‘Everything felt like it was on fire.’ Floyd marchers say they walked into police ambush

Michael Gordon, Caroline Petrow-Cohen, Laurel Deppen, Hannah Smoot

Edward Walker says his worst moment during Tuesday’s police confrontation on 4th Street occurred when he was scrambling to get under a locked parking garage gate while he was gagging, his skin was burning and he couldn’t see.

A woman went under the gate with him. “I crushed her,” Walker says. “I didn’t care.”

When he discusses 4th Street and the George Floyd protests, Justin LaFrancois remembers the tear gas, how the distinctive clouds choked off the block between College and Tryon streets before enveloping the hundreds of people trapped in between.

That’s when the alternative newspaper publisher said he felt like he was trying to breathe “with my head in a bucket of bleach,” and the thought arose he might not get out of uptown alive.

With nowhere to run, Melody Rogers, 26, says she and dozens of other protesters sat in the middle of 4th Street and huddled against the police barrage.

“We thought that it would make them stop,” Rogers says. “But they were shooting pepper balls at us, and they continued to throw tear gas.”

The three Charlotte-area residents were among an estimated 500 people who were marching Tuesday night in protest of the Minneapolis police killing of Floyd.

They are also among 10 first-hand witnesses who gave almost identical descriptions to the Observer of what occurred when the demonstrators reached 4th, and 200 or more of them were trapped between advancing lines of police.

Their accounts provide new details of a violent encounter between police and residents protesting police brutality. They also reopen critical questions about the tactics used by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in response to public protests.

Protesters scramble on 4th Street as police blocked both ends of the block and fired chemical agents at the trapped protesters.

Walker, 42 and an African American father of seven, said he remains shaken from the experience.

“That was some Third World crap that they pulled,” he says. “On their own citizens. In Charlotte.”

As they walked up 4th Street, the marchers say the police did not try to stop them nor order them to disperse.

“They just ambushed us,” Rogers says.

The confrontation, captured on multiple videos, has drawn condemnation from Mayor Vi Lyles, many on the Charlotte City Council and law enforcement experts, while triggering a state investigation into the legality of the police response.

CMPD chief defends use of chemical agents but calls for additional review of tactics

CMPD did not respond to Observer requests for an interview for this story. A Friday press conference, police Chief Kerr Putney announced that his department’s emergency tactics and policies will undergo an outside expert review to see if they meet the “ethical and moral standards we want to hold ourselves to.”

Putney earlier described the 4th Street marchers as rioters who had left a trail of violence throughout uptown. He said they had been given multiple orders to disperse, and that there was “nothing to indicate whatsoever that there was intentional abuse on the part of our officers.”

But on Friday, the chief acknowledged errors by his officers. He had said earlier that police who broke the law or department polices on 4th Street “will be held accountable.”

CMPD chief refuses to tell city who ordered chemical agents used on peaceful protesters

What happened Tuesday night, Putney said, “were not (the tactics) we wanted to see.”

Across the country, public safety officers have come under fire for violent responses caught on video during the Floyd protests — from outside the White House to New York and Los Angeles, and cities in between.

At his Friday press conference, Putney congratulated his officers for “a fantastic job overall.”

“I just hate that Tuesday is overshadowing everything,” he said. “I get it. It’s hard to watch.”

LaFrancois, 27 and the publisher of Queen City Nerve, remains critical.

While he says he witnessed violence from protesters during his more than 60 hours of live-streaming last week’s protests, he said he saw none with the group of marchers that turned east on 4th Street shortly before 9:30 Tuesday night.

After the violence, when LaFrancois escaped into a parking deck, he can be heard on video cursing in disbelief.

“I had been replaying that moment, replaying it again and again, maybe 50 times,” he recalls. “I finally had a chance to breathe and feel safe, to see what had happened outside of myself. And it was horrific.

“The fact is we were suffocating, and I couldn’t believe someone was trying to do that to us. As a guy who has never had to deal with racial disparities or racial profiling, I had never expected to experience that kind of brutality.”

The chef

The confrontation on 4th Street occurred on the fifth consecutive night of protests in Charlotte over the police killing of Floyd, a North Carolina native and African American who died after a white Minneapolis patrol officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.

The officer involved has been charged with second-degree murder. Three other policemen on the scene have also been arrested. All have been fired.

The case has unleashed outrage worldwide on how police treat minority citizens. In Charlotte, as in many other cities, some of the demonstrations had turned violent after dark. CMPD says more than 100 arrests have been made, six dozen officers have been injured and multiple uptown businesses were damaged.

Walker joined the protests for the first time on Tuesday night. At around 9 p.m., he said he decided to drive home because the interactions between police and a group of marchers he had joined in Romare Bearden Park were growing tenser.

On his walk to his car, he says he ran into a different group of about 500 headed west toward uptown.

They were peaceful, he said. Multi-racial. A few carried signs. Walker, a trained chef, called his wife.

“I’m going to walk with them a little longer,” he says he told her.

