Editor’s note: The video and article contain scenes of chaos and images that include protest signs with profanity.
WILMINGTON — County and city law enforcement officers responded to what appeared to be an initially nonviolent but also disobedient and profanity-laced protest outside City Hall with tear gas and stun grenades, dispersing the protestors throughout the streets of downtown Wilmington Sunday night. Officials defended the use of force, saying there were concerns about armed protestors and damage to the downtown area.
Lined formations of New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office deputies and Wilmington Police Department officers advanced down city streets with tear gas grenade launchers and protective shields throughout the night, beginning at 8 p.m. on Third Street next to Thalian Hall.
Protestors, who at that point had moved into the roadway on North Third Street, were given five minutes to disperse. When they did not, NHCSO fired canisters, which were reportedly tear gas. Protestors also threw bottles and other objects (including throwing the gas canisters back at deputies). The gas dispersed the crowd, with many heading to the North Front Street area.
According to a video taken by Arlene Murray, who traveled to Wilmington to take part in the protest, after the initial clash between protestors and NHCSO deputies, the crowd moved to North Front Street. There, according to Murray, a line of WPD officers knelt in an apparent sign of de-escalation.
Murray said she joined with other protestors in cheering what they interpreted as a peaceful display. At that moment, Murray said, a law enforcement officer began firing rubber bullets (the gunshot can be heard on Murray’s video). Murray said she was uncertain if it was a police officer or a deputy, but that the person who fired was wearing all black (NHCSO deputies were wearing all black, WPD was wearing black and blue uniforms).
At 9:30 p.m., Mayor Bill Saffo and District Attorney Ben David spoke with reporters behind a line of deputies on Front Street, where they announced a state of emergency and a citywide curfew until Monday morning. Asked to respond to various protestors’ complaints against the initial use of force after what appeared to be a peaceful but at times angry protest, Saffo said he saw from a window that “they weren’t peacefully [protesting] here.”
“They were throwing stuff at the police officers. There were taunting; they were attacking cars. They were in the middle of the street. We asked them several times to please disperse, to please get out of the street. I’m sure a lot of you saw that; there’s a lot of video of that,” Saffo said.
Although reporters observed protestors disobeying multiple orders to vacate the street, it appeared that it was only after tear gas canisters were fired at them that they began throwing water bottles at officers and deputies, as well as throwing gas canisters back at the officers and deputies who had fired them.
Before deputies responded with force, many cars had driven by the protestors honking in support. One man driving an old Chevy Tahoe, pulling a boat on a trailer, stopped in front of the crowd and instigated a verbal altercation with a few of the protestors. But two men held them back and prevented a physical confrontation before the man raised his left arm to reveal a tattoo of a Confederate flag, before yelling, “White pride!” and drove away.
The group had first gathered outside City Hall to protest the death of a Minneapolis man, George Floyd, who was killed after being pinned down at the neck by a police officer for nearly nine minutes while pleading for a chance to breathe.
“Violence, lawlessness will not be tolerated,” David told reporters.
He ‘renounced’ the killing of Floyd and said he respected the right to peacefully assemble and protest as it is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, as well as the right to bear arms.
“But what you’re not allowed to do is violently protest, including having arms at a demonstration like this that you’re openly displaying. We developed information that that was occurring. We tried to get that crowd to peacefully disperse in order to not have the crime of violence in this city, and when they did not, there was a dispersal that was ordered as a result of that,” David said.
[Editor’s note: While law enforcement has not publicly disclosed what information they had about allegedly armed protestors, reporters on the scene did not witness any openly displayed weapons.]
At the time, David said two arrests had been made. A third arrest was seen in the parking lot beside Village Market Groceries on Second and Dock Street after a young woman refused to leave the scene and yelled toward a line of deputies. He said the first two would appear in court on Monday.
At first, a peaceful yet disobedient protest
Law enforcement disperses protest
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