A demonstration that began peacefully at the Greenville Town Common on Sunday turned destructive and at times violent over several hours downtown as protestors broke windows and police fired tear gas and marched in riot gear to contain and disburse them.
A group of 200 or more people gathered about 5 p.m. to join protests nationwide sparked by the death of George Floyd, killed on Memorial Day by an officer who pinned his neck to the ground with his knee for more than eight minutes in Minneapolis, Minn. The death is the latest among many police-involved killings of blacks and other incidents seen as racially unjust. Both Greenville Police Chief Mark Holtzman and Mayor P.J. Conley have denounced the incident, but demonstrators Sunday said their frustration had reached a tipping point.
"This is way bigger than just you or me," said one demonstrator who picked up a tear gas canister at Five Points Plaza and threw it back at police as officers were attempting to move out a crowd from the area about 8 p.m. "I care about my black brothers and sisters, I really do. They mean everything to me. I've got black nieces and nephews and cousins and this is their every day life. There is no reason they should go through this daily."
The woman declined to identify herself because, she said, she was an emergency medical technician. She remained with a core group of protestors through the evening. She said the destruction grew out of desperation because peaceful protests had no effect. Black people and their allies have protested peacefully for years, she said above a din of shouts and jeers, "and they are not being heard."
Police reported no injuries resulted from the protests, and no arrests had been reported as of 11 p.m. Protestors shattered glass windows and doors at many downtown properties, including Coastal Fog and the Pitt County Arts Council at Emerge. Glass was shattered at City Hall on Fifth Street and the former city hall across the street.
A group of about a half dozen young men accosted police at Washington and Fifth Street after officers dispersed the crowd at Five Points. The men then walked away and smashed a window nearby in the atrium of the old city hall building with police standing less than 100 feet away. A minister and another man urged officers against retaliating.
It was unclear Sunday how the protest moved from a peaceful event at the Town Common to something more like a riot downtown. A woman who called herself "M" was sitting in front of the fountain at City Hall. She said police became aggressive because too many people had gathered.
"It was peaceful, it was us marching, it was us walking and about an hour or two in it got a little bit violent, a couple of cars got smashed up," she said. "It got a little bit more violent than it had to be with the tear gas. We're not doing anything wrong and they antagonized people and it turned violent."
Law enforcement officials on Sunday said they could not discuss the response. The Reflector approached several on the scene but they were engaged in containing the protestors. Chief Holtzman, Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance, ECU Police Chief Jon Barnwell and Mayor Connelly are scheduled to hold a briefing at 11 a.m. Monday.
A large group of demonstrators later moved to Evans and Third Street, across from the Pitt County Courthouse and a memorial to the Confederate war dead, and engaged sheriff's deputies. A tall street lamp near the statue had been tilted earlier. A large deputy in riot gear and holding an assault rifle passionately conversed with members of the crowd, reminding them he loved them.
Protestors complained that authorities did not hear or respond to their refrain that black lives mattered. One man said that the death of Floyd was simply the cherry on top of sundae of injustice.
"I'm good with what you're doing," the deputy said. "I'm not good with people getting hurt, I'm not good with property getting damaged."
One woman, who said she was from Greenville but declined to give her name, said black people have been treated unfairly in the U.S. for 400 years. Her people as slaves built the country, and white people are still giving blacks "hell to pay," she said.
"It went from black lives matter to all lives matter, and that's just a diversion, to take away from the black community, and if you ... don't realize what's happening, then there is something wrong with you."
State Sen. Don Davis of Greenville was near Third and Washington Street later to observe the events when police again fired tear gas nearby. The irritant affected the senator but he did not complain.
"It's one of those things where people are obviously frustrated, and they should have the ability to articulate that frustration, but at the same time it should be done, I believe, in a respectful (manner)."
Dedan Waciuri of Greenville, an organizer with the Coalition Against Racism, was back at the intersection of Third and Washington where protestors continued to confront a line of police not far away from the senator.
Waciuri pointed out that heavily armed white men have been allowed to protest COVID-19 lockdown measures in the streets of Raleigh and other cities, even enter government buildings with no reprisals from police. No one on Sunday was armed he said.
"This is how black people get treated when we try to (excercise) our rights to say something," he said. "White people in North Carolina can parade around with guns and black people get tear gas thrown on them. We got children out here and they throw tear gas on them. And again that just proves our point there is war perpetuated on black America."