His messages are simple, yet profound; easy to understand, but seemingly difficult to execute.
Dating back to spring 2014, Ken Nwadike has traveled across America, sharing sentiments of peace, unity and positivity. And hugs. Free hugs, to be exact.
Ken Nwadike created his Free Hugs Project following the marathon bombings in Boston. On Wednesday, his embracing activism landed him in Charlotte, North Carolina, and in the middle of a violent protest.
“I think that there were probably issues on both sides,” said Nwadike, speaking live Thursday with CNN’s Poppy Harlow. “I think that there was a little bit of aggression from the police officers, but also the people in Charlotte yesterday,”
North Carolina’s largest city has been embroiled in aggressive conflict following the deadly police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, developments that led Nwadike to drive up from a speaking engagement at the University of South Carolina.
“I think it was individuals that came out and all decided, well, here’s how I want to lash out my anger as an individual, and protests don’t work like that if there’s not cohesiveness.”
Telling Harlow his goal was to “help keep the peace,” the 34-year-old admitted he wasn’t certain how he’d be received upon arriving in Charlotte, or exactly how dire and dangerous the situation had become.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect from the riot police because I did see a number of peaceful protesters that were pepper sprayed or maced,” he revealed during his live appearance on “CNN Newsroom.”
“I wasn’t sure if I would get grabbed by the police officers. But also on the protest side – because there was so much anger and frustration – I didn’t know what to expect.”
Nwadike’s passion project has taken him from the floods of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to a vigil in Dallas, from Donald Trump rallies to sites of tragedy. But his hug handouts aren’t always met with open arms. Even in Charlotte, he was taunted by protesters that stood convinced of evil intentions from those wearing badges.
“I don’t think they understand the message of unity. They looked at the police officers as the enemy,” he explained to Harlow. “What I was trying to help them understand was that these individual police officers that are standing here are not the reason why the protest is even taking place.”
But on a night marred by anger, by hatred, by violence, there is one scene that paints an opposite portrait. It’s Nwadike, caught in between protesters and police, trying to keep the peace. He’s approached by an officer, and the pair share a few words, and, ultimately, a hug.
“There are good cops and there are bad cops,” Nwadike believes. “Every time that we have one of these cases that pops up, we can’t go and get upset at the other 90 something percent of police officers that are just trying to do their job.”