CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — In 2016, local activist Glo Merriweather had one simple question: After two years of tense, nationwide protests over the police-involved deaths of African-Americans, why are the police still killing people?
On Sept. 20 of that year, a black Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer named Brentley Vinson gunned down Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old black man with disabilities and the father of seven children. Scott had been waiting to pick up his son at the Village at College Downs, an apartment complex near Charlotte’s University of North Carolina campus, when officers confronted him over his possession of a firearm.
Following an investigation into the incident, the local district attorney’s office revealed that Charlotte officers had been conducting a surveillance operation that hadn’t targeted Scott. But Scott may have spooked the officers by exiting his white SUV and peeking into the tinted windows of their surveillance van. The officers thought their cover was blown. Vinson observed Scott seated in his SUV, allegedly rolling a blunt and later displaying a semi-automatic handgun in a concealed carry state. That made Scott the focus of police attention. Vinson and other officers’ attempted arrest of Scott escalated to a fatal standoff.
Scott’s family and local clergy issued swift calls for peace and accountability, but the response from citizens and law enforcement did not satisfy their requests. Within hours of the shooting, residents joined Scott’s relatives near the scene of the shooting. The night had been peaceful until, authorities said, participants threw rocks and water bottles at officers. Police responded by deploying tear gas and flash-bang grenades.
“What happened that night, just so everyone is clear, is people showed up to find out why Keith Lamont Scott was killed,” Merriweather said in a recent interview with Mic, “and was met with a very heavily armed police entity that threw tear gas, that cursed out his children, who had just gotten off a school bus at 4 p.m. to find their father dead in the streets.”
For two consecutive evenings, there were animated clashes with Black Lives Matter protesters similar to those that had been seen in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and New York City over the preceding two years. Participants blocked a highway. Others damaged public and private property, looted shops and set fires around Charlotte’s city center — the area that boasts premium hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues suitable for business meetings, conventions and tourism.
The second night of protests would culminate in the fatal shooting of a 26-year-old protester named Justin Carr. Authorities said Carr was shot by someone else at the protest, but some protesters believe the shot came from police.
Merriweather had witnessed it all. The 25-year-old black, queer and gender nonconforming activist was among a group of protesters who carried Carr’s body away from the spot near an East Trade Street hotel where a bullet pierced his head. Merriweather, who uses the pronouns they, them and their, said they’d received a group text from friends within hours of Scott’s shooting. They quickly organized a mobilization to the apartment complex.
“What we saw in September was — any time a window happened to be broken, whether it was from police throwing tear gas or if it was from protesters defending themselves, officers were there in moments,” Merriweather said. “Justin Carr’s head was shot, right? Like, shot off at the side. And not one of them came to defend or protect him.”
A police report says Carr was shot around 8:30 p.m. and that officers responded shortly after. Merriweather said while officers were nearby at the time of the shooting, it took several minutes for medics to attend to Carr’s injuries. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on the timeline of the police response to Carr’s shooting.
Merriweather believes their vocal criticism of police made them a target of the local district attorney’s office. The activist said that, per court documents provided to their attorneys, the official who investigated Merriweather’s case pulled their name out of an Associated Press story and forwarded it to police.
“Dissent was heavily ingrained in everything that I was told was American. I wanted to ask some questions; the very nature of me asking was criminalized. And that doesn’t fit the equation of American identity.”
Several days after the start of Charlotte Uprising — the name activists have given their local movement — Merriweather learned they were facing charges of felonious inciting to riot and misdemeanor assault on a government officer for the night of Sept. 20. They deny all charges.
If a jury of their peers finds Merriweather guilty, they face up to four years behind bars, they said. Prosecutors offered them a plea deal for a lesser sentence — six months in jail, 24 months probation and the label of convicted felon — but they rejected it in court on Nov. 28. On Jan. 2, they learned that their trial date had been tentatively set for May 7.
Despite the fact that hundreds of people participated in and nearly 200 faced arrest over both peaceful demonstrations and so-called rioting, Merriweather appears to have been identified as a ringleader whose actions inflamed chaos: While other protesters’ told Mic the charges against them were dropped, Merriweather still faces the most serious, the inciting to riot charge. And it’s unclear exactly what evidence police have to support those charges.
“These cases, these strategies of the criminalization of civil rights activism, have dire consequences for the activists, for their families and for the communities in which they serve,” Benjamin Chavis, a longtime civil rights leader, said in an interview.
Chavis, who 40 years ago was a student organizer with members of the Black Panther Party in North Carolina, was once situated where Merriweather is now. Amid racial tension in the early 1970s, he and other young organizers fighting for school desegregation found themselves in the middle of an attack on a black church by a paramilitary offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan in Wilmington, North Carolina. Chavis was among 10 people charged with the February 1971 suspected arson of a white-owned store near the church. He was sentenced to 34 years imprisonment and served eight years before his conviction was overturned. It took those activists, known as the Wilmington Ten, decades to officially clear their names — a history Chavis said he hopes doesn’t repeat with someone like Merriweather.
