CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - After months of brewing conflict, deputies with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office moved in early Friday morning to remove a jail support station run by activists in uptown Charlotte.
Five people were arrested, according to Mecklenburg County Chief Deputy Rodney Collins. And Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers were on scene assisting with closing nearby roads after displaced jail support volunteers briefly blocked traffic in protest of the removal.
Mecklenburg Sheriff Garry McFadden just last month gave a presentation to the Board of County Commissioners where he listed complaints and incidents related to the jail support station. McFadden accused members of the group of harassing government employees, unsanitary conditions and vandalism.
Activists with the jail support service have denied the allegations. Leaders and volunteers have said jail support is an essential service.
The activism grew from a movement to provide bail money and legal services to people arrested during protests against racism and police violence. Similar jail support programs are ran in other cities across the U.S.
Since the June protests in Charlotte over the death of George Floyd, the station has grown and jail support now operates nearly 24 hours a day. Advocates say the jail support station provides clothes, food, temporary housing and transportation for anyone who has been incarcerated.
In a phone interview Friday morning, Collins said the Sheriff’s Office is in possession of the tents, coolers, pallets and boxes that made up the station and leaders of the group have information on how to get their supplies back.
“(Backlash) is what we’re dealing with right now. It’s a drain on resources to continually have to deal with it,” he said.
Ash Williams, an organizer with Charlotte Uprising, said that jail support volunteers are figuring out what to do next. What is clear, they said, is that jail support is far from over.
“I cannot accept this. I will not accept this. I have a mind to escalate,” Williams said.
Williams said the group is calling on the community for donations for bail funds and to voice their support for jail support’s presence. Charlotte Uprising hosted a press conference at 3 p.m. on Friday in Marshall Park.
TENSIONS WITH THE SHERIFF
Williams said they woke up on Friday morning around 8 a.m. to a call that the jail support station was being “attacked and ambushed.” When they arrived on scene, Williams saw moving trucks and people in “hazmat suits” cleaning up the space where tents and chairs and tables used to be.
Collins said the decision to remove the station unannounced was intentional. McFadden called the station an “encampment.”
When the Sheriff’s Office attempted to remove the station in June, Collins said volunteers “double-downed” and protested which resulted in 43 arrests.
On Friday morning, he said, there was only a small group, which meant deputies would “be able to disperse them peacefully.”
Hours later, McFadden’s office issued a news statement blaming an unidentified person from the jail support station for using a brick to break a window at the nearby government center. According to McFadden, that happened last week.
“Today’s operation was undertaken not only with the cooperation of CMPD, but also after extensive communication with City and County leadership and consultation with District Attorney Spencer Merriweather and members of his staff,” the sheriff’s office statement says.
In the statement, McFadden said he supports the idea of services like jail support, but that the efforts have been “hijacked” by a handful of people who intended to be “disruptive, belligerent, threatening, harassing, and obstructionist.”
Williams said after the space was cleared out Friday, sheriff’s deputies pushed the small group of around 15 jail support volunteers back to 3rd Street, near Marshall Park. The group blocked the road for around an hour before leaving.
Williams and others who help run jail support services have long said they intend to stay, not only to serve people leaving the jail and helped provide bail for anyone arrested while protesting but also to call for defunding the police department.
If the group sets up in another location, Collins said the Sheriff’s Office is prepared to go through with another removal.
“We’ve always maintained that we adamantly support the concept of just support,” Collins said. “We don’t support an encampment and we don’t support the constant harassment impeding other county business.”
Local activists and some attorneys have voiced their support for jail support.
During the August meeting in front of county commissioners, Kevin Tully, an attorney who leads Mecklenburg’s public defender’s office, praised the group for providing services with their own money at all times of day and cautioned against painting the group “with too broad a brush.”
Attorney Tim Emry, who has advocated for the group, said he thinks the sheriff has not made a strong enough case about illegal activity at jail support.