DURHAM — “You know, there’s a lot of unmitigated violence against our people that’s been going on for way too long, and they’re just hurt,” said Skip Gibbs, a Durham artist who helped lead a crowd of more than 200 protesters Saturday afternoon.
“They’re upset,” Gibbs said, as other speakers addressed the crowd. “So, we gave them a platform to speak up and talk about what’s going on out in the world.”
Across North Carolina on Saturday, as well as the nation, protesters marched, outraged over the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer leaned his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for several minutes even while Floyd said he could not breathe. The officer has since been fired and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. Three other officers involved in Floyd’s arrest have also been fired.
But in cities across the country, Floyd’s death became a catalyst unleashing outrage over centuries of racism, injustice, inequality, poverty and broken promises.
The protests Saturday came amid the COVID-19 health crisis that has forced many people to stay at home for extended periods. Many protesters wore masks, not to hide their identities, but to protect against the deadly coronavirus that has hit hardest in minority communities.
Some masks were imprinted with Floyd’s last words: “I can’t breathe.”
In many places, the protests were peaceful. In others, they were not.
In some locations across the country, police were accused of unnecessary force against peaceful protesters, including government officials, as in Columbus, Ohio, where officers are accused of pepper-spraying U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, according to national news reports.
In both Raleigh and Fayetteville, looting, vandalism and arson were reported Saturday evening. Tense confrontations between police and protesters occurred in several cities.
Earlier Saturday, some government officials across the country accused outside groups — political extremists on the right and left, as well as opportunistic looters — of disrupting otherwise nonviolent protests.
In Charlotte, U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-Charlotte, warned Saturday morning that chaos at an earlier protest there had been sparked by such groups.
Peaceful afternoon protest in Fayetteville, destruction in the evening
In Fayetteville, several city officials joined with a mostly peaceful protest Saturday afternoon, according to reports from the Fayetteville Observer, which quoted Mayor Mitch Colvin addressing the crowd at the shopping mall and along Skibo Road.
“If we really want to be heard, it’s not burning down Cross Creek Mall,” Colvin said. “If we really want to be heard, it’s about our economic and voting power.”
The crowd in Fayetteville on Saturday afternoon was joined by J. Cole, a popular musician and Fayetteville native.
In the evening, however, the situation changed as protesters converged on downtown.
WRAL reported that most windows in downtown Fayetteville were broken by people in the crowd. One building, however, was singled out for attention by the crowds.
The Market House at the center of downtown Fayetteville is a historic but controversial symbol for the city. The upper level has hosted important meetings, including the N.C. General Assembly when it ratified the U.S. Constitution.
The lower open-walled area of the Market House was a location where goods were brought to be traded. In the 1700s and 1800s, this potentially included the sale of human beings.
On Saturday evening, bricks were thrown through windows of the historic structure, and a fire was started at the site, with protesters at one point bringing pallets to build the fire higher, the Observer reported.
As firefighters dealt with the blaze, a massive police presence lined the streets of downtown Fayetteville ordering the crowd to disperse, even as protesters chanted, “No Justice, no peace,” according to the Observer.
Later, reports from both the Observer and WRAL indicated that windows were being broken and looting had begun across town at the mall, despite the mayor’s warning earlier in the day.
Marching, chanting and singing in Durham
The protest started at 1 p.m. at the 5 Points intersection in downtown. By 1:30 p.m. Saturday, about 200 people had gathered near the 5 Points intersection in downtown, blocking the intersection and chanting, “No justice, no peace.”
A broad cross section of the diverse city gathered to protest police violence and racism across the country. Young black men and women led the protest. Their elders spoke and sang about the racism they experienced in their youth — racism and deadly state violence that continues since the days of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Speakers briefly turned their anger on President Donald Trump, criticizing him for threatening violence against protesters and invoking segregationist politics on Twitter.
But by 1:40 p.m., the protest was moving down Main street, then Mangum, across the train tracks to the county jail and courthouse.
The strategy throughout the day was to move protesters to significant locations around downtown, to block the intersections and to let people speak their minds.
Gibbs, the local artist, led the crowd. At each new destination, he set the tone with a few words, made sure people knew where the water was and moved out of the way to let people speak their own minds.
The protest, Gibbs told Carolina Public Press, was informally organized.
It started with a text thread between him and his friends, he said. They put out a call to protest, it spread through personal networks, and at its peak, several hundred people were out in the heat of the day on Durham’s streets, peacefully protesting police violence.
