Marc Ridgill (right) with Yvonne Johnson during a candidate forum before the 2015 Greensboro City Council election. (file photo)

A retired GPD officer invoked the specter of the Greensboro Massacre in response to a peaceful protest for black lives, and a retired captain on the force in 1979 accuses the new chief of committing a felony. The mayor and city attorney see things differently.

The Facebook post addressed to Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan could be viewed as a warning or a threat.

“Is it going to take someone getting hurt?” asked Marc Ridgill, a retired Greensboro police officer who was formerly assigned to Grimsley High School.

Ridgill raised the question in a Facebook post published on Saturday, June 13, as protesters for black lives were shutting down Battleground Avenue and bringing their demands to customers in big-box stores like Target.

Reaching his conclusion, Ridgill told the mayor: “You are inviting trouble the likes of which you are not equipped to handle. It is only a matter of time before some idiot group from the other extreme shows up and accepts the challenge.”

Ridgill’s comments throughout that and another Facebook thread, alongside those of other retired law enforcement officers from the Greensboro Police Department and other agencies, continued to ratchet up the volume.

“If a child gets hurt during this nonsense, so help them,” he wrote. “We are headed toward armed conflict.”

Other commenters explicitly named the historic atrocity in Greensboro that Ridgill only hinted at. “1979,” one wrote. “Nov. 3,” another said. “We know what happened.”

On Nov. 3, 1979, a caravan of Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis drove into a black housing project in Greensboro and fatally shot five antiracist organizers while television cameras rolled and police failed to intervene.

In another post, Ridgill publicly accused Mayor Vaughan of “allowing felonious acts against citizens,” referencing a complaint that the protesters had prevented a woman from leaving a Target store in the Lawndale Shopping Center.

The discussion of protesters purportedly committing felonies prompted a string of comments by people suggesting they would feel justified shooting at protesters or driving cars into them.

Discussion about supposed lawless protesters and what the commenters viewed as a weak city leadership unwilling to take a firm hand escalated into speculation about whether Vaughan would allow some version of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, in Seattle to take shape in Greensboro. The police-free area in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle was established after police abandoned a precinct. Protesters shut down the area to outside traffic, and it has evolved into an area for political speech, community gardens and cooperatives.

One commenter, who identified himself as the nephew of two retired Greensboro police captains, wrote, “A couple well placed snipers (police or civilian) will stop another chaz.”

Ridgill confidently characterized the incident at Target as a felony although to date no charges have been filed, but at no point in the Facebook threads did he caution commenters that shooting or hitting protesters with vehicles could put them at risk of being criminally charged for assault or manslaughter.

“I was caught up in that traffic, couldn’t see what it was, so quickly turned and got out of it, thankfully,” one woman reported on the thread. “But Marc Ridgill: What if they surround my car? I’ve no plans to stop. What if a citizen like the lady at Target pulls a [concealed carry] gun? What if they shoot a/some protesters [sic] in order to get away? My suspicion is that person is vilified, right?”

Ridgill remained silent.

Ridgill did not respond to repeated phone messages and a Facebook message for this story.

“I think that’s extremely irresponsible from someone who claims to support law enforcement,” Mayor Vaughan said in an interview with Triad City Beat. “To actually encourage lawlessness is extremely irresponsible.”

A protester involved in the June 13 march who spoke to TCB on condition of anonymity said in response to social media comments: “We want to fight every single fight with love because at the end of the day hate is going to produce what has already been produced — aggression. Whenever we fight a fight with hate, it only produces more murders. The object is to stop the hate, so we’re going to fight with love. If people do choose to resort to violence, they’re not only going to come up against us, they’re coming against a whole group of individuals including people who are using their white privilege to stand with us. It could very well be a white person on the line with us that feels the product of their white hate and white supremacy.”

TCB is granting anonymity to avoid aggravating the threat of violence against them.

Ridgill ran for an at-large seat on Greensboro City Council in 2015, placing a distant fourth in the contest for the three seats. In 2018, he ran for the at-large seat on the Guilford County School Board, losing to Winston McGregor by more than 20 points.

Greensboro Police Department Public Information Officer Ronald Glenn told TCB that the views expressed by retired law enforcement officers and others on Ridgill’s Facebook page do not reflect the department.

Glenn also said the incident at Target “is being looked into” by the police department. Guilford Metro 911 reflect a call at 4:51 p.m. on June 13: “Caller said his wife is inside the Target hiding b/c she is scared. She is hiding inside Target scared, trying to find her location now, she wants police to come help her.”

Shootings, car-ramming attacks and aggressive responses from drivers have been a regular occurrence at protests across the country over the past three weeks.

In Greensboro, a video posted by Spectrum News shows an SUV driver barreling down Elm Street and nearly hitting protesters in Greensboro on the first day of protests on May 30.

A woman swerved to hit a protester in Denver on May 28, and a similar attack took place in Bakersfield, Calif. the following day.

On May 31, a Kernersville man tied to the white supremacist group League of the South fired a pistol in the air during a protest against a Confederate monument in Salisbury. On June 8, an admitted Ku Klux Klan leader drove into protesters attempting to remove a Confederate monument in Richmond, Va., and on Monday a militia activist fired into the air as protesters attempted to tear down a monument honoring the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate in Albuquerque, NM.

On June 6, a man drove into protesters and brandished a firearm in Elkin, about 75 miles west of Greensboro. And in Seattle on June 7 a man drove his car into protesters and shot a demonstrator who attempted to stop him.

