CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Tim Funk/Charlotte Observer) - With violent protests erupting across the country almost nightly, some are wondering whether the unrest could be a preview of what’s to come on the streets of Charlotte if the city ends up hosting the Republican National Convention.
Holding such a traditionally crowded political convention during a pandemic has raised mostly public health concerns. But the potential threat to public safety has now become an issue with the prospect that extremists bent on setting fires and combating police could descend on Charlotte for a week in late August.
“It’s a recipe for disaster and I can see a lot of people — particularly our own Charlotteans — getting hurt,” said the Rev. Rodney Sadler, director of the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation at Charlotte’s Union Presbyterian Seminary. He’s been on Charlotte streets in recent days, peaceably protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And he said he has seen other protesters who were not local or peaceful.
“I’ve seen people who have been inciting violence and who were incredibly aggressive against the police. I don’t recognize these people and I’ve been around the activist community for some time,” Sadler said. His view from the street: “The (Charlotte) police department is not ready to handle the kind of disruption we will see when all the activists that are causing trouble around the country — the violent people — decide to come to Charlotte (to protest the GOP convention).”
Chris Swecker, a former high-ranking FBI official in North Carolina and in Washington, said he believes the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department will be ready for these dangerous activists — whether they be white supremacists on the right or antifa on the left. “When I look at (crowd control) resources around the state, the CMPD is the best-trained, they’re fully equipped and they have experience (from the Democratic National Convention and the NBA All-Star Game),” said Swecker, now a Charlotte attorney and security consultant.
But he agreed with Sadler that, if the RNC convenes in Charlotte, things could get perilous as these extremist groups seek to steal the national spotlight. “Probably this will be the mother of all antifa gatherings because of Donald Trump,” he said. “If you have a MAGA hat, to them you’re a fascist.” And if white supremacists also show up, Swecker said, “it would add to the complexity because you’ve got to keep them (and antifa) apart. We learned that in Charlottesville . . . Given the complexity and potential for violence, social distancing will be the least of our issues.”
It was just months after the racial riot in Charlottesville in 2017 that the Charlotte City Council voted to pursue the 2020 convention. Council members said there were discussions at the time about the possibility of the city becoming a war zone. But, in the end, the positive aspects of hosting such a high-profile event, including all the money delegates would spend while they were here, won out.
But with the recent protests now dominating the news, public officials in Charlotte are talking about the risk again. The risk, that is, of violent protests. No one had an issue with peaceful ones aimed at policies or candidates or incidents and patterns of injustice.
City Council member Malcolm Graham, who opposed green-lighting the RNC before winning his seat in 2019, said recent tweets by President Donald Trump — that shooting will follow looting and “vicious dogs” await activists protesting outside the White House — is only increasing the chance of disturbances in the streets of Charlotte.
“I wish the president would give us a little bit of help by not tweeting things that are inflammatory,” said Graham, a Democrat. “That doesn’t do anything to tamp down the potential for unrest.”
Council member Ed Driggs, a Republican, said he is expecting a “noisy, but safe” convention week.
Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said her and others’ anxiety level has gone up a bit in the wake of riots in other cities. But, she added, “In Charlotte, both our protesters and our police have done much better jobs than what we’re seeing in other cities across the country. ... I’m confident that our police department has been working on this (RNC preparations) for two years.”
Mayor Vi Lyles said she’s heard from a few constituents about the potential for violence during convention week. But most of the emails she’s received have been about the danger the convention may spread COVID-19 in Charlotte.
And Council member Larken Egleston, who chairs the council’s Safe Communities Committee, said he believes that the convention, if it’s held in Charlotte, will be so scaled back for public health reasons that many fewer protesters will decide to show up.
As for the CMPD, spokesman Rob Tufano would say only that “the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, along with our partners, continues to plan for the RNC.”
Like all cities hosting one of the two major parties’ national political conventions, Charlotte received $50 million in federal funds for security.
Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather, acknowledged that, from the beginning, convention-week riots in Charlotte “was everyone’s worst-case scenario, especially in a culture where political tensions are high.” But, he added, that’s what planning is for — to be ready for every scenario. And that’s what the city has been doing.
There were predictions of violent protests prior to the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. But none materialized. In fact, while all national political conventions attract demonstrators protesting a host of things, none since 1968 has seen widespread violence.
Still, the worry is out there that it could be different this year.
Longtime N.C. political consultant Gary Pearce, in a Monday column, even raised the specter of Chicago in 1968, when the Democratic National Convention was upstaged by the violence on the streets outside between police and anti-Vietnam War protesters. “The whole word is watching!” chanted the protesters as cops wielded their clubs in front of TV cameras.
“(There’s) the risk that Charlotte could attract a volatile mix of protesters against racism, ‘tyranny,’ protesting Reopeners and camo-clad white nationalists waving Confederate flags and wielding assault weapons,” Pearce, a Democrat, wrote.