RALEIGH — Tensions between police and protesters escalated Saturday night in downtown Raleigh when thousands gathered to protest racial injustice in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last Monday.
After a peaceful protest that began around 5 p.m. and lasted for approximately two hours, tensions escalated through the night as police deployed tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators and multiple buildings were damaged in the aftermath.
Dawn Blagrove, executive director of the Carolina Justice Policy Center and Emancipate NC, said the number of attendees to the #RaleighDemandsJustice protest ranged from a conservative estimate of 2,500 people to as many as 5,000.
A coalition of organizations, which includes Emancipate NC, Young Americans Protest, Raleigh PACT and the Carolina Peace Center, helped to plan Saturday's rally.
Faisal Khan, founder of the Carolina Peace Center, wrote in a press release signed by the group of organizations that the coalition was dedicated to a “non-violent and peaceful protest, with the understanding that the violence enacted by a system of racist police, policy and governance is the preeminent producer of violence.”
Blagrove said some of the coalition’s demands during the protest include enacting a policy that requires officers in Raleigh and across the state to intervene when they witness another officer becoming excessively violent or unprofessional, and ensuring that officers’ personnel and disciplinary records are made public.
“Those officers did not wake up murderers,” Blagrove said. “We have to change the culture in law enforcement that fosters and protects bad cops.”
Greear Webb is a rising sophomore at UNC and co-founder of Young Americans Protest and N.C. Town Hall. Webb said he was encouraged by the event's turnout and he hopes that young people in particular will remain engaged in conversations about police brutality.
“Whether that's protesting peacefully, whether that's demanding responses from your local officials, whether that's writing letters to your University leaders and making sure that they are making statements on racism and giving a plan for how to move forward with an anti-racist agenda — that's powerful when you put those two together,” Webb said.
Participants, who were encouraged to wear masks and face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19, marched from the Wake County Courthouse to the Capitol building and other areas of downtown.
Community members also took turns addressing the crowds that had gathered by the courthouse to highlight recent deaths involving Raleigh police.
Gloria Mayo and Rolanda Byrd are both mothers to Black men who were shot by Raleigh police and died from their injuries. Mayo’s son, Keith Collins, was fired at 11 times by police before being killed in January.
Byrd is the executive director of Raleigh PACT. Her son, Akiel Denkins, was shot four times by police in February 2016. The Wake County District Attorney’s Office concluded that the officer involved in the incident acted in self-defense during a struggle between the two men.
Byrd said she believes the Raleigh Police Department needs further training on methods of de-escalation, and she encouraged community members to identify actionable steps that can be taken to address issues of police accountability.
“That's what it says on the death certificates, when the mothers receive them, it says homicide,” Byrd said. “That means they murdered my child.”
Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker, who spoke to the crowds around 5 p.m., said his officers were primarily there to keep people safe, and to protect attendees’ right to peacefully protest.
“I’m glad to see them here. You know, this is a way of dealing with the pain and the concern, to get those who can make the difference listening,” Baker said. “That’s what this is about today for us, is serving and protecting, as we always do.”
Just hours later, the courthouse steps were covered in graffiti and broken glass.
Multiple attendees said the demonstration was peaceful for hours before police deployed tear gas and pepper spray on parts of the crowd.
N.C. A&T University senior Isaiah Barco said he was marching with other protesters at around 7:00 p.m. when he realized officers had deployed tear gas in the area. The officers shot “something” towards the ground, he said, at which point people started throwing water bottles back.
Barco said officers then shot tear gas into the crowd and as he tried to warn people around him, he got caught in the crossfire. He said he felt a burning sensation in his eyes and nose.
“I'll go to a protest and do what I do, make sure that those who come after me don’t have to worry about living their lives as a Black man or a Black woman,” Barco said. “No one has to fear going to the store, going on a walk, just because of the color of their skin. And if that means I got to be tear gassed to get that point across, then so be it — that means I did my job.”
Around 7 p.m., police formed a square around the intersection of McDowell Street and Cabarrus Street. Protesters advanced, throwing bricks and water bottles, to which the police responded with gas.
As the gas faded, protesters poured milk on each others’ eyes to alleviate the burning.
In a tweet, Raleigh police requested protesters stop throwing water bottles and bricks at officers.
Webb said while he was disappointed in the Raleigh Police Department’s approach towards the end of the march, he felt Baker and the Wake County Sheriff’s Office were helpful in providing assistance during the rally and stressed to organizers they wanted to protect their peaceful intent.
Webb said he’s unsure of who was involved in the protests later in the evening.
He said although he doesn’t condone certain actions that took place as protests intensified, he understands the anger and frustration people have with the George Floyd case and other incidents of police brutality.
Blagrove reiterated this point.
“When you continually take the power away from folks, you continually ignore their pain and you shut them out of the traditional process for resolving their issues: this is what happens,” Blagrove said. “This is the natural consequence of a body of leaders that has failed to acknowledge to the pain of the people that they represent.”
As the sun set, some protesters left. Talia, a college-aged protester who arrived on Fayetteville Street around 10 p.m., said the chaos of the scene was immediately evident.
“Everyone is kind of just doing their thing, you know, ‘No justice, no peace,’ and ‘F--- 12,’ all that, and there’s a row of cops standing in front of the door to the Capitol building,” She said. “Right when we got there, people started swarming around them. That’s when it got pretty crazy.”
She said by the time she started walking up the Capitol’s stairs, the building was covered in spray paint, and others were throwing things like water bottles and bricks in the direction of police when the first round of gas was thrown.
“They just started rolling gas, like rolling and rolling gas, over and over again, and it definitely showed because by the time the gas started going off and people started running.” she said. “I was already running but I was feeling the effects of the tear gas.”
Over the course of the night, 12 arrests were made. Five officers were sent to the hospital from injuries sustained at the protest.
On Sunday morning in downtown Raleigh, blocks of businesses and government buildings stood with looted storefronts and graffitied walls. Few remained unscathed.
Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted that despite the damage sustained across North Carolina last night, people are more important than property.
That morning, Raleigh residents showed up downtown with packs of water bottles, granola bars and trash bags. Some carried brooms that still had tags on them.
Darren Bridger, co-owner of The London Bridge Pub on Hargett Street, said when he arrived at the pub, which had been broken into overnight, regulars and friends were already there to clean up the damage.
Bridger said the loss comes at a difficult time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has decimated his sales. Despite the struggle it will take to rebuild, Bridger said he stands behind the values that protesters, the majority of whom he said were not violent, gathered to uphold.
“We have video footage of 20 people running rampant through our bar, stealing stuff and breaking stuff, yet there were thousands of people at the march,” Bridger said. “That in itself gives you a little bit of an impression of the difference between the small fringe, you know?”
Trina Blalock, the owner of Blalock’s Barber & Beauty Salon, said things were safe when barbers stood outside the salon's doors until the early morning hours. Fifteen minutes after they left, the storefront was shattered.
Blalock said the damage caused by the protest will be easily fixed with insurance, but it will only be worthwhile if it’s on the road to change.
“I understand anger, if you’re angry. If they’re hurt, and someone will listen and it will change things, and something changes, OK,” Blalock said. “If nothing changes, then all this is for what?”
The Raleigh Police Department did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.
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