People took to the streets in Greensboro for a second night of protests on Sunday, saying with heartfelt speeches, marching feet, angry confrontations with officers in riot gear and, in some cases, smashed storefront windows, that racist policing and a racial caste system in America can no longer stand.
“I was born in this country,” an unidentified woman screamed at Greensboro police officers in riot gear at the intersection of Elm St. and Friendly Avenue. “From the moment I recognized I was black, I had reason to be in fear of you guys. Fuck you. Fuck you. We are nonviolent. You voluntarily damned yourself to a life of tyranny and oppression over innocent people.”
The police line drove a wedge between one group of protesters north of Friendly and another group that had busted out windows along three blocks south of Washington Street. The damage included the Lincoln Financial building, the Wrangler store, Scuppernong Books, Charlie’s Grocery and Cheesecakes by Alex, among others.
Prior to the wreckage that unfolded on Elm Street, a larger group of hundreds of protesters marched, chanted, kept silent and spoke for more than three hours. The organizers asked people to disperse at 10 p.m., suggesting they travel in groups back to their cars. A smaller group of about 50 decided to stay near the intersection of South Elm and Lewis streets where the larger protest disbanded, although heated arguments broke out about whether people should be looting. Eventually, a march processed northward on Elm. Some protesters tagged “Fuck 12” — an anti-police slogan — on the street and plywood, but there was no looting at that time. At about 10:40 p.m. protesters spotted a line of police in riot gear and advanced through an alley to meet them on North Eugene Street. They stood with fists raised, they knelt, they taunted, they chanted, “Don’t shoot.”
At about 11 p.m., the police played a recording announcing, “The demonstration is now over. You are ordered to disperse so normal operations may continue. Anyone continuing to demonstrate will be arrested and detained for a minimum of 24 hours.” The protesters responded with vocal scorn. They scattered, but then converged in small groups in a nearby parking lot. Some shot fireworks at the police while others set small fires. They mocked the police as they headed back towards Elm Street.
On Monday afternoon, Greensboro mayor Nancy Vaughan issued a citywide curfew starting at 8 p.m. and ending at 6 a.m. for the foreseeable future. The city press release omitted employees coming home from work, emergency personnel and journalists from the list, amongst others. It is unclear what role the police department will play in arresting those who defy the curfew. Calls and texts to Vaughan were unreturned in time for publication.
At the intersection of Friendly Avenue, members of the Greensboro Police Department civil emergency unit formed a line across Elm and marched south. Kris Fuller and her staff at Crafted: The Art of the Taco persuaded protesters to come inside the restaurant, telling them they were at risk of getting hurt by the police. Fuller and her staff had handed out water bottles and chicken tacos as protesters passed earlier in the evening.
The organizers of the larger protest march, which began at about 6 p.m., repeatedly emphasized that they planned to be peaceful as they took over the streets and marched in a loop that went down Elm Street to Gate City Boulevard and back up Murrow Boulevard.
“We are unarmed, so therefore we will not engage [police],” said Virginia Holmes, one of the organizers, during a stop under the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive overpass on Gate City Boulevard. “In the event of an uprising, if somebody is detained, there is a code word: ‘white swarm.’ If you hear that, you swarm.” White allies formed lines at the front of the march to provide protection for the main body of protesters, who were majority black and also included Latinx and Asian people. Some protesters also brought small children. Holmes also noted that there were volunteer medics at the back of the march.
While the nationwide wave of protests was set off by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, Holmes and other organizers also lifted up the names of Marcus Smith, a black man who died at the hands of the Greensboro police while he was experiencing a mental-health emergency in 2018, and Tramell Wilkins, an 18-year-old man who reportedly died after being chased by Greensboro police officers in 2010.
“Now that I have your attention, city of Greensboro police department: I’m servicing you a citizens arrest,” Holmes said tearfully, “for the murders of Marcus Smith, whom you hogtied in the middle of the street. For Tramell Wilkins, twin brother of Shamell Wilkins, father, son. You Tased him to death in the backyard of his mother’s house, and he was not resisting. Greensboro covers murders, too.”
The protesters also stopped at the International Civil Rights Center, where organizer Jordan Cameron pointed to a damaged window, declaring that those responsible for the vandalism were “not welcome here.”
