In One Week I Saw the Spectrum of Human Emotion Play Out In The Streets: Part II

charlotte-protest-night-1-gohjo

Wednesday night of the protest. Less than a block and less than an hour from the spot where Justin Carr was shot

An all too familiar scene unfolded, one that I had only been exposed to through social media in other, far more remote and flawed cities. As if to make sure there was no confusion to the point, another unarmed black man was shot dead in the streets. This time, in my seemingly picture-perfect and socially insulated home city of Charlotte.

This incident, the killing of Keith Lamont Scott at the hands of the Charlotte Mecklenburg PD, played out not unlike most other highly (and not-so-highly) publicized instances of police brutality. A lone, unarmed black man encounters a group of police officers who, despite outnumbering him, fear for their own lives and react with the swift pull of a trigger. Four shots ring out and in an instant, seven kids are without their father, a wife without her husband, and the strange fruit that once hung from a tree is now lying in a pool of blood in an apartment parking lot.

The date was Tuesday, September 20. Mere hours after I had felt an inescapable sense of community with a group of strangers whose only common bond was the love of life, another group of strangers would be bound together in the streets by an inescapable sense of fear and anger under the ominous specter of unjustified death. The universal joy and happiness was replaced by a cold and bitter, yet all too familiar feeling of hopelessness.

Just a few hours after those fateful four shots were fired, protests erupted in the area. Fueled by the countless images of violence and bloodshed that the black community had been cruelly exposed to for what seems like an eternity, tensions had reached a boiling point. Like a fire hydrant that had been burst open, the streets of northeast Charlotte furiously flooded with people who had enough. A spontaneous burst of emotion that could no longer be quelled manifested itself in hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who had no more patience for silent hope. An unorganized but intensely passionate protest raged through the night, even blocking part of I85 during the early hours of the morning.

charlotte-protest-night3-gohjo

Police in riot gear march down Trade Street towards College Ave.

Over the next several days, the protests would continue. Wednesday and Thursday night saw the flame fanned into uncontrollable rioting in Uptown, resulting in the calling of state police, the SWAT team and National Guard. The governor of North Carolina called a state of emergency. The mayor of Charlotte signed a curfew order. The blood of another innocent black man, Justin Carr, was spilled on the same sidewalks I stroll by on a daily basis on my way to lunch.

Several of these nights I witnessed this surreal scene for myself. Streets blocked off by Humvees. Lines of riot police blocking other streets in gear that seemed more at home in Fallujah than Mecklenburg County. The unmistakable smell of tear gas in the air. The deafening bang of stun grenades. Protesters with signs, chants and makeshift gas masks fashioned out of t-shirts. Blocked highways. Shattered windows and store fronts. Blood-smeared police wagons. Helicopters circling above. Young girls not old enough to fully understand what’s happening crying in front of city council. Grainy and shaky video of the catalyst incident was dissected over and over Zapruder-style after an awkward wait for it’s release.

charlotte-protest-night2-gohjo

Blood on the police van

The emotional makeup of the city was as scattered and fragmented as it had ever been. Besides the vitriol of the protesters, others experienced emotional reactions that were reflected, perhaps rooted in, who they were at their core. Some people condemned protesters for lashing out at their own community. Some people lamented the fact that their previously pristine city was being portrayed as chaotic in the national news. Many grappled with an internal struggle that came to terms when they were forced to acknowledge a side of the city that they had tried so hard to dismiss. Others saw it as an opportunity to create chaos without repercussion, or a chance to live out a voyeuristic fantasy. For some, it was finally their time to be heard.

All of this played out in the streets. Groups of people who were previously strangers connected by an intangible force, moving in unison. The parallels to what I saw a week earlier in Atlanta were uncanny, except with wildly different emotions.

In one week, I saw the spectrum of human emotion play out in the streets.

In One Week I Saw the Spectrum of Human Emotion Play Out in the Streets: Part I

big-boi-music-midown-gohjo

Killer Mike, Big Boi and the Dungeon Family

In one week I saw the spectrum of human emotion play out in the streets in two very different situations.

