It was right about the moment two protesters lifted me over the concrete barrier guarding Interstate 277 that I realized just how screwed we were.
There were hundreds of people staging a sit-in, blocking traffic in both directions. A few dozen more were shouting down from the overpass and throwing debris at the police lining the roads' shoulders. A Charlotte police officer who had, for the previous four hours, marched alongside the crowd broke away from the pack. I saw him talking into his radio. A few protesters approached two officers with hands extended, one shouting, "Man, fuck the police. I ain't armed neither, motherfucker. You gonna kill me, too?" before a woman wearing a gas mask and a "#BLM" T-shirt pulled him back toward the group.
"That's what they want us to do," she scolded. "Don't you go and give him a reason to shoot you. Don't you think he's itchin' to?"
The interstate looked far different than it did when I drove into Charlotte earlier on Thursday. The darkness and cloud cover eliminated the horizon. And the road itself was so vast that this group of hundreds felt small.
The crowd was noticeably tense. What began as a well-oiled machine of synchronized cries for justice and equality had transformed into something resembling a middle school dance—a bunch of people standing around awkwardly, waiting for someone, anyone, to make the first move.
Maybe it was the open air around us—how, without buildings and skyscrapers to amplify and unify the soundtrack, no one voice could direct us. Or perhaps, the fuse lit September 20 when Keith Lamont Scott was gunned down by a city police officer had, in that moment, finally met a powder keg that has grown more and more unstable with every black man gunned down by a man or woman in uniform.
What transpired on that interstate was a far cry from what had unfolded hours prior, as darkness fell on Uptown. Impassioned protesters, in between chants and the occupation of one intersection after another, offered hugs to police and thanked members of the National Guard for their service. Here, there was more raw emotion and indecision; arguments erupted between those sitting on the pavement and others who wanted to return to Uptown's Epicentre. And that dissension in the ranks gave the police an opening.
They took it.
As white vans sped toward the crowd with blue lights flashing, all I could think about were scenes from the night before: tear gas, gunshots, objects hurled at vehicles, trash cans being set on fire, a man shot and killed. When dozens of riot gear-clad officers filed out of the vehicles and lined up across the interstate, I was hit by a wave of nausea. The cops began rhythmically clanking batons against their riot shields. Then, rubber bullets started flying.
The police's initial offensive didn't deter those gathered in the middle of I-277. If anything, it was as if the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's show of force reunified them. Some secured doctors' masks and bandanas around their faces. Others shouted and signaled, with wagging middle fingers, that they were ready for a clash. They locked arms and formed a line of their own underneath the overpass.
But it wouldn't last. The pepper spray made sure of that.
As long as we're talking about pepper spray, allow me to state for the record that being momentarily blinded by it ranks among the worst experiences I have endured in my thirty-four years on this planet. The pain is indescribable. And were it not for the kindness of the three protesters who helped me to my feet and poured milk on my face to alleviate the burning, my evening might have ended there.
But the worst part is how the loss of one of my senses heightened the others, how I heard, with what I can only characterize as an eerie clarity, chants and shouts giving way to screams and the sound of polycarbonate shields crunching against flesh and bone. And when my vision returned, I watched, through a blur, several men being knocked to the ground and forced off the road, a young woman screaming and desperately trying to wipe chemicals out of her eyes, and police officers puffing out their chests with pride when the interstate had finally been cleared.
Having been fought off I-277, what was left of the crowd returned to the fervent but restrained unit it had been for most of the evening—minus the several dozen men and women rolling on the ground as friends and strangers attempted to relieve their post-pepper spray hell. And I sat there, eyes and face on fire, wondering just how the fuck we got here.
For Jamaine Hall, the answer is pretty simple.
"Three shots, man. Three shots done changed this city," he said. "We took the spray. Let 'em break out that gas and them rubber bullets. We ain't stoppin'. We done had enough."