber bullets and gas canisters, Defense Attorney Romain was on the front lines. The tear gas would come, and I couldn’t see, so I would run away, my eyes were watering so bad — but the whole time, he was just up in front, without a mask. It was like watching a war movie. You know the scene where one soldier has complete disregard for his own safety and is up in front, and everyone else is running away. At one point he took off his tie.

I honestly thought the man had some kind of super power. He acted as the intermediary between the police and the protestors because he knew both groups of people personally. People listened “That dude with the tie, I think we should listen to him… he knows whats up,” I overheard one say. He encouraged peaceful protest while he marched back and forth between the police and protestors.

Sean Rayford / Stringer

Thursday night: Day 3 of Protests

I met Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Captain Mike Campagna on Thursday night. Boots on the streets talking to protestors, trying to establish himself as another human being, just like them. He was encouraging what they were doing, and supporting it, saying “We can do this all night as long… as long as what happened last night doesn’t happen again.” He offered a protestor a business card and she responded, “I don’t talk to cops.”

The protest march in an urban area is cat and and mouse game. The protestors don’t know where they are going and the police certainly don’t. They just try to stay ahead of the group and anticipate where they will make a turn. The cops on bikes move fast, can skip blocks and double back. The riot shield folks are like a slow moving wall. The bicycles function as a fast moving wall but people can throw stuff at you. They work in tandem.

At one point during the night, the mob circled around police headquarters and the jail next door. The inmates could hear them chanting and making noise — and they joined in, flashing the lights in their rooms, on and off. I captured this image of two inmates, looking through their windows, trying to be as supportive as they could.

Sean Rayford / Stringer