In Pictures and Video: Sunday’s initially peaceful protest turns to chaos

Editor's note: This article was awarded second place in spot photography in the North Carolina Press Association's 2020 editorial contest.

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.


READ MORE: Wilmington issues curfew, ‘state of emergency’ after authorities fire tear gas on protestors [Free]

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

A protestor holds a sign at the Confederate Memorial on Third Street in downtown Wilmington as a county deputy vehicle turns onto Dock Street. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The owner of Hell’s Kitchen, Eric Laut, puts up metal barriers on his front windows in case looting or property damage occurred later in the evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A protestor performs an interpretative dance to gospel music outside City Hall early Sunday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A man and boy hold up signs in protest of the police killing of George Floyd. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A protestor arrives at City Hall early Sunday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Protestors line Third Street outside City Hall early Sunday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A protestor skates by the crowd holding an anti-police slogan that has become popular in recent protests throughout the nation. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Young women drive by in support of protestors outside City Hall early Sunday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A man protests the nationwide issue of police brutality on the front steps of City Hall early Sunday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
People gather to protest the killing of George Floyd on the front steps of City Hall early Sunday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Protestors gather on Third Street after NCSO deputies had driven by multiple times to warn the crowd to stay off the street. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A man who stopped beside the protesting crowd lifts his left arm to reveal a tattoo of the Confederate flag while protestors prevent others from getting into a physical confrontation. He then yelled, “White pride!” and drove away. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A young woman sits on the window of a passing car and shows support of protestors outside City Hall early Sunday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
At 7:50 p.m., the crowd of protestors march up Third Street past Thalian Hall. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Protestors gather at the intersection of Third and Chestnut Street. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Law enforcement disperses protest

At 8 p.m., an NCSO deputy warns the protestors to leave the scene. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A man turns his vehicle around at the intersection of Chestnut and Third Street after officers closed the area, pushing the protestors back to Market Street. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A young man bikes away from a cloud of tear gas on Third Street on Sunday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A protestor kicks a tear gas canister on Third Street before dousing it with water. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
After most of the crowd dispersed, a protestor throws a tear gas canister back towards the line of Sheriff’s deputies wearing riot gear. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Protestors refuse to disperse as clouds of tear gas spread at the intersection of Princess and Third Street. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Protestors refuse to disperse as clouds of tear gas spread at the intersection of Princess and Third Street. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A protestor holds up a sign as he and others refuse to disperse. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Sheriff’s deputies wearing riot gear hold their line as they slowly advance up Third Street. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A protestor after being exposed to a tear gas canister on Third Street. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A protestor reacts in pain after she was exposed to a tear gas grenade on Third Street. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The remaining protestors refuse to disperse after clouds of tear gas had cleared up near the intersection of Princess and Third Street. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
WPD officers wearing riot gear at the intersection of Third and Chestnut Street Sunday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A protestor yells at WPD officers at the intersection of Third and Chestnut Street Sunday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Lily Nicole, an assistant technical director at Thalian Hall and president of the start-up Wilmington School of the Arts, argues against law enforcement officers’ use of force, including tear gas grenades, with WPD’s interim chief Donny Williams. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Lily Nicole refuses to leave the scene after she told WPD interim chief Donny Williams she had been tear gassed. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A plane flies over a line of NCSO deputies wearing riot gear on Third Street, 8:35 p.m. Sunday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
WPD officers clad in riot gear walk west down Chestnut Street. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A tear gas canister hit near a deputy’s car before he moves his vehicle. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A protestor runs toward a cloud of tear gas near City Hall, seen behind the line of deputies. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
NCSO deputies near City Hall after dispersing most protestors with tear gas grenades. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Protestors refuse to disperse at the intersection of Third and Chestnut Street, 8:38 p.m. Sunday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
NCSO deputies near City Hall after dispersing most protestors with tear gas grenades. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
People watch from the top deck of the city parking garage as most protestors had been dispersed on Third Street; City Hall is seen to their left. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A young couple embraces in the city parking garage overlooking Front Street Sunday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Protestors sit on Front Street facing a line of WPD officers wearing riot gear and armed with tear gas grenade launchers. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Protestors lock hands on Front Street facing a line of WPD officers wearing riot gear and armed with tear gas grenade launchers. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A protestor yells at Sheriff’s deputies, “This is not progress!” while biking down Front Street, 9:29 p.m. Sunday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
New Hanover Sheriff Ed McMahon talks on the phone behind a line of deputies Sunday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
New Hanover District Attorney Ben David talks with reporters Sunday night after announcing a state of emergency and citywide curfew. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A New Hanover SWAT team enters a parking garage after protestors were seen dropping items from above. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Fireworks explode as New Hanover Sheriff’s deputies arrest a young female protestor after she yelled at them and refused to leave downtown Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
New Hanover Sheriff’s deputies arrest a young female protestor after she yelled at them and refused to leave downtown Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
New Hanover Sheriff Ed McMahon talks on the phone as he walks down Second Street, 9:49 p.m. Sunday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A protester covers his face with a shirt on Front Street Sunday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Protestors refuse to leave Front Street in central downtown Wilmington Sunday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A journalist covers his eyes after he said he was hit by a tear gas canister while standing near the doorway of a local business on Front Street Sunday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A man bikes away from a cloud of tear gas smoke in downtown Wilmington Sunday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A line of New Hanover Sheriff’s deputies advance east on Market Street, late Sunday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A New Hanover Sheriff’s emergency vehicle on 3rd Street as most protestors had vacated downtown following the announced 10 p.m. citywide curfew. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Send tips and comments to the reporter at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com, @markdarrough on Twitter, or (970) 413-3815

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