Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Capt. Brad Koch has been a regular at Black Lives Matter marches over the past two weeks, mostly welcomed. But when he showed up at a Charlotte Uprising rally Monday, protesters swarmed him, demanding that he leave. He cupped his hand to his ear, then raised his hand, palm upward, as if to suggest he couldn't hear them. Moments later, a protester shoved him and they ended up wrestling in the grass. It’s a sign of the mixed reaction to Koch's presence at the marches.
Koch has been walking and talking with protesters, and also helping to clear the way for the nightly marches through uptown. He says the experience has been "a watershed moment" for him. Some marchers have taken to affectionately calling him "officer Brad" or "Capt. Brad." But to others, Koch will never be an ally. Instead, he's a sign of everything they're protesting against.
Even on nights when marches remained peaceful, you could hear a few protesters grousing about being "led by the police" and saying "this is our protest, not theirs."
Protesters Confront Officer
That all boiled over on Sunday night, when protesters confronted Koch during a march and two were arrested. Then on Monday afternoon, even before any marching started, a group of Charlotte Uprising protesters surrounded him again. They told him to leave their rally, shouting "Bye Brad, bye Brad."
Koch raised his hand, palm up several times - a gesture some have interpreted as taunting. In a video shot by WFAE's Nick de la Canal, the protesters bumped him along, and then one protester rushed at Koch and shoved him. Koch ended up wrestling the man on the grass in front of the Government Center.
DeMarco Blair was there. The 30-year-old African American man helped separate the other protester and Koch and stood between them for a while. Charlotte Uprising organizers criticized Blair for protecting Koch and told him to leave, too.
Blair said violence against police only inflames the situation. Speaking to fellow protesters, he said, “Y'all making the level up to 100% worser on black folk. You jumping on cops and they're like, 'Hey, you jumping on us? We're gonna kill more blacks.' Duh. By y'all doing this it's gonna make it worse for me.”
Koch left Monday's rally and hasn't marched since then. These opposing reactions to him are a sign of philosophical disagreements among protesters and whether it's OK to work with police.
A CMPD Veteran
Koch is a 23-year veteran of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. He's a former public information officer who once led press conferences and fielded reporters' questions about cases. A year ago, he was promoted to captain in CMPD's Central Division.
He has been highly visible at marches over the past two weeks. During one march, he knelt at an uptown intersection with protesters, Mayor Vi Lyles and other City Council members - a moment that reporters caught in photos and videos.
Koch says he has been moved by the experience.
“Once you get past the anger, and once you get past the emotions, you know, then you can have some real conversations," he said at Romare Bearden Park last Friday, before the two altercations this week. "Personally, this has been a watershed moment for me in my life, almost 50 years old, and … I've never had the opportunity to be part of a movement like this.”
Koch says the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, which has sparked these nationwide protests, was a tragedy, and a stain on his profession. He said by talking with protesters during marches:
"I've really felt the pain and the frustration towards law enforcement, you know, because of an incident like that.”
Walking, But on the Job, Too
But he admits he's also been working while walking. As the top officer in CMPD's Central Division, which includes uptown, he says it's his duty and responsibility to facilitate these peaceful demonstrations.
"You know, it's my responsibility and the police department's responsibility to help ensure their ability to protest peacefully. We're able to facilitate that by closing roads and diverting traffic, particularly in the evening,” Koch said.
The protests in uptown Charlotte have ebbed and flowed in their intensity over the past two weeks. From that first Friday night on Beatties Ford Road and for the following few days, late-night confrontations between police and protesters were the pattern. A June 2 incident on Fourth Street marked a peak when police trapped protesters on two sides and hit them with tear gas and pepper balls.
Koch did not want to talk about that incident.
After that, there has seemed to be an effort among both police and protesters to deescalate. Protesters got more organized and worked with police on their routes. Police hung back. Instead of blocking intersections most of the time, they were out of sight a couple of blocks away.
The leaders of Monday night's march even announced to the crowd that they were in touch with Koch by cellphone as they headed up North Davidson Street.
“I want you all to know right now that officer Brad has moved every police that's been down this block out of our way for a reason,” said a man with a bullhorn, to cheers and applause.
Some Don't Want Officers Near
That was a big difference from the Charlotte Uprising rally at the Government Center on Monday afternoon. Charlotte Uprising organizers were clear: They didn't want Koch there. Glo Merriweather criticized other groups for allowing Koch to walk with them, and yelled to Koch as he walked away after the scuffle:
“I see you on your radio in the other marches. I see you. We know you're not actually with us, because if you're with us, your badge would be turned in and you're marching out of uniform,” Merriweather said, drawing cheers.
Merriweather was one of two people arrested after Sunday night's confrontation, on a charge of assaulting Koch during an encounter at McDowell and Fourth streets. Merriweather told Monday's rally it was the other way around.
“We were assaulted and attacked by the police. Officer Brad has no bruises, no cuts," Merriweather said. "He was not hit, if you watch the videos. I was trying to stop him from following our larger march. He continued moving past me. Then I was tackled by four cops."
Merriweather raised a hand to show what may be a broken wrist.
But it's not just Charlotte Uprising leaders who question Koch's presence. Tanisha Decosta was marching with her kids near Marshall Park Monday.
“I mean, I feel like it's an opportunity for him to jump on a wave on the negative side,” Decosta said. “I don't think that he's beneficial to the cause. I think he's a distraction and that's the biggest problem among not just him but a lot of people like him.”
On Tuesday, Chief Kerr Putney was asked about Koch's altercations with protesters. He declined to be specific, saying only that questions about Koch's actions were part of an ongoing investigation.
WFAE reporter Nick de la Canal contributed to this story.
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CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct a photo caption with an incorrect identification.