Protests Will Test Charlotte's New Rules Before DNC

The banner that hung briefly from "Bank of Coal" stadium where the Democratic National Convention will be held in four months will test the local police's expanded powers to stop and search people in or near protests.
by | May 3, 2012 AT 10:00 AM
Rainforest Action Network/Flickr CC

By Bruce Henderson, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Steve Lyttle

The banner that hung briefly from "Bank of Coal" stadium Wednesday was the first of upcoming protests that, four months before the Democratic National Convention, will test Charlotte's ability to police waves of demonstrators.

Protesters will welcome Duke Energy shareholders at their annual meeting Thursday morning. Organizers say 1,000 activists will be on hand for Bank of America's shareholder meeting next Wednesday. Another group vows to "occupy" a conservative legislative summit May 11.

Aimed at massive targets -- the nation's third-largest utility, the second-biggest consumer bank and the Obama administration -- the protests will serve as a convention tuneup for police and for activists eager to probe the limits of a new city ordinance regulating such events.

Protesters from across the country have stepped up their activities in the city since the Democratic convention was announced early last year, police Chief Rodney Monroe has told the Observer.

Police refine tactics, skills

Officers are already using such events, and others like the Fourth of July celebration uptown, to refine tactics for dealing with protesters and large crowds.

The 70-foot banner members of the Rainforest Action Network said they hung on Bank of America Stadium lasted less than 30 minutes Wednesday morning before Charlotte-Mecklenburg police pulled it down.

Police arrested five people: Robert Diesu, 24, of Washington, D.C.; Aleythea Dolstad-Lown, 26, of Vashon, Wash.; Benjamin Kessler, 28, of Round Rock, Texas; Samuel Maron, 26, of Atlanta; and Stephanie Taylor, 29, of Portland, Ore. Each is charged with misdemeanor breaking and entering.

"As we hone our skills, the consistency with which we respond, the way we communicate internally, it generally gets better as we go," said police Major Jeff Estes, who is helping with convention planning. "A byproduct of that is speed. We honed our abilities to respond quickly to the ... trespassing at the stadium."

Rainforest, the social-justice group Action NC, the N.C. Coalition Against Corporate Power and Greenpeace say they will stage "massive protests" against Duke and the bank at their shareholder meetings. An alliance of grass-roots groups called UNITY claims it will send 1,000 activists to Bank of America's meeting.

Wells Fargo shareholders needed police to enter last week's annual meeting in San Francisco as about 500 people protested the bank's lending practices and foreclosures.

'Very peaceful' protests

The groups active in Charlotte say they will steer clear of violence. "Our events are going to be very peaceful," said Roxana Bendezu, field organizer for the N.C. Coalition Against Corporate Power. "We just want a real good visual of people raising their voices."

The groups held a news conference Wednesday to attack Charlotte's new ordinance that expands police powers to stop and search people in or near protests.

The city manager has designated the Duke and Bank of America meetings "extraordinary events," like the Food Lion Speed Street festival in May and July 4. That triggers a ban of potential weapons such as crowbars and even backpacks if police believe they carry weapons or "noxious" substances.

Julie Morgan of Action NC described limitations in the ordinance as "absurd."

"Invoking this draconian law is another example of our democracy being sold to the highest bidder," she said. "The city of Charlotte is protecting Bank of America's bottom line. The Constitution and everyday people be damned."

Duke, BofA targeted for coal

Duke has come under fire for its reliance on coal, a major source of air pollution, and for two rate hikes since 2009. Conservative demonstrators picketed last year's shareholder meeting to protest CEO Jim Rogers' role in raising money for the Democratic convention.

Duke says its critics fail to acknowledge the company's efforts to retire its oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants and invest in cleaner technologies. Rogers says the DNC is good for the city as a whole, not just Democrats.

The Rainforest group says Bank of America has provided $6.7 billion in funding for the coal industry, citing data from Bloomberg financial news. The network is also unhappy with what it claims is a "cozy relationship" between the Obama administration and the banking industry.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver his keynote speech during the Democratic National Convention at the stadium -- part of the reason the protest group said it chose that site to hang the banner. In November, eight Rainforest protesters were arrested after scaling flagpoles in front of the bank's corporate headquarters and dropping a banner reading "Not with our money," and barricading an entrance to the building.

Bank of America has not commented on the coal activists' protests. The bank has said that it finances many different types of energy projects, including "considerable" investments in renewable energy.

'A dark precedent'

Greenpeace organizer Monica Embrey called the city's new ordinance "a dark precedent for corporate greed and suppression of civil liberties."

The group expects to be active at the Democratic convention in September, she said, and has "had a lot of correspondence over the last few months" with police.

Occupy Charlotte activist Scottie Wingfield said the group's long relationship with individual Charlotte police officers has been cordial.

"That hasn't stopped this kind of tactic of just little things to make things more difficult for us," she said, "just little ways to assert their power and show who has the upper hand."

Occupy members have been cited with jaywalking, she said, when other jaywalkers weren't. The group says its members have been told not to wear scarves over their faces during marches.

Wingfield expects police to show restraint in enforcing the new "extraordinary events" ordinance -- until the convention. "We can't show our cards," she said.

(c)2012 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)