Winston-Salem protesters disrupt holiday traffic and shopping

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by Jordan Green

Winston-Salem protesters marched silently with hands raised through Hanes Mall and briefly blocked holiday traffic on Sunday.

When 40 people marched up to the south entrance of Hanes Mall to protest the officer-involved deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown on Sunday afternoon, several Winston-Salem police officers were blocking the doors.

They held signs reading “Justice for Eric Garner,” “Black lives matter” and “Racism kills,” and chanted, “No justice, no peace.” They repeated, “We are the people,” and then, pointing at the police: “You are the people.”

The police informed the protesters that they would be arrested for trespassing if they tried to enter the mall. Amid the chanting, a sometimes tense negotiation between the police and protesters took place about the conditions under which they could enter the mall, followed by an impromptu debate among the protesters about the advisability of pushing their limits. Some shoppers threaded through the scrum of protesters with looks of mild bewilderment as teenagers snapped cell-phone pictures from inside the mall and one woman said, “Amen” as she exited.

Eventually, the protesters settled on a plan to march into the mall silently with hands raised, and the police did not block their path. One woman raised her fist in solidarity as she walked alongside the marchers, and then peeled off to go shop in Macy’s as the group turned a corner.

Ghali Hasan, who led the march into the mall alongside organizer Kim Porter, said the reason for protesters’ anger go beyond police misconduct.

“This racist-ass system has to go,” he said. “Racism and poverty, if you put these two together and keep antagonizing people, they will eventually strike back.

“I keep my finger on the pulse of the black community because I’m black,” he said. “I can tell you right now it’s fuming. The lid is trembling. When it boils over, the good white folks are going to catch hell, just like everyone else.”

Porter, a longtime activist who has worked under the banner of Occupy Winston-Salem in recent years, said she considered the protest to be a success because it prompted holiday shoppers to talk about issues of racism and injustice. She noted that no one was prevented from shopping, and said that was never the intention.

The only arrest took place after the event had concluded when protesters were walking back to their cars near the intersection of Stratford Road and Hanes Mall Boulevard. An individual who had been wearing a Guy Fawkes mask — later identified by the police as 20-year-old Zachary Widener of Winston-Salem — was arrested while riding a longboard back and forth across the street on a charges of impeding traffic and wearing a mask in public. A second individual with a longboard who had been wearing a skeleton mask — identified as 21-year-old Christopher Maurer of Winston-Salem was cited for impeding traffic and wearing a mask, but not arrested.

The handful of protesters remaining, including Porter and fellow organizer Tony Ndege, reacted with puzzlement to the incident, openly speculating that the two could be provocateurs.

“They could be cops for all I know,” Ndege said. “I’ve never seen them.”

“We protest all over the state, and I have never seen them at any protest,” Porter added. Later she apologized to Lt. LT Peterson, and said, “You may know them better than us.”

Later, the police issued an additional citation for impeding traffic to Porter. The police did not explain the circumstances in a press release that disclosed the citation, and Porter declined to elaborate on the record.

The Winston-Salem police had issued an alert to motorists through a press release the night before to be aware that the protest could result in “extreme congestion” while pledging to monitor the scene to prevent pedestrians from getting struck by vehicles.

As protesters filtered onto the sidewalk along Hanes Mall Boulevard over the first hour of the protest, plainclothes officers — easily spotted by the veterans among the activist corps — salted themselves into the crowd. City Manager Lee Garrity took up a post behind the picket line and genially chatted with the protesters. He laughed aloud when he received a text from one of the plainclothes officers reading, “We’re watching you.” Otherwise, the police kept a low profile, with uniformed officers out of sight.

Adding to the uncertainty surrounding the event, a man and his elementary school-aged son took photographs of the protesters as if assembling a dossier. About an hour into the protest, the crowd swelling to about 75 people, about a dozen protesters crossed the street to the median, giving them closer proximity to motorists waiting at the traffic light. The protesters elicited a range of responses, from supportive honks and fists raised in solidarity to anger and derision. One woman held an oversized replica of a badge from her window and berated the protesters. A man tried to disrupt the protest by blowing a party horn, and insulted them with a mock chant, “Pants up — don’t loot.”

At one point the protesters moved into the street with letters spelling out “black lives matter,” facing traffic briefly before walking to the other side of the street. The disruption lasted about a minute. Motorists blared horns and revved engines to express impatience.

About 40 people marched from the intersection of Hanes Mall Boulevard and Stratford Road to the mall, while a smaller group stayed behind. The march at times had an improvised feel, as Porter and other organizers polled the group to try to get a consensus about where to take the march and what level of risk they were willing to take. Two Elon Law School students joined the march as observers, representing the National Lawyers Guild.

At one point, Porter summoned the group to take a break, calling for a moment of silence to honor Garner and Brown, while also giving people at the back of the march time to catch up and pacing the more enthusiastic in their ranks.

“I think it’s important to stay together,” Porter said. “The manager of the mall told me yesterday that it’s private property. I’m gonna suggest that we not block the entrance because that’s an illegal act.”

When they had reassembled, the marchers chanted, “I can’t breathe!”

For every passing motorist who honked or raised their fist in solidarity, another called out with mirthless derision: “Ha ha ha.”

The inconvenience experienced by motorists trying to finish their holiday shopping was not lost on the protesters.

“Eric Garner and his family will not celebrate Christmas,” said Meko Lawson of Winston-Salem. “I am the mother of a 14-year-old boy. I cannot imagine my son lying in the street for four hours like an animal. I cannot imagine my husband being killed by police using an illegal chokehold.”

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