CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When the Charlotte city attorney spoke at the public conversation “Politics in the Streets” just two weeks ago, Aurora, Colo., was fresh in people’s minds and the shootings at a Wisconsin Sikh temple had not yet happened. Robert Hagemann dropped another name when those planning protests at the Democratic convention in Charlotte objected to some of the security measures the city is putting in place.
“Think Timothy McVeigh” and his Oklahoma City attack, Hagemann said, remember 9/11 and the “serious terrorist threat” that America faces.
Not a fair comparison, said those with a different view.
The issue: Are “free-speech zones” and “extraordinary event” regulations that allow police to examine backpacks for suspicious materials an encroachment on First Amendment rights?
“The entire country is a free-speech zone,” said Ken Davies, an attorney for Occupy Charlotte, who argued that warnings of violence or chaos are “a bogeyman” to justify infringement of the basic constitutional rights of those who just want their voices and causes considered by the political and corporate leaders coming to Charlotte the first week of September.
“Unless you can assemble, you cannot affect change,” he said.
Sitting beside Davies was Mark Newbold, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police attorney. Newbold, who said he expects “lively” demonstrations and assemblies surrounding the convention, had a hand in writing the ordinance approved by the city council in January that gives police more discretion to stop and search near protests; he believes it will work.
“The police have to take the higher road. They are the ones with the weapons and the authority,” he said. Newbold asked the protesters to respect the process, which he said, “requires you to be smart and to be cool.”
This is the way Charlotte does things, a public conversation in a forum, this one sponsored by WFAE, a public radio station in the region. But voices are growing louder as the Democratic convention grows closer, and Southern hospitality meets the prime protest opportunity of a political convention in the corporate headquarters of Duke Energy and the powerful and beleaguered Bank of America. Charlotte, along with Tampa, site of the Republican National Convention, has received $50 million in federal money for security. The emphasis is now on a peaceful coexistence.
The Coalition to March on Wall Street South is sponsoring a kickoff march through downtown, expected to draw thousands on Sept. 2, the Sunday before the convention’s official Sept. 4 start. The umbrella group, with the slogan “building people’s power during the DNC,” is planning actions from Sept. 1 through Sept. 6. They include a Sept. 3 Southern Workers Assembly at a Baptist church and Liberation Fest, an all-day Sept. 1 youth, student and immigrant-led event featuring teach-ins, spoken-word poetry and a concert.
At Area 15, a location in the NoDa (North Davidson) arts district, where the Sept. 1 festival will take place and where the coalition has space, organizer Ben Carroll, 24, talked about the people traveling to Charlotte from Detroit, New York and Jackson, Miss., as well as from the Carolinas and other U.S. cities, and their social, economic and political concerns, from the environment to farm-labor fairness.
“The city would prefer for us to be talking about the old, recycled narrative of police vs. protesters,” Carroll told me, “to create an atmosphere of fear and discourage people from coming out.” It allows them “not to discuss why it is that people are marching.” Next week, Carroll said the coalition hopes to open a “convergence space” at Area 15 for activists to network, get maps and information about Charlotte and make banners and signs.
Edward Childs arrived from Boston last week and plans to stay through the convention. Childs, 61, a chief steward for 600 food service workers at Harvard University, members of Unite Here, said he is getting used to being in a right-to-work state. “It’s frightening,” he said.
Labor unions, traditional Democratic Party allies, have been critical of North Carolina as the site of the convention. On Monday, Charlotte city workers picketed city hall, as they plan to do every Monday this month, for more recognition for their union. Childs – who’s been talking with city and hotel employees and is surprised at their sometimes “fearful” reaction -- said it’s important for workers to have a say in what’s going in the platforms of both political parties.
Unlike Childs, Beth Henry has been in Charlotte for years. But the retired lawyer and current environmental activist agrees that dissent in the city can be tough. At the public conversation, she said, “Charlotte is not an easy place to express a person’s disagreement. People in the South think it’s almost impolite.” Sometimes, she said, “my friends think I’ve lost it.”
Michael Zytkow, 26, and a veteran of Occupy Charlotte, said he would like “to normalize protest culture in Charlotte.” He looks back as well as ahead, to “the long history of protest culture in the South,” including the sit-in movement during the civil rights struggle. “We want to make sure we don’t squander this time.”
And city leaders, warily preparing for the spotlight, are hoping for protests Charlotte-style.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3