Protests and Unrest: Three Nights in Downtown Raleigh

In Buzz, Feature Stories, June 2020, Uncategorized, Web Exclusive by Jane Porter

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Header photo from @BriannaABaker

WEB EXCLUSIVE George Floyd’s brutal murder by a white police officer in Minneapolis one week ago—on top of countless other incidents of racist violence against Black people in America—triggered protests in cities across the nation.

This weekend, those protests came to Raleigh.

What began as peaceful demonstrations downtown on both Saturday and Sunday evenings devolved into chaos after sundown. Police officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators. Looters destroyed storefronts, businesses and city property on Fayetteville, Wilmington and Salisbury streets. Raleighites were left to pick up the pieces, prepare for more unrest and, in the long run, seek out ways to heal deep racial divisions and to try to figure out how to build a more equitable city.

Here, we try to piece together what happened this weekend from the differing perspectives of demonstrators, police, activists, media outlets, business owners and other observers.

Saturday Evening

Several activist groups call for peaceful demonstrations to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arbery and those killed by police officers in Raleigh. Protesters are asked to wear face masks and bring posters and water.

Local activist groups including Raleigh PACT, Young Americans Protest and Carolina Peace Center release a list of demands, including a police review board with subpoena power, restoration of CACs, closing police stations in black communities and policies requiring police officers to intervene when they witness police abuse. They call for the removal of Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown if their demands are not met.

By 6 p.m., following a march into downtown via Capital Boulevard, up to 3,000 demonstrators gather in front of the Wake County Courthouse. They listen to speakers, hold signs, chant and rally peaceably in honor of George Floyd’s memory.

Then, something changes. Demonstrators say police start using tear gas on the crowd.

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I don’t expect any of you to understand if you weren’t out there these past two nights, we are peaceful and have been through the entirety of this protest. The police in this town are attacking us for using our first amendment rights and protesting when just a few weeks ago they were armed white men walking through the streets without a problem. 5 minutes into getting out there at 5:00 p.m. today unprovoked they shot tear gas at us a rubber bullet flew by me and my friend’s head we could hear and feel the power going behind it, if that had hit any of us we wouldn’t be here to tell the story. The cops are attacking us for no reason other than the fact we are protesting their corrupt organization. It’s hard to believe I know, I wouldn’t want to so I understand where you’re coming from, but I need you to hear and to know the truth is that the Raleigh police department and any others out there with them are attacking us for being out there, for protesting against their organization and the crimes that they have committed over the years, they are out there to hurt us and stop our voice from being heard. I will not stop going out there until I deem it unsafe, not from us the protesters but because they have decided to use a live ammo on us, I know that sounds crazy but they started tonight. Close your eyes as tight as you can it doesn’t change what is going on in our city and the one over all the way across this land. The system is broken they kill people everyday without a care. I have been out there for two straight nights, I have been hit with gases, I’ve watched people get hit with these rubber bullets, there is a war going on in our streets, and we are defenseless, they are the ones causing this, unless you were there you won’t be able to understand but know that this is the truth. Remember which side you choose to stand with, when this is said and done. No matter what they’ve thrown at us we will prevail, our voices will not go unheard and the unjust system that is running our country and killing our brothers and sisters will have fallen, I full heartedly believe this, I can’t not fight for this. #justiceforfloyd #justiceforbreonnataylor #blacklivesmatter

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Here is how the News and Observer describes what happened:

This is what happened according to Chief Deck-Brown.

Many of the demonstrators begin to leave as the sun sets. The situation worsens.

Looters begin breaking glass windows of downtown storefronts with bricks. The CVS pharmacy at the corner of Hargett and Fayetteville streets is broken into and set ablaze.

There are reports of white supremacist groups infiltrating the protest and rioting. White supremacist symbols are found spray painted onto downtown buildings.

Sunday Morning

Downtown Raleigh is in bad shape following chaos that lasted long into the night.

Volunteers show up early to help with the cleanup.

Here are some reactions from downtown business owners.

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As I held my 6-week old son in my arms soothing him back to sleep, I received a phone call that our downtown Raleigh shop was currently being looted & vandalized. . I turned to social media and looked at the countless images of broken glass of our small business neighbors storefronts, spray-painted walls on our mom & pop shops, our beautiful city trashed and my community hurting. . As a black small business owner, I am devastated by this footage, harshly written graffiti downtown, and how our small business community has yet another setback while during a pandemic that has closed & stopped all of our incomes. . As a black small business owner, I am devastated by how our peaceful protest just to live is now going to be overshadowed by the few people who are looting and breaking glass. . I am frustrated that it has come to this because of systemic racism & oppression nationwide and hurt with my people. . We will be closed in downtown Raleigh today (Sunday) while we pick up the pieces and process this mental game brewing in my mind. . I am sure I will have more to say on this but right now, I am rocking my son back to sleep, and enjoying the warmth of him in my arms. . – Megan

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Yesterday brought a powerful movement of people united in pursuit of justice and equality to Downtown Raleigh. For hours, protestors peacefully gathered in the heart of Raleigh to have their voices heard. Today we picked up the pieces of chaos that others brought overnight and were thankful for the safety of our loved ones. Damage can be fixed, things can be replaced, but lives are precious. The pain can not be ignored. Our hearts are saddened by the hurt in our country right now, but to see our community come together today was a beautiful sight. An incredible thank you for the outpouring of love from all that checked in and came out to lend a hand. We are so proud to be a part of the Downtown Raleigh community. ❤️

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Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin holds a press conference Sunday afternoon and releases a statement addressing the events of Saturday night.

Gov. Roy Cooper has this to say.

Sunday Evening

Activists organize another peaceful demonstration downtown. Demonstrators gather near the State Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion.

But conflict with police again breaks out, with officers deploying tear gas on the demonstrators.

This is RPD’s explanation for using tear gas.

There are more reports of rabble rousing from outside agitators.

And more reports of looting and destruction, including at North Hills and Triangle Town Center.

Late Sunday evening, law enforcement officers are shown on video shooting at a downtown business owner.

Monday Morning

With protests showing no sign of abating, Baldwin institutes a citywide curfew beginning at 8 p.m. RPD says the National Guard has been deployed to restore order.

Baldwin is criticized for “official incompetence” in an N&O editorial for not implementing a curfew sooner.

Chief Deck-Brown is criticized for, among other perceived missteps, not instructing officers to protect property and businesses.

RPD is criticized for, among other perceived missteps, reacting overly aggressively towards demonstrators, especially compared to how officers treated demonstrators carrying firearms around downtown last month.

Monday Evening

Around 5 p.m., several hundred demonstrators march downtown from the Bell Tower on Hillsborough Street.

By 9 p.m., the crowd has dispersed peacefully. Raleigh’s streets are empty.

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