Protest leader Calvin Peña read from a historical marker at the corner of Liberty and Fourth Streets commemorating the first sit-in victory in North Carolina, when the Woolworth’s lunch counter agreed to serve Black customers after 107 days of protest.
Later, as four people stood in a row blocking traffic on Fourth Street, Brittany Battle, another protest leader, asked, “Can we do 107 days, if we need to?”
The protesters cheered in affirmation.
“And we will,” Battle promised.
First four people, then three pairs of protesters — totaling 10, all told — were handcuffed and led to two waiting vans in the latest civil disobedience since Battle and four others were arrested on July 8 for protesting the death of John Neville in the Forsyth County Law Enforcement Detention Center. Today’s action marked the 14 day of a daytime occupation of Bailey Park by activists to reinforce their demands for justice for Neville.
The 10 who were arrested today were predominantly white people in their early twenties, but also including a 22-year-old Black woman and a 22-year-old Latinx man. The police said six of the arrestees live in Winston-Salem, three in Greensboro and one in Yadkinville. Eight were given a written promise to appear, while two were given bonds of $1,000 and $250 due to prior arrests for the same offense.
During the march, which started at Bailey Park and included a stop in front of the Forsyth County Public Safety Center before concluding at Liberty and Fourth, the protesters repeated four demands, including answering their questions about the circumstances of Neville’s death, banning the hogtie restraint method, notifying the public of all deaths, and dropping charges against protesters. (When Jennifer McCormack underwent a medical emergency in Forsyth County jail in 2014, and died a couple days later at Baptist Hospital, the sheriff’s office utilized the same rationale as with Neville to justify not publicly reporting her death.) Five detention officers and one nurse employed by WellPath face charges for involuntary manslaughter in Neville’s death.
The group of about 30 people, led by Triad Abolition Project and Unity Coalition, marched in front of the Public Safety Center, chanting, “If they cannot tell us why, this is why we occupy,” and, “Answer our demands!”
Neville died at Baptist Hospital in December 2019 as a result of “complications of positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint,” according to his autopsy. Two days earlier, Neville had said, “I can’t breathe” and called for his mother as detention officers placed him in a prone restraint after he fell out of his bunk and appeared to suffer a seizure.
“Why are we putting human beings in 2020 in a prone restraint laying on their stomach, who have a history of asthma, who call out that they cannot breathe, who call out to their mother, and we have correctional officers responding that, ‘If you can talk, you can breathe, buddy,” Battle said in front of the Public Safety Center. “That seems like a reasonable request for us to not be putting human beings in a prone restraint.”
The civil disobedience led by Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition was the second action highlighting the death of John Neville and other deaths at the Forsyth County jail. One hour before the march from Bailey Park, Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem staged a press conference three blocks away at the Forsyth County Government Center. Tony Ndege and Kim Porter of Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem, who were also arrested during the July 8 protest, articulated four demands related to Neville’s and other deaths to connected to the jail that were distinct from those issued by Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition.
They called on the Forsyth County Commission to sever the contract with WellPath (formerly Correct Care Solutions), the company contracted to provide medical services in the jail. They called for the repeal of a 2016 law that prevents the release of police video without an order from a superior court judge. The group also called for the release of all body camera and surveillance video related to Neville’s death, standing in solidarity with petitions by the News & Observer, Winston-Salem Journal and New York Times. A hearing is scheduled for tomorrow morning in Forsyth County superior court in the case. And Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem joined a call by the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem & Vicinity for a federal investigation of Neville’s death.
UPDATED (7/29): Late Tuesday, the Journal reported that Neville’s family issued a statement supporting release of the video, reversing a previous position.
On Wednesday morning, Neville’s five children posted a video on Facebook thanking the protesters who have lifted up their father’s name, while at the same time expressing dismay that Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem advocated for releasing the video without their blessing.
In the video, Brie Neville thanked “everyone who has been out protesting in our father’s honor — the ones that have asked us for our input, how the family feels and to make sure we were comfortable with the way we were handling things,” before requesting an apology from Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem to the family.
“We cannot in good conscience support the Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem chapter due to the fact that on more than one occasion they have not asked us or consulted with the family on what we want or need,” Neville said. “They have deliberately disobeyed what we’ve asked for in this stance of not asking for the video of our father’s death to be released. That is a choice that needs to be made by us and was made by us to release the video footage, and we would like to clarify that in no way, shape, form or fashion was our stance swayed by their press conference yesterday or any of their previous press releases or protests.”
The group highlighted four people who have died in the jail or as a result of medical crises at the jail since 2014, including Neville, Stephen Antwan Patterson, DeShawn Coley and Jennifer McCormack. Annalise Sattler, who attended the press conference, also reminded the group about Dino Vann Nixon, who died in the jail in 2013 as a result of withdrawal from benzodiazepine, a medication that was prescribed to him for anxiety.
“You have one job — well, I guess two: to protect and serve,” said Angel Fant, who attended the press conference outside the Government Center. “Protect means take care of the citizens that are inside of the jails. They’re not inmates; they’re citizens, they’re humans. You have one job — to take care of them. When we’re talking about serving, when you stop someone in their car, your job is to give them a ticket. A ticket! Not to pull them out of their cars. Not to harass them. Not to stereotype them.
“Your job is to protect and serve,” she continued. “No one should leave with bruises; there’s no blood involved. No blood. Your job is to protect and serve. If you didn’t sign up to be a hero, then you signed up for the wrong job. You don’t belong in our government. You don’t belong serving our streets. You don’t belong serving our people if you can’t protect our people.”
After the press conference, Porter led a group into the Government Center. Initially, a private security officer attempted to block their entrance, telling Porter she would disturb county staff. Porter prevailed by saying they intended to hold a peaceful protest, and the security officer relented, although he was visibly frustrated and called his supervisor. Protesters held signs reading “Drop WellPath Now” and “Justice for John Neville” for several minutes in the atrium of the Government Center and left voluntarily before a Winston-Salem police officer arrived on the scene.
Later, as the second group prepared to mobilize, Calvin Peña gave a pep talk at the Occupy encampment at Bailey Park.
“We’ve all been referred to as a soldier,” he told the young people who were preparing to get arrested. “We’re putting our bodies on the line. We’re putting ourselves in a place where people are abused and killed.”
As the group marched from the intersection where the activists submitted themselves to arrest, Peña and Battle addressed the police, emphasizing that they bore no ill will against them personally while raising objections to the institution of policing.
“You may be an all right individual on your own time,” Peña told an officer on a bike. “You’re putting on a racist uniform, man.”
Later, he said, “You wear that uniform because they got you to believe that you are fighting to uphold a system that is just, but that system does not represent all of us. That’s okay. We are fighting for you, too.”
As officers brought out zip ties to restrain the protesters, Battle admonished: “There’s going to be a right side and a wrong side. When your kids ask you what you were doing in the summer of 2020, make sure you tell them you were arresting peaceful protesters.”
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