Phillip Agnew says the last two weeks have been nothing short of surreal.
On June 2, he was arrested at the Epicentre entertainment complex in uptown Charlotte after he refused a security guard’s demand that he straighten his sideways-turned hat. Agnew had gone there on a Friday evening with friends to enjoy live music and unwind after work.
The guard, who was African American, told police that Agnew’s hat was in violation of the EpiCentre’s dress code.
Charged with second-degree trespassing, the 25-year-old, Florida A&M University graduate was questioned, taken to county jail and processed.
It was his first time, he said, in handcuffs.
Agnew describes his actions that night as “civil disobedience.”
He says young African Americans frequently are singled out for scrutiny at EpiCentre venues.
“At some point you have to say, ‘This is enough, and it doesn’t make sense to me,’” he said.
Agnew said that at the time of his arrest he was dressed like many other young people in the crowd – shorts, T-shirt and a hat that he wore slightly askew.
“This is an outdoor event and people are dressed casually” he said. “There might have been some people who came straight from work, but for the majority of the people, they are dressed casually.”
A trial is set for July 15.
Agnew, who works in sales, is now calling for a boycott of the EpiCentre. He says he wants an admission of “discriminatory practices” and a public apology.
Frustrated with some of the news coverage his arrest received, Agnew recently told his story to Qcitymetro.com. Below is a Q&A based on that interview and a seven-minute video in which he tells his version of what happened that night. Some answers were edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. You describe your actions as civil disobedience. Why?
At the moment I didn’t think of it that way. I had simply had enough. Think of it this way: You go somewhere, and the first time they say, “Sir, that hat, you just can’t wear that hat.” And even though other people are coming in wearing the same hat you say to yourself, “I just want to have a good time” and you take off the hat.
The second time you go to the door and they say, “Sir, that shirt; you’ve got to tuck that shirt in.” Everyone is going in with shirts not tucked in and you figure, “I still want to have a good time, fine.”
That third time, when they question you about the color of your belt or the quality of your jeans, you kind of begin to think, “Maybe they just don’t want me here. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s not the article of clothing I’m wearing.”
After that, even if they say your shoestrings are untied, you probably are going to refuse to tie your shoes because you’re sick of it.
You’re not loud, your not rowdy, you’re not disorderly, you’re not drunk. But you look around and see other people getting thrown off the balcony because they’re drunk and they don’t discriminate against that group of people…it doesn’t balance itself. So yes, in my opinion, it was civil disobedience. I was very civil, I was very respectful, but I was very direct.
Q. Just a few weeks ago, we had an incident where a group of young African American males went on a rampage in uptown Charlotte. Two were shot. One died. Seventy were arrested. You are a young African American male. Do you think you were judged based on that incident?
To be honest, I don’t see the correlation. We have a police force that is trained to identify troublemakers, gang members, people who are rabble-rousers. I didn’t look like, sound like, talk like or act like any of that when they interacted with me.
I understand that police have a job to maintain and keep the peace. Maybe their heightened sense of awareness was a byproduct of what had happened, but I don’t think profiling and making generalities is fair to anybody.
People drunk drive all the time, but you don’t stop every driver. You go after those people who are stumbling out of a bar, not people who are walking out.
There is a lot of violence that goes on everywhere. I don’t think the color of my skin, how old I am and where I choose to socialize should put me in a gauntlet and put me under the radar any more than someone who chooses to get behind the wheel should be subjected to unnecessary things simply because there was an accident on I-77.
Q. You said you were unaware of a dress code at the EpiCentre. Had you known about it, would you have responded differently?
If there was a dress code, yes, I would have. And if it were being enforced uniformly, yes, I would have…period, point blank, period… But it’s left to the whim of specific pavilion officers to approach who they deem necessary, and I was approached… There is no dress code policy where you can see it, period, absolutely none.
Q. You imply that African Americans aren’t wanted at the EpiCentre. If true, doesn’t a boycott simply play into their hand?
It may. If their goal is to whitewash the EpiCentre and have only one group of people there and we have a boycott and that serves their purpose, that’s fantastic; they’ve found a willing ally in me. But I refuse to go out there with a group of my friends, subject them to the gauntlet again, spend money there and still be disrespected. Our money wasn’t good enough for them anyway.
Q. What reaction have you received?
I’ve received support because it’s not just me. I’ve gotten overwhelming support. People have reached out to me. I try not to read the comments on some of the news websites. They don’t know me, and really, a mug shot is not the most flattering thing. I would be the first to admit that if you just saw that mug shot and read that article, you’re going to think Phillip Agnew is a thug, so their comments may be warranted, but racism does rear its head in many of those comments. The names I have been called by people who don’t know me, only judging from a mug shot photo, I think are sad.
Q. A young black man, college-educated, in handcuffs for the first time…what were you thinking while this was going on?
To be honest, I was thinking about, “Why did I ever go to the Epicentre when I knew what environment Epicentre was?” And I was thinking about how I was going to get the word out to my friends about what continuously goes on there and why they shouldn’t go.
Q. Why are you doing this interview?
I’m doing this interview because I don’t think this movement has gotten a fair shake through many of the other news outlets in the city. I have seen headlines, “Backwards Hat Man Starts Boycott,” “Man Arrested for Violating Dress Code.” I think a time such as this is a time when people are waking up, putting the dots together.
Q. Have you had any contact with Epicentre management since this occurred?
Not once. Not before and not after.
Q. Have you sought any contact with them?
No. Their email address is on our petition. Once we reach the number of signatures we need, they will receive it. But outside of a public acknowledgment of their discriminatory practices and a public apology for what they have done and what they’ve subjected people to, I don’t think we have anything to talk about.
Q. So if somebody wants to signs this petition, how do they do it?
They can go to change.org and use a search using the word “EpiCentre.”
Q. What do you want Qcitymetro readers to know about Phillip Agnew?
I would rather they know I’m not a thug. I’m not a hoodlum. Never has been, never, ever will be. I’m not disrespectful. I have nothing but the highest and best intentions in this. I’m not a fool, though. I’m not an idiot. I think it has taken me three years to realize that what they (EpiCentre) do to us, what they subject us to, is wrong. Maybe I’m a little slow.
I think our moment is now. With Charlotte being the Democratic hub next year, the eyes of the world will be on Charlotte. Charlotte is considered the capital of the New South. I think we have an opportunity to make our backyard look like our front yard.
We want a city that reflects the diversity and greatness that it is. If it’s going to be the place where the first black president is re-nominated, we want the city to be a true reflection of that.
People have asked me any time, “If you don’t like how it is, why don’t you move? I don’t think that’s what you do. Like I said, if you’re in your backyard and the grass is growing high and the weeds are out there, you don’t just say, “I’m gonna move.” You get your tools together, you get a lawnmower or weed wacker an you do landscaping, and you make sure that your backyard looks just like your front yard that everyone sees when they go by, and I think that’s what we’re doing right now.
Q. If Epicentre management wanted to meet with you, would you sit down with them?
Yes. I wouldn’t meet with them by myself. I would bring as many people as possible, because it’s not me. I promise you, it’s not me. I have a court date coming up, I have an attorney, I’m going to go and fight my case. If they want to meet with me, I think they should meet with everybody in the biggest venue they can. Maybe we can all meet in the Epicentre.