“The criminal justice system can also be used for repression,” Chavis said, “to confront protesters, and then to find out who the leaders are and criminalize those leaders. Now, [Merriweather] and others are going to have to spend time defending themselves. They can’t be out leading other protests, because they’re defending themselves against the bogus charges.”
“Dissent was heavily ingrained in everything that I was told was American.”
More than a year after Scott’s death, successful prosecution of Merriweather could send a chilling message to those who believe peaceful dissent isn’t at all criminal. Protesting is the continuation of a principled tradition that helped found and refine the United States. But as police-involved deaths of black people around the country gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2014, a parallel Blue Lives Matter movement among law enforcement grew with it. Elected officials, police leaders, officers’ unions and other groups parroted anti-Black Lives Matter rhetoric, used line-of-duty deaths to exacerbate officers’ anxieties and biases and encouraged heavy-handed law enforcement response to demonstrations against officer-involved killings.
The rhetoric recently bubbled up to the federal level, in the form of an FBI counterterrorism division assessment titled “Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers.” In October, Foreign Policy published a leaked copy of the document, which seemingly links organizers and activists like Merriweather to individuals who, in the last three years, have attacked or killed police officers in New York, Louisiana, Texas and Arizona. Some black police leaders and members of Congress have said the few characteristics of a “black identity extremist” seem to be dark skin, an expressed pride in black racial identity and an intolerance for police brutality.
“I didn’t feel that this intelligence was healthy for the conscience of our country and, particularly, of African-Americans,” Clarence Cox, president of the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Executives, said in a interview after meeting with the FBI about the designation. “It reminds me so much of what we went through as African-Americans, or what civil rights leaders went through, when they were unconstitutionally targeted by state, federal and local agencies back in the civil rights era.”
From the Boston Tea Party to the march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, protesting in the street has been among the most American things to do. For Merriweather, a conviction after exactly this type of activity would shatter everything they’ve grown up believing about democracy.
“You’d have to imagine being a young black child, raised in American public school systems that preached dissent as the foundation of this very place that is my home,” Merriweather said ahead of their arraignment in November. “Dissent was heavily ingrained in everything that I was told was American. I wanted to ask some questions; the very nature of me asking was criminalized. And that doesn’t fit the equation of American identity.”
The arraignment of Glo Merriweather
Merriweather planned to arrive at the Mecklenburg County Superior Court no sooner than the estimated time needed to pass through metal detectors, take an elevator to a courtroom and be seated for the start of the afternoon session on Nov. 28. The quicker, the better, they thought. When they arrived, their assigned courtroom was packed.
“Not guilty, your honor,” one of their attorneys said after the charges were read. The arraignment ended quickly.
The full courtroom might have indicated a full docket of other cases to be heard throughout the day. But as Merriweather stepped away from the defense table and headed toward the courtroom doors, dozens of backers stood up and quietly filed out behind the activist. The room had emptied by half.
In the hallway, attorneys Mark Simmons Jr. and Darlene Kannady promptly thanked their client’s supporters. Those gathered had either protested alongside Merriweather or were concerned Charlotte residents.
That level of support from the community has been comforting, especially given so much time has passed since the Scott protest, Merriweather said. But the gravity of the case can periodically get the best of the activist.
“I give myself a lot of permission to not know how to handle it,” they said. “There are days where I scream, there are days where I’m crying, there are days where I’m blowing up phones like, ‘Pick up the phone, because the magnitude of the situation is so enormous.’”
Merriweather was born in Baltimore and has lived in Ohio, Indiana and Georgia. They have two siblings, one slightly older and one 10 years younger. Their mother has taught at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte since 2009, the year they moved to the city. They completed high school in Charlotte and enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a few hours away. They studied women and gender studies for about two years before leaving Greensboro and returning to Charlotte. They have taken jobs in local restaurants and devoted a great deal of time to organizing.
Since September 2016, Merriweather has twice been arrested at other protests: In late January, after President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, they marched with others on the Charlotte Douglas International Airport; and in late 2016, they stood in solidarity with water protectors at Standing Rock during a locally organized demonstration in Charlotte. Neither of the events were viewed by police as lawful assemblies, but charges connected to those arrests were dropped, they said.
But the night of Sept. 20 was different.
According to documents Mic obtained from the courts and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, Merriweather was among protesters who are alleged to have rioted by creating a “public disturbance,” blocking traffic on a highway, breaking storefront windows, looting and causing damage to public property and police vehicles in excess of $36,000. An incident report from the police department lists 24 officers sustaining minor injuries while trying to disperse crowds. Merriweather is charged with the assault of Sgt. Peter Hildenbrand, who the report indicates sustained bruises and scratches in the melee.
Inciting to riot, which can be either a misdemeanor or a felony under North Carolina law, can include “any person who willfully incites or urges another to engage in a riot, and such inciting or urging is a contributing cause of a riot in which there is property damage in excess of [$1,500] or serious bodily injury.” Merriweather faces this charge as a felony.