Sunday, September 18, Atlanta, GA. It was the second day of Music Midtown, a music festival held in Piedmont Park in downtown Atlanta. The weather predicted rain all day long, so my crew and I prepared with dollar store ponchos and zip lock bags for our valuables (having dropped my phone in the New River two weeks earlier, I wasn’t making the same mistake twice).

The cold grey clouds loomed ominously over our heads all morning long. After a thoroughly underwhelming set by… some generic band I don’t even remember, they opened up and dropped a steady rain on the 100,000 people in the largest park in downtown Atlanta. Evacuation signs appeared on the LED boards flanking each side of the stage telling us to head to the nearest exit in a “calm and orderly” fashion.

charlotte-fam-music-midtown-gohjo

Just before the rain hit

Naturally we held our ground, thinking it would be over soon and we could go back to the party. Despite our best efforts, however, the rain and threat of lightning forced us to find our way out of the park and into the streets. We (along with the 999,994 other music fans) suddenly were a roving band of music thirsty gypsies of various states of intoxication. With no plan, no word from organizers when/if the show would continue and plenty of booze-fueled energy flowing through us, we knew we had to find our own party, or at least a bar that would let us sit our soaked butts down for a few drinks.

Not knowing where we were or where we were going, and with every bar we passed packed to capacity, the situation looked bleak. The crew was restless. We had no choice but to continue searching.

Eventually we turned a corner and saw a small group of people outside of a bar. The bar was still full, but it had open air windows. Not quite the size of a garage door, but large enough that the music from inside the bar could be heard outside. At first it was just a few people happily hanging out. “It’ll be broken up in a few minutes” we thought, despite the street being closed. Then the group got bigger. Then more people joined in. All of a sudden, like a moth to a flame, it turned into a full force dance party. With hundreds of displaced festival goers looking for a party, and the rain steadily falling, it soon became its own living breathing organism.

Instantly we became part of something bigger than ourselves. The energy was inescapable. People were dancing and singing in unison, each and every one of us with huge grins and smiles that we couldn’t suppress, even if we tried. The crew and I kept exchanging glances as if to say “Is this real?”

Adding to the serendipity of the moment, we randomly connected with three different groups of Charlotte friends who just happened to be walking by at the same time. None of us coordinated the impromptu meetup, none of us texted each other and we damn sure didn’t use the hopeless friend finder app that the festival provided us. It’s as if we were all connected by a certain telekinetic energy, subconsciously reaching out through the masses of downtown Atlanta to say “The party is right here, right now.”

“You are right here. This is right now” is the chant that then broke out, confirming exactly what we were feeling. When Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” came on, the crowd erupted in pure ecstasy. Not one person wasn’t singing, not one person didn’t dance and everyone was moving in unison as if we were possessed by a higher power. The people inside the bar may have been nice and dry, but outside was where all the fun was. I overheard someone say they were disappointed the music festival wasn’t happening and was possibly cancelled. To that I said, “Whatever experience you were hoping to have at the show, this organic, unscripted moment beats it all and didn’t cost you a single dollar.”

It’s wet, fam. #MusicMidtown #RIPWhitneyHouston #RainDelay💃🏻☔️

A video posted by Cameron Lee (@clturecam) on

The scene that is forever seared into my memory happened when a man in a wheelchair became the center of the dance party. Moving his chariot back in forth in the most rhythmic way possible, for the moment he became the epicenter of all that is good, righteous and pure. In that moment, there were no barriers, no inhibitions and no worries. Despite not being able to walk, this man led the entire crowd in the most enthusiastic dance party I had ever witnessed. In that moment, all I could feel was absolute joy to the degree of which I had rarely experienced. I wasn’t the only person in my crew who had a tear brought to my eye by this surreal scene.

charlotte-crew-music-midtown-clture-gohjo

Pretty neat, fam. Lit, even

Eventually, the dance party thinned out, the sun came out, the rain continued to fall and word got around that the music festival was back on. As waves of festival-goers marched back into the park, we all knowingly gave each other a look that what we just witnessed was indeed special.

The exuberance and communal feeling of that moment is one that I will never forget. It was truly the high end of positive emotion in the vast spectrum that is human emotion.

At the time I wouldn’t have believed it, but in the next week, I would also see the exact opposite of that emotion played out in the streets of the city that I call home. Read Part II here.