In early 2017, as boisterous protests mounted following President Trump’s inauguration, the Republican-controlled NC House passed legislation to provide drivers with limited immunity if they hit protesters on public roadway. The bill provided “that a person driving an automobile while exercising due care is immune from civil liability for any injury to another if the injured person was participating in a protest or demonstration and blocking traffic in a public street or highway at the time of the injury.”

The bill received affirmative votes from all but one Republican lawmaker in the Guilford and Forsyth delegations. The sole exception was Majority Whip Jon Hardister, who was counted as an excused absence. All Democratic lawmakers in the delegation voted against the bill.

The bill was referred to the Senate, but was dropped from consideration after neo-Nazi James A. Fields killed antiracist protester Heather Heyer in a car-ramming attack during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. in August 2017. Fields was ultimately convicted of murder.

A fierce backlash from retired officers

In their desire to see the police crack down on protesters blocking public roadways and entering stores, the retired law enforcement officers commenting on Marc Ridgill’s Facebook page accused Chief Brian James of “dereliction of duty” while also suggesting that the chief is caving to Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who they see as beholden progressive voters.

Vaughan vigorously disputed that assertion in an interview with TCB.

“The chief is not getting any marching orders from the city council,” Vaughan said. “Chief James is 100 percent in control of his police department. He has free rein over the way he runs his police department. He has had absolutely zero interference from me or anyone else on city council.”

Considering the reference to Nov. 3, 1979, one retired law enforcement officer who chimed in on the thread might come as a surprise. Larry Gibson was a captain on the force who was involved in the department’s response to the planned march in 1979 that abruptly ended with the five antiracists’ deaths. The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, which was published in 2006, named Gibson as one of seven officers who were “present in intelligence meetings and participated in key decision-making.”

The report found that when Edward Dawson, a Ku Klux Klan member and Greensboro police informant, requested a copy of the march permit, “Gibson did not inquire about his intentions.”

“The GPD knew the Klan had a copy of the parade route and that Dawson had repeatedly stated that the Klan had met many times to discuss plans to follow marchers, heckle them and possibly assault them by throwing eggs,” the report said. “No officer recalls any discussion in any planning meetings of the likely consequences of this assault on already emotionally-charged anti-Klan demonstrators in a black neighborhood.”

On June 13, Gibson commented on Ridgill’s Facebook page: “Under NC law it is dereliction of duty, a felony, for a police officer to refuse to carry out their duty. The new chief is guilty of a felony and should be prosecuted.”

Gibson’s assessment dovetailed with other commenters, including Harlon Costner — a retired federal marshal who once ran for Guilford County sheriff — who accused Chief James and the officers on duty during the Battleground Avenue protest of failing to uphold their oaths.

“Like me, he took an oath to serve and protect,” Costner wrote. “He answers to [Vaughan], yes, but that does not mean he must obey an unlawful order.”

Glenn, the department spokesperson, declined to comment directly on the retired police captain’s assertion that the new chief’s handling of the protests constitutes a felony.

“There is discretion under the law, first and foremost,” Glenn said. “More importantly, the goal of the police department is to be responsive to the community. People feel the need to protest. We want to give people the ability to do that safely, and also in a way that protects the safety of the drivers.”

City Attorney Charles Watts also said the chief’s decision to allow the protesters some latitude is well within the bounds of the law.

“As to the decision by the police as to how to address the protesters, what [Gibson is] pointing out is a very important aspect of the role that the police play and the chief plays: That’s when to enforce the law, how much — and it’s a discretionary matter.”

Watts added, “As to what happened at the store, that’s private property; the store owner did not want us to take any action.” (The incident under question took place at Target, but Watts said he doesn’t want “to disclose that owner’s position directly.)

Watts said he doesn’t see any evidence of dereliction of duty by the police during the June 13 protest, adding that he’s not aware of any felony in the state statutes that remotely fits the description of the police response.

“What I’d say he’s right about is there’s always a risk,” Watts said. “We hope and believe the chief is making good judgements. But his discretion to make judgments is not taken away by any criminal law that I’m aware of.”

Watts added that worldwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death “is about police using discretion and authority inappropriately. We want them to have the discretion and use it appropriately. We put guns in their pockets and put them in power to enforce the law. We hope they do it with good judgement.”

Watts pointed out an irony in the retired police captain questioning the judgement of the current police chief in responding to the protests for black lives.

“He’s probably right that what happened with the riot [in 1979] is an example of poor judgment at a minimum. As to what the police should or should not have done, it’s possible to make a mistake.”

Gibson could not be reached for this story.

Jeffrey Woods, a history professor at Arkansas Tech University who testified before the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2005, said the rift between retired officers and the current administration at the Greensboro Police Department could be considered a signal of progress, at least to some degree.

In 2005, Woods told the truth and reconciliation commission that North Carolina law enforcement in 1979 “generally shared an ideological culture with the Klan,” which, he said, “commonly linked the threat of communist subversion with racial reform.” The shared culture, he said, “had been part of the majority white racially conservative population of the South for decades, generations even.”

In an email to TCB on Wednesday, Woods said, “Our history, especially in the South, is plagued by those in civil authority acting on perceived rather than real threats and employing levels of force rooted in prejudice, blind fear and mechanical sadism.

“While the reaction of some retired GPD officers reveals an ongoing misassociation of peaceful racial protests with radical subversion and the instigation of violence, that misassociation does not seem to be shared by the mayor’s office or current leadership of the GPD,” Woods continued. “I think that is a positive step in moving forward with the truth and reconciliation process that began 14 years ago.”

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