The marchers included Devonte Faulkner, a recent Vance High graduate who was attending the protests for the first time along with Katie Rothweiler, 36, a marketing agent. Adonis McKelvey, who recently graduated from UNC Charlotte, also was among them.

The group had also included Charlotte minister Christy Snow. But she said she left as the marchers began the climb toward College Street because the night had been so peaceful. Otherwise, Snow says she would have stayed.

In uptown the marchers, then on 5th Street, reached a police blockade at College. They turned south before making a quick right onto 4th.

Ashley Reyes of Mooresville said she saw bicycle police on one side of the street but thought nothing of it.

“None of us did,” the 20-year-old said. “We thought they were just there to protect us from traffic.”

Melody Rogers, with her camera running, was near the front as the group neared Tryon Street. She said police showed no signs of trying to stop them.

“They haven’t given us a dispersal order. They haven’t told us that we’re under arrest. There’s no curfew. So we just kept marching forward,” she said.

LaFrancois, who estimates that he has walked more than 75 miles filming the protests, said he has been targeted at times by police pepper balls and smoke canisters even when he wore his media credentials and stood off by himself.

Now, on 4th Street, he says he turned to a walking companion to remark how peaceful the night had turned out to be.

“Then, one minute later …”

‘Your face is on fire’

Rothweiler noticed the change in police tactics on 4th Street while it was still happening — riot police spilling out of a parking deck lining up behind the bike cops.

When Walker turned and looked back down 4th, he said he saw that the street had been sealed off at College by another line of police. “Eerie,” he says he said to himself.

Up ahead, the group was nearing Tryon when another line of police streamed from behind the building that houses Michael Jordan’s condominium, Rogers’ video clip shows.

Within seconds, the block bordered on both sides by tall buildings had been clamped shut by police.

Tear gas clouds envelops protesters who said they were trapped on 4th Street by police, who unleased a barrage of chemical agents.

Video shows officers at Tryon firing “flashbang” grenades that sent marchers running back down 4th Street. The line of police at College opened up with tear gas while pepper balls hailed down from officers perched above, witnesses say.

(Putney says his officers were not shooting “at people,” and that department policy requires them to shoot down at flat surfaces or walls only.)

Trapped in the middle of the block, the demonstrators mashed up against each other and were soon overtaken by the tear gas.

McKelvey, the UNCC grad, said he felt like he was in a gas chamber, that his body “was filled with poison.”

“You can’t help but try to touch your face or something for some sort of relief and it just burns your face even more,” he said. “Your face is on fire.”

Walker said he was struck in the foot by some kind of projectile and fell to the pavement. He said he saw a group of “young white girls” run up to the line of police, “but they pushed them back toward us.”

By then the gas had reached him. “Everything felt like it was on fire,” he said.

LaFrancois, who by now used his cell camera like a second pair of eyes, searched for an escape. On his earlier walks through uptown during the protests, he had noticed the security gate to a parking garage on the south side of 4th. Now, he and others tried to wrench it upward so the marchers could slide beneath it.

Walker was one of them.

“That was the worst part,” he said. “You could hear the pop, pop, pop of the pepper balls, and you’re stuck under the gate. Nobody can move, and it was just horrific.”

Shot in the back

Outside the gate, LaFrancois said he was still waiting for his turn.

“For a second I didn’t think I could get under it because I’m a big guy… so I would have to sit there and breathe that gas until it was all over,” he said.

“In my video it takes seconds. In real life, it felt like it took minutes.”

Out in the street, Rothweiler said her boyfriend suggested they get on their knees with their hands up. Others joined in.

“We were just a huge group of people huddled together, trying to protect each other, trying to protect each other from being shot, unable to breathe, unable to find a way out.”

When the gas let up, Rothweiler said she ran. She said she was struck in the back of the head by a projectile. She assumes it came from police.

“I’m literally running away from police, begging for my life, and they’re shooting at my back,” she said. “I can’t stop. My survival instinct was just like, ‘You need to keep running.’ ”

Inside the garage, Faulkner, the Vance grad, called a former teacher who had agreed to pick him up if something went wrong.

LaFrancois kept filming. As he tried to recover, he said he saw police circling the garage, blocking exits, and firing more pepper balls at those inside. One of them was a girl with an inhaler, he said, and police fired at her, too.

Eventually, he and others walked out. But not without some remorse. For perhaps the first time all week, the real-time journalist who pledged to chronicle the protest from start to finish didn’t look back.

“I feel terrible that I didn’t go back in there to see what happened to all those people,” he said.

Walker said he briefly fainted. When he came to, he unpacked the milk he had brought in case of tear gas and poured it into his eyes. After his vision cleared, he looked around.

“It was like a war scene,” he said.

Walker said he went to the aid of a man who appeared to be having a heart attack. When he looked up, he was staring into the gas mask of an African American cop.

“I pleaded for my life,” Walker said. “I said, ‘Please sir, don’t shoot me no more.’ He said, ‘Man, it’s just OK. Get up.’ ”