Hope amidst the riots: How a hug between a cop and an activist sparked a movement

It was the hug seen ‘round the world – a moment of peace following two days of unrest in Charlotte

In a year dominated by a narrative of how strained police-community relations had become, one of the most iconic images of 2016 was a symbol of hope: Amidst a fog of tear gas and smoke in a city on fire, a white police officer outfitted in riot gear stepped off the line and embraced a young black activist.

It was the hug seen ‘round the world — a moment of peace following two days of unrest over the fatal officer-involved shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina. After months marred by tragedy on both sides, the embrace Ken Nwadike and Officer Chris Frunzi shared was a powerful sign that the damage to the relationship between police and the public was not irrevocable.

‘Anarchy and chaos’

The horrors of the Charlotte riots were unlike anything Frunzi had seen in his eight years as a law enforcement officer. Twelve-hour shifts over multiple nights were soundtracked by helicopters buzzing overhead, fireworks exploding, glass shattering, full-throated chants calling for violence against police and non-stop radio chatter. Frunzi carried many of his colleagues off the line after they were pelted with rocks, bottles and any other objects agitators could get their hands on. On the first night, Frunzi went down twice. The most severe of those attacks, a shot to the groin with what he described as a “railroad rock,” left him in nausea-inducing pain. He would later undergo four weeks of physical therapy as a result of his injuries. As he endured the hostile crowd, Frunzi found himself escorting bystanders, who had locked or barricaded themselves in shops, to safety.

“I’ve never seen that before in the United States of America,” Frunzi said. “That people are afraid to leave a business because they don’t know what’s going to happen. We were all tired and hurting. Our skin was burning from all the chemical munitions we’d used. It was just so stressful getting hit with all that stuff and the constant yelling and screaming — just anarchy and chaos. It was scary as hell. You can’t see everyone in the crowd; you can’t tell if somebody has a gun pointed at you. You can’t tell if somebody is getting ready to shoot at you. You stand there and you just hope that everything’s going to work out.”

Eye of the storm

Nwadike entered the streets of downtown Charlotte on the second day of riots just as protesters were running away — a demonstrator had been shot in the head. A false rumor that he had been shot by police quickly spread among protesters. Amid the crowd’s shouts of “this means war,” Nwadike knew he needed to do everything in his power to de-escalate a scene that was spiraling out of control.

Over the course of the night, Nwadike stepped into volatile situations where he felt his calming presence was needed, often acting as a liaison between officers and protesters to get communication going when neither side was talking to the other.

Negotiating in such a pressure cooker was no small task, and breaking a protester out of their “zone of rage” took many different forms. Sometimes, it was as simple as reminding someone that they had kids they needed to return home to. In other instances, it required physically restraining someone until they cooled off. At one point, Nwadike stopped a crowd of protesters who had ripped out a concrete parking bumper and were planning to drop it on a line of officers below a highway overpass.

“It can be scary at times. Obviously there are protesters that show up with the intent to be destructive — not the majority — but there are some that show up with the intent of causing a ruckus,” Nwadike said. “Standing in the middle is not a safe place to be when bricks are flying and gunshots are going off. The police are trained for those things and they have gear that can protect them if something goes bad; I’m just out there as me. But I know that if I’m not out there trying to bring peace to those situations … I’ve seen in many cases where it could have gone terribly wrong if I wasn’t there to talk sense into someone.”

With a camera in tow, Nwadike has served as the voice of reason in a number of emotionally-charged situations between police and the public. He traveled to Dallas in a show of support for law enforcement after the ambush attack that killed five officers. He was also on the front lines keeping the peace during the Women’s March in D.C. following the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Candlelight Vigil for fallen Dallas Police Officers

We're in this together. #Unity

Posted by Free Hugs Project on Tuesday, July 12, 2016

“I felt like there’s something that we’re missing here in the middle of all of this, and it’s people seeing each other as human beings again on both sides,” Nwadike said. “So I set out to really try to change the hearts and minds and attitudes that people have towards one another. Being on the front lines of protest is a great stage to be able to broadcast that message to the world: Hey, we’re better than this, why are we shouting at one another?”

His work as the “Free Hugs Project” began shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. A life-long runner who took up the sport as a way to overcome his childhood of living in homeless shelters, Nwadike watched in horror as those who participated in an activity he loved so much were maimed or killed in a devastating act of terror.

“I felt helpless; I needed to do something about the violence and hatred that was going on in the world,” Nwadike said.

The following year, Nwadike traveled to Boston to participate in the marathon. After he missed qualifying by just 23 seconds, he stayed at the event in a show of solidarity, cheered on participants, and handed out “Free Hugs” t-shirts. Video of his work quickly went viral, and his activism grew from there.

