Editor’s note: This article was updated on July 1, 2020, to include additional photos of the events described.
ASHEVILLE – After a few of the many peaceful protests across the state Saturday were followed by signs of mayhem that night, similar episodes erupted across both North Carolina and the nation on Sunday and Monday.
Protesters are reacting to the death of George Floyd of Minnesota. An independent autopsy released Monday ruled his death homicide by asphyxiation, which could pave the way for more serious charges against the police officer who knelt on his neck and others who participated in the deadly act against the handcuffed and unarmed black man.
The incident has brought renewed outrage against inequity, racial injustice and the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police. In North Carolina as elsewhere, many police officers expressed solidarity with protesters, taking a knee to express remorse.
According to Asheville Police Chief David Zack, who spoke at a virtual press conference Monday afternoon regarding Sunday night’s incidents downtown, officers spontaneously and without advance guidance decided to take a knee in meeting with protesters there, at least six times Sunday night. Zack said the act sometimes was effective in persuading crowds to disperse and stop throwing objects at officers, but other times it was not.
Details of Monday night’s events remained sketchy Tuesday morning in Asheville, but WLOS reported that police used tear gas, as they had Sunday night, in response to fireworks being thrown. There were also reports of shots fired, though it was unclear by whom.
Zack said police in Asheville arrested four people Sunday, and a later release of information from police showed that they were all Buncombe County residents. Charges ranged from failing to disperse on command to assault on a government official. One person was also charged with impeding traffic.
Zack said the afternoon protests Sunday were entirely peaceful, but in early evening new people began arriving, and the crowd grew dramatically, from about 50 to 150 just before 7 p.m. Police on bicycles escorted marchers as they moved through town, in part to protect demonstrators, according to Zack.
Carolina Public Press asked Zack why police wore riot gear to the protest of heavy-handed police tactics when Asheville has been the scene of many demonstrations in which police did not display riot gear.
Zack said the gear is always nearby, even if it’s not in sight. The situation with a large and unruly crowd that would not disperse voluntarily made this case different, he said.
But the situation, he said, became more volatile Sunday evening once some in the crowd wanted to move down the entry ramp for Interstate 240, which merges with Interstate 26 at the Capt. Jeff Bowen Bridge across the French Broad River, adjacent to downtown.
“Knowing the potential hazards that they would encounter with high-speed traffic, our officers attempted to steer the demonstrators onto a safer route,” Zack said in a prepared statement. “When they refused to comply, they continued onto the interstate. Officers then worked to stop all vehicular traffic to facilitate a safe passage.”
The chief said bicycle officers Sunday set up a barrier to prevent marchers from entering the interstate, where they and traffic going in excess of 55 mph would threaten each other’s safety. Protesters tore down the barricade and poured onto the highway. “Contact with officers was made,” Zack said, adding that flares and fireworks were thrown at officers and a vehicle struck a bike officer and several demonstrators, though injuries from that incident didn’t require hospitalization.
Several individuals jumped over and attempted to destroy the concrete median between the eastbound and westbound lanes, the chief said. Officers used tear gas for the first time Sunday in an attempt to move protesters off the highway, which they did, though some later returned.
About an hour later, police set up a blockade to prevent demonstrators from entering I-240/26 at the bridge.
“Had we allowed passage over the bridge at this point, we would have lost control of the group, and their safety would have been seriously jeopardized,” the chief said. “We simply could not let that happen.”
When protesters did approach this location, the chief said some in the crowd threw “rocks, fireworks and other objects” at officers, who tried to warn the crowd to leave over a loudspeaker, then used tear gas.
“The tear gas was effective, causing half the protesters to disperse on their own,” the chief said.
Three hours later on Sunday, the situation escalated again, according to Zack, “with protesters exhibiting acts of violence to other protesters, as well as police officers, and damaging property.” He said officers used rubber bullets at this point. Some in the crowd broke windows and vandalized nearby businesses and police cars.
As other city leaders have done in other North Carolina communities, Mayor Esther Manheimer decried the destruction but told the press conference that she and the City Council supported the peaceful protesters. With a nod to the Asheville’s activist image, she added, “If you didn’t express your outrage, I would be disappointed.”
Unrest across the state
Across North Carolina, some cities were calmer Monday night, while others saw their first taste of protests. Some of those remained peaceful, while people in the crowds became associated with acts of violent confrontation or property damage in others. It was not always clear whether police efforts were more effective at calming or inciting angry crowds.
Allegations have surfaced that online instigators associated with fringe groups are involved in some locations. Nationally, Twitter reported shutting down an account run by a white supremacist group that had been trying to incite violence by pretending to be a leftist antifa group. It remained unclear whether such groups were involved in specific incidents in North Carolina.
On Sunday afternoon, protests that began and ended peacefully took place in multiple North Carolina cities. In Greenville, police and NAACP leaders met together in harmony in a spiritually themed event, according to The Daily Reflector.
Jacksonville, Rocky Mount, Salisbury and Lumberton each saw peaceful protests Sunday without further reports of problems, according to news media reports in each of those locations.
In High Point, the Walmart closed as a precaution after looting of the chain’s stores in some other cities, but no incidents took place during Sunday’s protest, according to the High Point News Enterprise.
In Statesville, the Hickory Daily Record reported, a tense standoff occurred Sunday evening as police blocked marchers intent on reaching the mayor’s house; however, protesters did eventually meet with the mayor and engage in conversation.
WRAL reported that a protest in Goldsboro on Monday ended with police and protesters hugging.
Durham has also seen several days of protests with sometimes high tensions, but none of the incidents that have plagued other cities, despite the police station, a symbol for some of extravagant spending in a community plagued by poverty, being a center of protest.
Raleigh endured two nights of violence on Saturday and Sunday, but WRAL reported that Monday night saw relatively few arrests, though peaceful demonstrations continued.
CPP reported Sunday on peaceful protests in Wilmington on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, the situation there also turned volatile during light-night protests Sunday and Monday. According to WECT, Sheriff Ed McMahon said officers set off tear gas around themselves at one point Monday when protesters approached.
In Greensboro, several incidents of vandalism and confrontation with police were reported late Saturday and Sunday, but the News & Record described a much quieter evening Monday as a new curfew went into effect.
Winston-Salem has seen three consecutive days of peaceful protests without major incidents, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
In Fayetteville, as CPP previously reported, a tense situation erupted downtown Saturday night as protesters surrounded the historic Market House, associated by some with slavery. Fires were set, and downtown storefronts were looted.
Some individuals — it’s not clear they were ever protesters — seized the opportunity to engage in looting across town at Cross Creek Mall. A Fayetteville Observer reporter was attacked and briefly knocked out by looters who objected to him recording them.
Following a citywide curfew Monday, the situation in Fayetteville appeared less volatile.
In Charlotte, which has been plagued by chaos during several nights of unrest that followed peaceful afternoon protests, there was just one arrest Monday night, according to the Charlotte Observer – a small sign of progress.