Police wanted us to go home. We stayed. They gassed us.
No chemical agents should be used on a human being anywhere in this world. And that certainly includes American streets as citizens exercise their First Amendment rights. Being exposed to tear gas and pepper ball rounds is a miserable experience that I will never forget.
Struggling to breathe. Skin burning. Vomiting. Trying to survive. It is something that never leaves you. It is traumatizing.
Afterward, I sued the city of Charlotte and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) and asked a federal court to issue an injunction preventing the department from using chemical agents against peaceful protesters. The city got the message and put a halt to the practice on its own. This wasn’t about money. It was about making it stop — and it did. For a while.
But last week, Charlotte police again assaulted hundreds of protesters with a chemical barrage. Such tactics have traumatized far too many over generations. So on Monday night, as a Charlotte City Council member now — I ran for election and won a little over a year after the Scott protests — I proposed and the full council passed a policy stopping CMPD from purchasing new chemical agents for the use of crowd dispersal in the upcoming fiscal year. And in order to create a check against police using agents they already have, we also passed a measure allowing the council to scrutinize and adjust all police spending and policy implementation.
Our police chief has argued that without chemical agents, police will be forced to use batons to break skin and bones. But that is not an acceptable answer to the people of Charlotte. What’s more, comments like that hurtfully evoke Bull Connor’s German shepherds and fire hoses. If the current police chief, or the new chief set to take over in September, cannot figure out how to deal with human beings without the tactics of violence and fear, the people that make up this city will be here, step by step, to show him how to deal with us as the sentient beings we are.
Chemical weapons don’t keep anyone safe. Chemical weapons don’t prevent violence. Chemical weapons just make situations worse.
People who have been working on police reform and abolition know that defunding chemical agents will not end the systemic failures of policing in Charlotte and across the United States. Putting de-escalation at the core of our interactions is only the beginning. We must go further.
In Charlotte, we are finally doing things that the city council has always had the political power to do but has not, until Monday night, had the political will to do. We are making the people’s voice the ultimate authority of what community safety is. This is how you reimagine the government’s role in community safety.
Policing in America is a carefully curated system embedded in racism, classism, sexism and homophobia. The steps we took on Monday are not enough. No single motion, meeting or action will remake these institutions. The Charlotte City Council is committing to a process that will require having the community at the table pushing us to be transformative. The work will continue to be frustrating, but staying at the table together is essential.
So what does tomorrow look like? I’m a public official now, and we public officials need our community to keep the pressure on us, just as it has done since the police killing of George Floyd. Since Breonna Taylor. Since Tony McDade. Since Michael Brown. Since Sandra Bland. Since Keith Lamont Scott.
I am proud of the people of Charlotte. This is what democracy looks like — in the streets and in our city halls. I look forward to the work of tomorrow. We can do this. We will do this.