“It started out [in Boston] just to spread love; to be an example of love in the face of adversity, in the midst of chaos,” he said. “That mission has changed now because of the social climate we’re in — there are so many protests and riots and social injustice. People are shooting back at police officers now. All of the things that are going on; I just want it all to stop.”

Free Hugs at 2014 Boston Marathon

The first Free Hugs Experience

Posted by Free Hugs Project on Saturday, April 26, 2014

The hug seen ‘round the world

By the time Nwadike traveled to Charlotte, he was already a viral star. Frunzi, as it turned out, was familiar with his work. As he stopped for a breather late into the second night of protests, he spotted Nwadike in a “Free Hugs” t-shirt. He recognized it from a video he had seen of Nwadike’s work in Dallas.

“I yelled out, ‘Hey man, where’s my free hug at?’ He turned and almost had this puzzled look on his face,” Frunzi said. “It kind of caught him off guard. He came over, gave me a hug, and I thanked him for keeping the peace and told him that I had seen the work he had done. Some of the other officers couldn’t believe it.”


Free Hugs Charlotte, North Carolina Riots www.FreeHugsProject.TV

Posted by Free Hugs Project on Thursday, September 22, 2016

That moment was the lift Frunzi and his fellow officers needed after two exhausting nights in downtown Charlotte. The next morning, Frunzi woke up to a flood of missed calls and texts — he had no idea Nwadike had been filming. 

“In all that chaos, destruction and violence, he captured a moment that was just amazing — that meant so much to me, my fellow officers, everybody,” Frunzi said. “I come to work every day hoping that I change at least one person’s life for the better. Because of that video, we touched millions of people and showed them that there can be unity between the police and community.”

A healthy dialogue

Despite the challenge of presenting his message in environments of heightened emotion often tied to complex issues like racial disparity and police use of force, Nwadike says the vast majority of those he speaks to are receptive, even if they initially cast him off as “just the free hugs guy.”

“It’s not just free hugs anymore — it’s full-blown activism and social justice work and really trying to get people to humanize both sides — for both sides to be able to communicate to one another,” Nwadike said.Violence solves nothing. If an issue comes about that you want to discuss with your police department, set a meeting. Let’s talk about it. You can meet with politicians — write letters to Congress and city council people. That’s the way of really creating change."

He said his activism has taken on a new life recently with the rise of Black Lives Matter and other activist groups. While he doesn’t have anything against those groups, he thinks there’s a component of love that is missing in the protests.

“In trying to find justice for someone you want police to know is a human being, you can’t forget that the very officers that you’re talking to are human beings as well. That uniform doesn’t make an officer a robot. There’s still a person behind it,” Nwadike said.


A Message for the Youth: Backing down from a fight doesn't mean you are weak, it shows that you possess great self-control to turn an enemy into a friend.

Posted by Free Hugs Project on Wednesday, January 25, 2017

It’s that message — of love for one another, positive dialogue and building strong relationships on both sides — that Frunzi shares each day he spends on patrol, whether through connecting with kids on his beat or developing outreach events like a community barbeque. His hope is that this will encourage people to see officers in a new light and be more proactive in voicing their concerns to law enforcement before tragedy strikes.

“It’s always a tragedy — including for the police — when a life is lost, whether it’s taken by the police or it’s taken by another citizen,” Frunzi said. “The best thing that can happen after a shooting is the community coming together. If you want to come together, the police will come together with you.”

Changing the world, one hug at a time

Since the video went viral, Nwadike and Frunzi have remained close friends. They’ve been working together to spread their message through speaking engagements and community-based projects. They’re currently shopping around a TV show that’s aimed at showing the positive side of law enforcement.

“I feel like the way that police are being portrayed in the media right now is hurting their image,” Nwadike said. “One of the longest running police shows on TV is 'Cops.' But when you watch it, all you’re seeing is the officers kicking in doors and making arrests. You never see these cops constantly going in and doing good work in the community. A lot of people would say ‘controversy sells.’ These days, there’s enough controversy happening in real life. I think we’re at a point where people want to see the good stuff now.”

Frunzi has also set up a Facebook page that he intends to use as a way to put a positive face to policing and reach out to people across the nation.

“No matter what the color of your skin is, the color of your clothes, the color of your uniform, we all have the same color blood. And at the end of the day, we have to realize that — we’re all related in some way and we have the same genetic makeup. If we don’t stand together, we’re gonna end up as a nation falling apart. And I don’t want that to happen,” Frunzi said.

Nwadike hopes that his work as the Free Hugs Project will continue to serve as a model for what can be accomplished when the police and the public see each other, human-to-human.

“Even though it can seem like these days, with the media, that there’s a lot of aggression coming from the underserved communities, it’s not the majority of people from those communities that view police officers as bad,” Nwadike said. “The dialogue that I have with a lot of people from those communities … they have the utmost respect for police officers. It’s a tough time to be a cop — know that other people like myself are going to rise up to try to keep peace in these situations.”

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