Jessica L. Williams, a Greensboro native, said she joined the protest in the hope that it will bring the community together in a way not seen since the early 1960s, alluding to the Woolworth’s sit-in that sparked nationwide civil rights mobilization.
“My hope is people will see we’re not afraid,” she said. “We’ve never been afraid. We won’t stop if you won’t stop. Until we’re loved and respected like the next person, we’re going to continue to demand justice.”
Chris Swallick, a white man who works for an armored truck company, also joined the protest with a small group of friends.
“We are all created equal,” he said. “We should be treated equal. Being white, you should not have additional privilege. I’m here supporting everybody. Not all police are bad. I know that from the work that I do.”
As dusk descended and the march made a second stop in front of the civil rights museum, the uplifting mood shifted when an unidentified woman announced that information was circulating on social media about an armed white man in a mask approaching the protest. A brief eruption of pandemonium and fear gave way to resolve as the organizers implored people to keep marching. Unsubstantiated rumors circulated that a bad actor might already be embedded within the march. The source of the fear appears to have been a photo of white men dressed in tactical vests and a Hawaiian shirt — associated with the boogaloo movement — with rifles in the back of a pickup truck seen in Asheboro.
As the march paused near the Green Bean on South Elm Street, two lines of white allies standing with linked arms formed, spaced about 10 feet apart as an eerie silence descended. Holmes said she was unnerved that no police were in sight.
Meanwhile, three armed white men took up a post on North Eugene Street across from the ballpark. One of them, Jason Passmore, is affiliated with the Stokes County Militia. Passmore has a long history of befriending and conducting firearms trainings with white nationalists, including Manuel Luxton and Brandal Thomas Payne. On Saturday, Passmore posted on Facebook: “The killing is about to start.” Since then, he’s posted multiple memes celebrating motorists driving over protesters. (Darrell Calloway of the Stokes County Militia contacted TCB on Monday. He confirmed that Passmore is a “member by paper,” but said he hasn’t spoken to him in months.)
The memes celebrating hitting protesters with vehicles amplifies an incident on Saturday when an unidentified SUV driver pummeled through downtown, nearly hitting multiple protesters who were walking in the streets and on the sidewalks. TCB has not confirmed if anyone was hurt.
The owner of Triumph Motorcycle, who asked Triad City Beat to not include his name, said he called the police on Passmore’s group twice, emphasizing that he did not invite them to protect his business and didn’t know them.
“I was terrified,” the owner said. “They had guns, number one. They had a pickup truck. I thought they came to steal my motorcycles.
“My concern is that some of the guys said I’m a target,” he continued. “I don’t know how this works. I’ve been affiliated with something I have no understanding of.”
After he called the police, the owner of Triumph Motorcycle told TCB that Passmore’s crew drove past his business at least two more times after midnight.
On Monday afternoon, Triumph Motorcycle was boarded up.
Soon after protesters smashed windows on South Elm Street, business owners started cleaning up. The owners of Lee Wrangler Hometown Studio, Scuppernong Books, Charlie’s Grocery and Cheesecakes by Alex were busy knocking out the remaining glass, removing debris and sweeping.
“It’s sad that it happened,” said Steve Mitchell, the co-owner of Scuppernong Books. “I certainly understand what’s going on around the country and in Greensboro. We are almost always going to be on the side of the protesters because there’s a lot to protest.
“This is not what anyone needs on the coattails of COVID-19,” he added. “I feel for the other business owners. We’re committed to being here though.”
Deonna Kelli Sayed posted on Facebook at about 12:30 a.m.: “Greensboro police throwing teargas and no one is in the streets. I’m downtown helping with the clean-up. Everyone was on the sidewalk when the gas was thrown.”
About 30 minutes later, the police had withdrawn from Elm Street as small groups of protesters continued to wander downtown, occasionally screaming, “Black lives matter.”
Posted on the door at Cheesecakes by Alex were handwritten signs stating, “We stand with you!!!” and “#BlackLivesMatter.” Another window sustained a crater-like hole as employees cleaned up inside after 1 a.m.
Sayaka Matsuoka and Brian Clarey contributed to this story.