CHARLOTTE — Uproar over the fatal police shooting of a black man reached new levels of violence in protests that raged into early Thursday amid looting, street clashes and gunfire, including a demonstrator critically injured in what officials called a “civilian on civilian” shooting.
The incident thrust an already tense night deeper into chaos as reports of the victim’s condition changed throughout the night and word spread among protesters that the victim may have been shot by police, which the police adamantly deny.
As protests swept through the city for a second night following the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott, protesters and police clashed outside the Omni Hotel in the city’s commercial hub.
Shortly after 8 p.m., as people marched through the EpiCentre entertainment complex, a group of riot officers entered the hotel lobby. When marchers tried to follow them, police fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets to back them off. A shot rang out and a man collapsed to the sidewalk, bleeding profusely from a head injury.
“They killed him,” some protesters yelled as police scattered the crowd of several hundred. As demonstrators moved on to other parts of the city, some smashed the windows of businesses and set small fires in the street.
Before dawn Thursday, the protests had mostly cleared. Authorities, meanwhile, boosted their strength in anticipation that unrest could flare again. Local police were backed up by state troopers and National Guard units under a state of emergency declared by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory.
Many businesses with offices in central Charlotte — including Wells Fargo and Bank of America, which is headquartered in the city — told employees to stay home Thursday. A message to Bank of America workers cited the “ongoing civil unrest” in the rare corporate order to stay away.
Police said they responded to a call for an assault with a deadly weapon at the scene at 8:31 p.m. and took a civilian suffering from an “apparent gunshot wound” to the Carolinas Medical Center. Officials initially said from the city’s official Twitter account that the victim had died, but later stated that the victim was in critical condition and on life support.
CORRECTION UPDATE: Civilian who suffered gunshot wound during protests is on life support, critical condition. Not deceased.
— City of Charlotte (@CLTgov) September 22, 2016
4 officers injured during demonstration. All non- life threatening
— CMPD News (@CMPD) September 22, 2016
Officials said the apparent shooting was “civilian on civilian.” But a police spokeswoman declined to comment on how they reached that conclusion, other than to say, “This is not an officer-involved shooting.”
Witness accounts of the incident differed widely from those offered by the city.
James Tyson, 31, said he was marching with protesters in front of the hotel when he heard a loud bang and saw a tall black man with dreadlocks fall to the ground. A certified Wilderness First Responder, Tyson said he was carrying first aid materials with him at the time and rushed over to help.
“There was blood on the ground and blood coming from his temple,” Tyson told The Washington Post. “Everybody thought he was dead.”
Tyson said he gave the man’s friends a gauze pad to press against the wound. About 10 minutes later, he said, a half-dozen medics in riot gear took the man away and police dispersed the crowd.
Tyson said the protest had been tense but not violent up to that point. He said police started firing rubber bullets at the crowd and that one of them might have hit the man in the head.
“I heard no gunshot and I did not see any protesters with guns,” Tyson said. “I’m almost positive it was a rubber bullet.”
Police declined repeated requests to comment on the account from Tyson or other witnesses.
A group of clergy members who marched with the protesters Wednesday night offered a similar version of events.
In interviews with The Post, they said they saw no protesters with weapons and that the shot
— described by some as a gunshot and others as a loud bang — rang out from the direction of police. None of them actually saw police fire their weapons, they said, nor did they see a civilian shoot a gun.
Despite that, a tweet by Rev. Michael McBride, a regular MSNBC and CNN commentator who has worked with the Charlotte clergy members, suggested that a police officer shot the man. The tweet had been shared 2,400 times by Thursday morning.
The violence in Charlotte came less than a week after disputed police shooting of a black man in Tulsa — amplifying debates over policing and race that have been thrust open before in places such as Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. The questions also are likely to get another national airing on Monday in the first head-to-head debate between GOP nominee Donald Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
In Tulsa, conflicting accounts over a police shooting last Friday have sharply divided the city, but have so far not touched off clashes.
Videos made public this week show 40-year-old Terence Crutcher being shot, and then several minutes passing before an officer beings to render medical aid. Activists and others question why the medical assistance was not given immediately. Police advocates say officers must first determine the situation is under control before giving medical attention.
Back in Charlotte, the Rev. Jay Leach, senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, said he and other clergy members had joined the demonstrations in hopes of keeping peace between police and protesters. Leach said protesters felt “trapped” and “ambushed” by police when they entered the cramped intersection outside the hotel. Protesters started yelling at officers, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, he said.
“It was apparent right away that this was a very dangerous and provocative situation,” Leach said.
Moments later, he said, he heard a shot and saw the man collapse. Protesters immediately surrounded the man, he said.
“My sense was that I’d just seen a fatality,” Leach said.
Linda Flynn, executive director of the Charlotte Spirituality Center, said she was just feet from the man when she heard a “gunshot” and saw him fall.
Left behind was a large pool of his blood, Flynn said. She said she watched a distraught woman dip her hand into it, wipe it on a police officer’s bicycle and yell, “You’re murderers!”
Flynn compared the demonstrations in Charlotte to the uprising in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, when a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.
“Right now, I feel like North Carolina is Ferguson,” she said. “It’s that bad.”