Through the advice of their attorneys, Merriweather declined to comment on the specifics of these allegations. The district attorney’s office and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department have also declined to comment on Merriweather’s pending trial.
Investigating the day Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot
More than a year after the events in Charlotte, several of those who participated in the series of protests continue to dispute police accounts from the time. Among them is newly sworn-in Charlotte Councilman Braxton Winston.
Winston, 34, was captured in a widely seen photograph during the protests. In the image, he’s shirtless and raising a fist in the air, standing in front of a line of Charlotte officers dressed in head-to-toe riot gear. It was one of Charlotte’s police officers who urged him to run for office and work on reforming policies from the council chambers instead of on city streets, he said.
“I stand by the fact that no person incited a riot out there,” Winston said. “No person here in Charlotte, in my opinion, should be in the process of being held accountable. No private citizen. It’s unfortunate that so many resources have gone to deal with the fallout from this lack of leadership, which includes the continual prosecution of people that have legitimate gripes with our state, local and federal government out there.”
Charlotte’s district attorney’s office was overseen by Andrew Murray in the weeks it took to determine that the officers who encountered Keith Lamont Scott had not committed any crimes. Murray also led the office in September 2017, when a grand jury indicted Merriweather on the felony charge. That same month, President Donald Trump nominated him to be U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and sworn in in November.
“I know that some out there are going to be frustrated,” Murray said in a Nov. 30, 2016, press conference announcing that Vinson would not be charged in Scott’s death. “We took a lot of painstaking effort to make sure that there was no personal bias in the review, and that public opinion did not factor in our determination.
“Please do not act viscerally on news snippets,” Murray pleaded with Charlotte residents.
When past meets present: the “black identity extremist” label
Merriweather’s charges precede the FBI’s black identity extremist document, which is dated Aug. 3, 2017. But the very idea of BIE has ties to a history of demonizing black empowerment activists in the U.S.
During the civil rights movement, the FBI actively targeted black activists under Cointelpro, an infamous effort to surveil and subvert social movements that was active from 1956 and 1971. Today, Cointelpro is widely seen (by both the public and Congress) as a government-backed infringement on the First Amendment rights of activists. BIE appears to be an evolution of old efforts that focuses squarely on anti-police brutality sentiment.
But America’s contentious relationship with black liberation struggles is well-established beyond these prominent examples. Danielle Boaz, assistant professor of Africana studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said falsehoods and racist stereotypes held by government officials have played their own roles in stifling black movements.
“The government in the United States has always had a very swift and a very negative response to groups that speak about black empowerment,” she said. “There have been instances where stories have been invented from a particular situation, where perhaps one individual, who may or may not claim affiliation with an organization, did something horrendous, committed some crime, and then this gets often conflated to the entire organization.”
The BIE document cites the actions of mass killers like Micah Xavier Johnson, a black man who shot 11 police officers, killing five, in Dallas in July 2016. Although the ambush took place following a Black Lives Matter rally for Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, Johnson hasn’t been linked to BLM or any active black extremist group. That same month, Gavin Eugene Long shot six members of law enforcement, killing three, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In turn, the Black Lives Matter network condemned violence against police officers and law enforcement.
Dating back to the Ferguson protests of 2014, prominent organizers who participated in activism later complained that FBI agents were visiting their homes. Well-known black activist and former Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson has been sued multiple times by officers who claim he is responsible for inciting violence and for injuries they sustained while policing demonstrations. A handful of states have tried making the assault and murder of officers a hate crime that, in certain cases, would be punishable by death. These measures, known broadly as “Blue Lives Matter laws,” have only been enacted successfully in Louisiana.
“I really think that the government does need to scrap the entire [BIE] report, because there is no such thing as what they’re talking about,” Boaz said. “I also think that they need to be thinking about white identity extremists, and talking about individuals who are anti-black. [People] who are using the guise of government authority, the guise of police authority, to carry out systematic violence against minorities, especially African-Americans.”
One police official in Charlotte suggested targeting protesters isn’t something officers do.
“We don’t look at groups necessarily and ... target a group or anything like that,” Major Michael V. Adams, who works in the special investigation bureau of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, said in a phone interview in October. He also cautioned against making too close a link between the FBI’s counterterrorism assessments and the patrol functions of a local police agency like CMPD.
Merriweather has a cadre of fellow organizers in Charlotte backing their fight against the criminal charges. In interviews, a handful of those people said they’ve come to expect criminalization of activists as the norm.
“At the end of the day, we know that the black identity extremist as a distinction ... is just kind of an actualization of things that we have already been dealing with and already been feeling,” Ash Williams, an organizer in Charlotte, said in an interview a day before Merriweather’s arraignment. “We know that that’s what can happen, the next time someone decides to stand up for what’s right in their own community.”
Merriweather echoed Williams’ sentiments, stating their belief that law enforcement has long had it out for black dissenters.
“I’m a young, black, queer person in America, and the target has always been on my back,” they said. “It was on my mother’s back, it was on her mother’s back. ... It’s almost empowering, because so many of us have transcended this already. It’s a piece of the very, very, very long story.”