A group of angry protesters who turned disruptive Sunday night damaged more than 30 downtown Greenville properties, ruined 13 law enforcement vehicles and threw large rocks and bottles at officers trying to disburse them, authorities reported on Monday.
The riot grew from a demonstration similar to others across the country sparked by the death of George Floyd, killed on Memorial Day by an officer who pinned Floyd’s neck to the ground with a knee for more than eight minutes in Minneapolis, Minn. The event drew between 500 to 1,000 people to the Town Common, according to police and organizers.
It was a peaceful demonstration, said Briana Hemby, who organized the event along with her sisters Brittany and Jasmine as part of their efforts to establish a local Black Lives Matter chapter. The crowd marched on First Street from the Town Common to Pitt Street, then to the Greenville Police Department headquarters, where 10 people gave speeches.
Demonstrators not associated with the effort began shouting over the speakers and changing the tone of the event, the sisters said by phone on Monday afternoon. The splinter group became belligerent and the majority of the protesters left, they said.
“They were not part of our organization, they were not part of our missions, they did not stand with us,” Jasmine Hemby said.
The remainder of the crowd moved east on Fifth Street about 6:45 p.m. and became violent in the area of Fifth and Cotanche and on First Street near the Town Common, said Chief Mark Holtzman during a Monday morning briefing. Members of the group challenged offers and yelled obscenities and several officers were surrounded at one point until other protesters intervened.
“It became violent as the crowd moved down Fifth Street near Cotanche, that’s when they first began getting on top of the police cars and when they rounded the corner and went down to Town Common and began to destroy the car there down on Town Common and trap the officers down there, that’s when it became violent,” Holtzman said.
Police set off a loud bang grenade, issued verbal warnings and deployed smoke to get people to move before tear gas was used, he said. The crowd diminished to a couple hundred at point, Holtzman said. The group continued to march through city streets and some of them began throwing rocks and bricks through windows, he said.
The protesters damaged Greenville Police and Fire-Rescue Headquarters, City Hall and the municipal building, GUC’s headquarters and many small businesses and offices including Coastal Fog, Emerge Art Gallery and Bernhadt House of Violins.
About 250 officers responded from 24 law enforcement agencies including Greenville police, the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office, East Carolina University Police Department and the State Highway Patrol. About 150 officers were from outside agencies, Holtzman said.
The officers worked to disperse remaining protesters through the evening, ultimately containing them in several blocks between Fifth and Third Street. Offices utilized tear gas in several instances to get the crowd’s attention, Holtzman said.
“Chemical munitions is really one of the lowest levels of force that you could use because, if you think about it, it’s an irritant, it makes you cough, it makes you sneeze, it will burn your skin a little bit. It’s really the lowest level so we’re not having to lay hands on or do anything else,” Holtzman said.
“We had property damage, we had no loss of life, and to have it been at that magnitude and be able to report that to our community is just a testament to what we are here in Greenville,” Holtzman said.
Officers were not initially wearing riot gear, Holtzman said.
“So we did basically a quick change of team. We brought out the team that had that equipment and allowed the officers to go back and get the rest of their equipment,” Holtzman said.
Greenville Mayor P.J. Connelly on Monday afternoon issued a citywide curfew that went into effect at 8 p.m. Monday to 6 a.m. Tuesday. The police department also alerted the National Guard “in case we need them as a back up to allow our allied agencies to continue to serve their surrounding communities,” Holtzman said.
On Monday evening, police blocked off roads leading into the downtown area.
Police arrested two men, one for failing to disperse and the another for carrying a concealed gun. Several juveniles also were detained but later released.
Detectives are reviewing security camera footage in the area and social media posts to identify individuals involved in destruction and assaults on officers. Holtzman said it was unknown Monday if the people who incited the violence were from Greenville.
The protest at one point ranged to ECU’s campus to the area of College Hill, police reported. ECU’s Human Resources Building on Reade Street and Parking Services on Tenth Street were damaged during the protest, ECU Chief Jon Barnwell said. Windows were broken on both buildings and three ECU police vehicles were vandalized, he said.
“Peaceful protests are welcome, we embrace that first amendment freedom of speech, freedom of expression but please, please, keep it peaceful,” Barnwell said during Monday’s briefing.
The Hembys said that was their intent all along when they invited community members to join the demonstration via social media. They have called off demonstrations in the immediate future in light of Sunday’s events, they said, and will focus on voter registration and public education. They issued a statement asking people to follow them on Twitter at @BLM252 and on Instagram at @blmgreenvillenc.
“We are thankful to everyone who came out to join our peaceful march yesterday which was disrupted by a few individuals,” the statement said. “We had over 500 people come out to express their pain, experiences, and stand in solidarity with us to pay respect to those who have fallen victim to police brutality. We demand that our justice system be reformed and we will continue to peacefully achieve that goal. Yesterday was truly groundbreaking for this city, and because of this we will be filing to become an official Black Lives Matter chapter. ... This is only the beginning. The change starts with us.”