Protesters in Durham chanted Floyd’s name, along with names of dozens of other black men and women believed to have been killed by police or died while in police custody, including Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.
Whenever a chant would lag, another name would be called out, and the crowd would chant their name in remembrance, too.
After the courthouse, the protesters marched back downtown and occupied the Chapel Hill and Foster intersection for over an hour. This is the heart of Durham’s revitalized downtown, with boutique hotels and ice cream parlors, developments in a gentrifying city.
The speakers did not limit themselves to decrying police violence. Economic disparities, gentrification, the stress of raising black children to wonder if they will outlive you — all corners and effects of racism in America were brought to bear under the afternoon sun.
Black poets, most appearing to be in their 20s, took charge of the crowd. A car, blocked from getting through the intersection, honked but was turned away. For a brief moment, the crowd seemed to lose its composure, but Gibbs and others brought the group together again and reminded the crowd to stay together and be composed. At 3:50, Gibbs rallied the crowd to march to the police station.
All afternoon, police vehicles blocked traffic and stayed a block away from the protesters. Only once, when a displeased motorist got out of his car, did the police engage to get the motorist on his way, earning the thanks of several protesters.
Throughout the day, Durham resident Mystic Waters, aka Chauncey Taylor, led the protesters in songs and symbolic protest, at one point lying on the hot concrete and calling out, “I can’t breathe.”
At the police station, Waters asked the many white protesters if they would “commit to protecting their black brothers and sisters in their time of need?”
“Yes,” the crowd shouted again and again in a call and response.
For several years, many Durham residents protested the cost of building a new police headquarters. This station, a brick building with a large glass facade, opened in 2018.
“This is our police station,” Gibbs said. “They police our streets. This is our police station. We pay you. We are your employers. We want you to do your job right.”
Many older Durham residents joined the protest. Deborah Randolph sang along to “Lean on Me” and to the spiritual, “Lord, I Know I Been Changed,” while she held on to her walker. Her daughter was assaulted at work by a white man, she said, and that man has never been punished. She has sons, she said, and cannot imagine the pain that George Floyd’s mother must feel. She joined the protest to put a stop to all that, she said.
At 5:07 p.m. in Durham, the crowd started moving back toward downtown, about three-quarters of a mile from the police station. In the 87-degree heat, pushing her walker the whole way, Randolph marched with them. Finally, she let out a soft cheer of relief when she found herself some shade.
Wide range of protests across the state
As across America, scenes in different parts of North Carolina on Saturday ran the gamut from confrontation and destruction to harmonious calls for change.
In Charlotte, WBTV reported that peaceful and organized protests earlier Saturday turned ugly late in the day in a pattern that was repeated across several North Carolina cities. Crowds threw rocks and bottles at officers in riot gear, who responded with tear gas and pepper spray.
Late Saturday, WBTV reported that a protester downtown had fallen through a sidewalk grate. When rescuers tried to assist the man, police said protesters threw objects at the emergency crew. The man was eventually taken to a local hospital.
WRAL reported that about 1,000 protesters in Raleigh faced off against police in riot gear Saturday afternoon. Later, looters broke windows and entered downtown stores, setting fire to a Dollar General.
At one point Saturday night, Raleigh police used tear gas to disperse looters at a CVS store, WRAL reported, adding that one of its reporters was caught in the tear gas while covering the volatile situation.
In Wilmington, WECT reported a mostly peaceful protest and quoted activist Sonya Patrick on the positive spirit of the event.
“Today was a great day. … It showed the spirit of this city,” Patrick said. “People came out in the rain, and they want justice for George Floyd and an end to the institutionalized racist system and the killing of black men, women and children in this nation.”
The Winston-Salem Journal reported multiple peaceful protests there, quoting organizer Frankie Gist, who said the protest was also about local injustice.
“It’s about bringing awareness to the four homicides we’ve had in the city this week,” Gist said.
Elsewhere in Winston-Salem, the Journal reported crowds gathered outside a barbershop whose owner’s Facebook page posted racist comments earlier in the week.
However, across the Triad in Greensboro, the News & Record reported late Saturday that, as in other cities, previously peaceful protests there turned destructive in the evening, with storefronts broken and looted, and police responding with riot gear and pepper spray.
Shortly after midnight, Charlotte Congresswoman Adams tweeted, “In this moment, we must be the spark that ignites justice, but we cannot light a fire so hot that it consumes us as well. Let us take our rage and dismantle these systems of oppression peacefully, not violently.”