On Saturday evening, many people gathered in downtown Raleigh in front of the Wake County Courthouse to protest police brutality. The peaceful protest took a turn after cops deployed tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators. The protest follows the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis.
After the Saturday night protest ended with looting and property violence, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper reminded everyone of the purpose behind the demonstrations, while promising city mayors the resources they need to keep the streets safe in the coming days. National Guardsmen will be made available to Charlotte and Raleigh, after both cities dealt with looting and property damage during Saturday’s protests.
“Storefront windows and government buildings were damaged. Retail stores were looted. Small businesses already struggling under COVID-19 were damaged,” Cooper said in a Sunday afternoon press conference. “But I want to remind everyone of something vitally important. We cannot focus so much on the property damage that we forget why people are in the streets. Racism. Excessive use of police force. Health disparities. Poverty. White supremacy. These are wrong. They are ugly, but they are present. We must deal with them.”
Over 1,000 people attended Saturday’s protest, according to a statement by Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin, including NC State Student Body President Melanie Flowers, a fourth-year studying communication, who arrived at the protest around 5 p.m. A crowd was gathering at the courthouse, and several speakers were using megaphones.
“You could tell they were saying really powerful things, and the crowd cheered every time,” Flowers said.
At about 6 p.m., the crowd began to march around the city, going north from the Wake County Courthouse. Nigel Barber, a recent NC State graduate, noticed a lack of police presence early on to structure the protest.
“I understand that they had their cars parked that were telling people where you shouldn’t walk past, but the entire time the protest and the group of people that were in the front were led by themselves,” Barber said. “They weren’t directed by the police. In fact, many times, the protesters walked past the line that had been set up by the police beforehand, and the police did nothing to stop it at all and did no directing. They were basically just watching the protest happen.”
The demonstration continued with protestors chanting a wide variety of things, from “Black Lives Matter” and “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” to “F--k Donald Trump” and “F--k 12.” At 6:56 p.m., Raleigh Police sent out a tweet to “refrain from throwing items at police” as tensions began to rise at a parking deck south of Imurj on McDowell Street. The parking deck is connected to the Wake County Justice Center.
“When we walked past Wilmington Street, I would estimate this was around 6:30, the group split into two different pieces,” Barber said. “One part started walking around the corner and another part went into the parking deck that’s on the backside of the courthouse building, I think… They went into the parking deck, and there were a bunch of cops that were at the top of the parking deck, which is why I say that they were hiding away from where people were, because they didn’t want to be seen until they had cover of darkness.”
As protesters and police came face-to-face in the deck, Abbi Williams, a fourth-year studying social work and Spanish literature and language, was part of the group that didn’t enter the parking deck.
“A few people were in the parking deck. And then the rest of us kept walking through and turned the corner by the jail,” Williams said. “By the time I turned the corner, the tear gas had been deployed. And we could smell it, but we weren’t right there when it happened.”
Kennedy Davis, a UNC-Chapel Hill student who attended the event, got a first-hand look at a tear gas deployment as police began to try and corral the crowd into certain areas.
“The canister actually landed right in between our feet, and we all looked at it for a second without moving,” Davis said. “Then everyone started screaming. The guy in front of us picked it up and threw it back at the police.”
Around the same time, Flowers first noticed vandalism starting. Glass was being broken at the courthouse and people were spray painting phrases like “Black Lives Matter” and “F--k 12.” As the sun went down, things trended steadily towards violence. ABC11’s coverage of the night noted that things took a turn for the worse around 9 p.m.
“By the end of the night, we could hear people trying to break windows on Fayetteville Street,” Williams said. “But, everybody that I saw pick something up was white, and I will say I only saw one person do that. And they were carrying a sign post that had a cement base to it, and then that was when we were like, ‘All right, let’s head out.’ And then we heard a big smash, and that was when, I think, the windows started smashing.
As the violence started, peaceful protesters started to leave. Alex Gaines, a third-year studying biochemistry and environmental science, left at 8:30 p.m. Gaines didn’t support the violence but empathized with its underlying causes.
“It’s not really supporting the point of why all the people were there, and it’s not why I was there, and I don’t really agree with it, but at the same time, I don’t think they’re going to care because what has anybody telling them to stop done for them?" Gaines said. "What is it going to take for people to start noticing these modern-day lynchings?”
Flowers, who had left the protest around 8 p.m. for food, returned to see the downtown CVS was broken into, as well as Jimmy Johns and many locally-owned stores. Many had glass broken in with “chips spread all down Fayetteville Street.”
One protestor who wished to remain anonymous said the police escalated the situation into what it became. “Even before the damage broke out, they were throwing flashbangs, and I saw one dude got hit with one of those bean bag propeller things… So many people had been injured. Then it was just ‘all bets are off.’”
Baldwin responded to the violence stating, in part, that “unfortunately, as other cities have experienced around the country, there were a small number of individuals who later showed up with the intention of inciting violence and chaos. They threw bottles and bricks at police officers, looted storefronts and damaged countless small businesses. This behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
Flowers said that while NC State has had racist incidents that received public attention in the past, many students are still apathetic. She reflected on the die-in that occurred in Talley Student Union after police fatally shot Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte. When students participated in the demonstration, many students and bystanders were oblivious.
“It’s truly my hope that when we return to campus, we have students that understand that the black community has gone through a trauma this summer,” Flowers said. “I’m not sure if our campus is at a place that that will happen as holistically as is necessary, but that’s my hope.”
NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson released a statement on Sunday addressing the Saturday protest in Raleigh. Woodson condemned the “separate acts of vandalism” to local businesses in downtown Raleigh. He also said that NC State is committed to strive towards equality and justice by working with Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Sheri Schwab and other leaders over this summer to create and implement diversity and inclusion-related community discussions and feedback opportunities in the fall.
“As the state’s largest public university, we have the responsibility to educate ourselves and those who pass through our doors to overcome ignorance, unite against intolerance, model inclusivity and advance the dignity and power of diversity,” Woodson said.