Charlotte protests: street paper vendor’s view from epicentre of unrest

Edward Smalls sells Speak Up magazine every weekday in uptown Charlotte. This put him in close proximity to the epicentre of the heated protests that exploded in the aftermath of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. On the morning of 22 September, following a violent night of protest that left one dead, Edward talked with Speak Up editor Matt Shaw about the protests, gun violence, and his own story.

Speak Up vendor Edward Smalls' pitch was near the unrest in Charlotte.

What happened last night?

It was just terrible uptown. I was sitting in the park by the library, reading a book, and someone came running by and said that someone got shot. So I went to investigate what was going on because I didn’t even know that people were protesting. When I got uptown I ran up on the light rail and was looking down on Trade Street and I saw people hollering at the police and throwing things and screaming and all of the sudden I got a whiff of that tear gas and I just up and left. It got in my eyes and nostrils and everything – I just got away from that. There was just too much going on for me.

Do you know why people were protesting?

They said police killed a guy in the apartments, someplace up around Mallard Creek, I’m pretty sure. They said they had the film of it, but no one released the film or anything like that, so I guess that people were protesting. They said the man who got killed, his wife asked for the protests to be peaceful – but the way I saw it, they weren’t peaceful. That’s what I saw anyway.

I’ve heard some talk about their anger and frustration as being about more than just one guy being killed, it’s about a whole lifetime of being discriminated against, of a sense of being harassed. Does that make sense to you?

I really don’t know what it is. A lot of the people getting killed, these young kids, are so unpredictable. They will do all kind of things. You don’t know what is going to happen to you, you just got to be alert and pay attention and sometimes mistakes happen. That’s all I can say.

Speak Up vendor Edward Smalls witnessed the unrest in Charlotte after the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.

You have spent a number of nights on the streets…

Many nights.

Over the last couple of years, were there times you ever felt as if your safety was at risk?

Just last night when there was all this violence was going on. People running all over the place. There was hardly a place to rest. So much noise, young kids running around, throwing objects and all kinds of things.

So the place where this violence and these protests were happening, how far away is that from where you sell magazines?

Oh, it was about six blocks from where I sell the magazine. I’m on 5th and Tryon and those protests were at Trade and Tryon and by the Transit Center. It didn’t happen when I was working there. I was working in the daytime. People were just protesting peacefully until about nine that night – after nine, things started getting violent. Mainly it was just the younger kids doing all that ridiculous stuff. It wasn’t the older folks doing it. It was the younger kids. I don’t know what you can do about young kids today – they are violent, I guess.

You sell magazines in one of the busiest places in town. You see a lot of people and a lot of police officers every day. What’s your relationship to the police?

Oh they speak to me every morning when they go the Showmars to get their coffee, to Starbucks to get their coffee. They say, ‘Good morning, Mr. Smalls, how are you doing?’ And I say, “Good morning, officer, have a nice day.’ It goes on every day. I’d say it is a positive relationship because we speak every morning – there’s nothing negative about it.

Some of the anger out there comes from some people feeling as though they don’t have economic opportunities.

“I keep trying to better myself, that’s all I can do”

Your story is complex – for nearly four decades you worked a full time job, then – as you said – you “did something stupid,” and you landed in prison. When you got out, your work opportunities were very limited.

That’s the way the law is set up. You’ve got to follow the rules and go by the law. You have to just keep trying to progress-keep picking away, keep picking away until you get back to the situation where you want to be. It’s not like someone’s against you. That’s the rule of the land, and you’ve got to follow it. I didn’t follow it, so now I’ve got to suffer the consequences of that. I’m not angry or anything. I just keep on trying to make it in life, that’s all. I keep trying to better myself, that’s all I can do.

Edward sells Speak Up to support himself.

It must have been difficult over and over trying to get a job but being rejected because of your criminal record. What was that like?

It was disappointing. It was hard. But I just kept on trying and kept on trying. After awhile I started with Speak Up and that puts money in my pocket every day. I keep picking at things-trying to get a job.

What would you say to a young man with a criminal record who looks around the culture and hears and sees the message that “getting a job and working hard is the way to get ahead in life” but because of his history, he doesn’t have that opportunity-people aren’t going to give him a job. What do you say to him?

I’d say don’t give up. Keep trying. Keep trying. Do the best you can. That’s all you can do. If you are real young, you can always start over. Take some sort of trade. There are organisations that take people with criminal backgrounds and put them with different companies. If you really try and look into things, there is a way to get through the system. You just have to keep trying. Don’t lose faith. Keep on pounding.

