By Anna Douglas, The Charlotte Observer
Ash Williams, a North Carolina native, leads activists in Charlotte who assemble around a range of issues including LGBTQ equality, police shootings, treatment of immigrants in the United States and workers’ rights.
Over the past two years, Williams, 24, has organized justice rallies and workshops, vigils for people shot and killed by police, and protests. Williams was among protesters who lay down on uptown rush-hour Charlotte streets in 2015 after a mistrial was declared in the case of CMPD Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick, accused of killing an unarmed black man.
In February 2016, Williams gained national attention by interrupting a speech by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, asking,“Will you apologize to the black people of this country? Will you apologize for mass incarceration?” referencing a 1996 Clinton remark about urban “super-predators” and her past advocacy for longer jail sentences. The interaction led Clinton to apologize publicly.
Williams is particularly active with a local advocacy group for transgender people of color. Williams identifies as transgender-non-conforming and uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” meaning Williams does not wish to be identified as either male or female.
Williams helps lead Charlotte Uprising, a coalition formed after the Scott shooting. Now, Williams talks about “uprising” both as an organization and an idea, as well as the emergence of “cross-movement” activism in Charlotte since then:
“One of the things that Charlotte Uprising has tried to do is to go beyond and to go further out than the officer-involved shootings that just deal with black people. For example, Josue Javier Diaz was a person killed by CMPD last year and we did what we always do: We went to the site, we started recording, we started getting folks’ narratives who were on the ground and we were resisting police at that point.
“What we try to do is to just lift up the voices and the narratives and try to disrupt the dominant narratives. Or, maybe provide another perspective that folks wouldn’t see on the news.
“We are less effective if we just have black folks behind us. Latinx (a gender-neutral word for people of Latin American descent) folks are less effective if it’s just them – if it’s just brown faces. We have to come together, but in a way that acknowledges differences, that does not try to erase or minimize what those differences are.
“The police or these government entities have the power to remove people from communities.
“What we want to do is build shared power. What comes along with shared power is shared understanding.
“I feel different and transformed and better every single time I raise my voice to talk about an injustice. I feel a little more free, even with all the precarity and insecurity that’s happening economically, politically and socially. I feel like as long as I can act, as long as I can organize, then I can be a little more free.
“While the individuals who were directly impacted by what happened have been transformed, I’m worried that Charlotte has not been transformed … At coffee shops, or at events, I’m hearing people say things like ‘the riots.’ And they refer to the property damage a lot. And they refer to it as a chaotic moment – not knowing that we were super organized.
“Sometimes it’s good if people think that what we’re doing is chaotic, because that means they don’t understand the inner workings. We can get some things done if they don’t know which way we are going to go …
“We literally put our bodies and our lives on the line to make where we live a better place. Not just for us but for our neighbors.
“Charlotte has to be transformed. And one of the ways that we can do that is by lifting up those voices (and) really acknowledging racial tensions, economic and class tensions, ethnic tensions and not being afraid to talk about our experiences.
“Charlotte Uprising is a process. Something that ignited a flame of resistance in Charlotte unlike one that we had ever seen before and in a way that wants to keep that resistance going and that fire burning so that more people feel like they can speak out about what they’re dealing with here. So that more people can be heard about ways to move forward and about how they want to be interacted with and how they want to be helped.
“Charlotte Uprising shifted the conversation around what it’s like for people who are directly impacted by police violence, by racist violence, by white supremacy.
“Charlotte Uprising is and was a catalyst, a beginning point, a starting point.”