You and I both love Western novels…

[laughs] Oh yeah, I’m always reading Western novels. Always.

As you know, in the Westerns there are cowboys and sheriffs and they are always carrying guns. Everyone’s got a gun. So much of the tension today seems to be around guns. Some people wanting to assert their right to carry guns-publicly or privately. Others saying you shouldn’t carry guns. Legal guns. Illegal guns. People getting shot-sometimes waving guns, sometimes unarmed. What do you think about guns?

Guns are a serious thing. You have to use your judgement. If someone’s breaking in your house, it is probably good to have one on hand. You can’t just get mad at somebody and shoot someone – you’ve got to use your head. A gun is a dangerous tool. I think anyone who wants one should have one, but they should use their head. Getting mad at someone and killing – that’s not the way.

“A gun is a dangerous tool”

Have you ever owned a gun?

When I was north of Charleston, in South Carolina, I owned a lot of guns. But since I came to Charlotte, no, I’ve never owned a gun. Since I have a federal offence, I’m not allowed to own a gun. It doesn’t bother me one bit. I don’t need one. I’m not planning on shooting anybody. Even if I had to protect my own life, all I could do is just fight until I die. I don’t want to kill anyone. I know the feeling of somebody losing somebody, having lost someone myself.

You lost your son.

Yes. That was by gun violence.

How old was he?

He was 36.

How long ago?

Four years ago. That happened in 2012.

Was there any reason – do you know why the person pulled the trigger?

I don’t know why that happened. I really don’t. I know that he loved to be out with everybody. He was a nice person, as far as I know. Everybody in north Charleston knew him. There must have been some kind of misunderstanding that he and someone had, and he got lured into the wrong place and got killed. I don’t know why he got killed. I wasn’t there and he was. The law never found out who killed him or why. I just left the area before I killed someone – and it would have been the wrong person.

"I was more hurt than angry" - Edward lost his son to gun violence.

Were you angry?

I was more hurt than angry. We’d been together for 36 years. We had a good relationship. We might argue or fuss at each other constantly, but we made up and had a good time together. We were friends – father and son, but friends too. I just miss him. I miss him, that’s all I can say. I miss him every day. I miss him.

There are a lot of people out there who have lost someone to gun violence, and just like with your son, the law never found out anything.

Never found out a thing. Four years later, they don’t know who did it or why. For me it is just something I have to accept and keep on maintaining my life. He’s gone and I can’t bring him back.

You said that you used to own a lot of guns in Charleston-were those for hunting or personal defence or just for fun?

In that little town north of Charleston we never had too much violence. You could leave your doors open and no one would go in your house. Everyone knew everyone. We didn’t need any for self defense. I just kept them for sport hunting.

“I miss my son, that’s all I can say. I miss him every day”

Why did you go to prison?

Attempted bank robbery.

How long ago?

July of 2008.

How long were you incarcerated?

Two and half years. Bank robbery carries a 10 year charge, but I was non-violent. I didn’t have a weapon – if I’d had one, I probably would have gotten 10 years or more. If I had one, someone would have gotten hurt.

Edward has rebuilt his life after going to prison.

You went into a bank without a weapon to rob the bank; that doesn’t sound like it would be very successful.

Well, I just handed the teller a note. I’d heard people working for banks say that if someone came and insisted on the money, they’d give it to them, they wouldn’t want to get killed. But they put that red dye in money bag with the money and that caused everything to go afoul.

“Speak Up has helped me a whole lot”

You had a lifetime of work history behind you but then something happened. What happened that changed you and led you to that crime?

I’ve put in about forty years of work, thirty-five as a meat cutter. During my meat cutting years, me and my wife separated. For some reason things just started falling apart. I started getting out into the street and messing with the wrong people. I started using drugs. Drinking alcohol, using drugs and being around the wrong people. And one thing led to another, and I ended up robbing the bank.

You brighten up any room that you come into. You put a smile on my face, and make my heart happier. I’m thankful that you’re out representing Speak Up.

Yeah, I love Speak Up. Speak Up has helped me a whole lot. I try to help Speak Up a whole lot. Even if I do get another job-I still want to sell the magazines. Speak Up helped me through my hard time. I would advise anyone who is going through a hard time to sell Speak Up – it puts money in my pocket.