‘We made a call,’ Law enforcement, city leadership respond to protest in Wilmington

Law enforcement reaction to protests

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Just 24 hours after protesters clashed with officers in the heart of downtown, the debris has been cleared from the sidewalks and a handful of people gathered on the steps of city hall.

The city’s emergency declaration and curfew expired Monday morning. Police were out monitoring the small gathering Monday afternoon at city hall and stressed they were prepared if activity stirred up again.

Crowds showed up at Wilmington City Hall around 6 p.m. Sunday. A demonstration Saturday in 1898 park boasted high numbers of peaceful participants who stood in the pouring rain to bring attention to the death of George Floyd. Later in the weekend, community activists raised concerns about another demonstration planned for Sunday night that was not affiliated with the local Black Lives Matter movement, the NAACP or the Black Leadership Caucus. Several leaders announced the Sunday night event was cancelled, but people showed up anyway.

“What I saw yesterday was not a peaceful protest. We had a group of people in here that were hell bent on coming in here to riot or disrupt our community," said Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo. “We as a community won’t stand for that. I’m glad our law enforcement officials took the action they took. They stopped a situation that could have gotten way out of hand and been a tragedy.”

Things started peacefully, with participants performing interpretive dance and holding signs for passing cars. The situation escalated around 8 p.m after police announced over a loudspeaker that people had five minutes to leave. Later, police used gas and other measures to disperse the crowds and clear people from 3rd Street.

A spokesperson with the police department explained uniformed officers hung back until that point, trying to give organizers the opportunity to handle things themselves and get the crowds out of the street.

Shortly after people blocked the two intersections on either side of city hall, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office and the Wilmington Police Department jointly made the decision to come in with lights on and clear the crowds. Monday, police stressed the decision was made for the safety of the protesters.

“We were strategically looking to make sure everyone’s safety was being adhered to. We made a call...the call, I believe was a good call. We brought out folks, gave warning, we asked them to come out of the street," said WPD spokeswoman Linda Thompson. “One reason we had them move out of the street was because the street wasn’t blocked properly. Anyone could have come driving down the street, injuring, killing protesters on the street. Police have to maintain order.”

Officers say the volatile situation was further exacerbated when they learned multiple people in the crowds were armed. Police say one of the people they arrested early in the night had a gun.

Tensions were high as lines of law enforcement officers in riot gear marched through city streets, clearing anyone in their path. Protesters threw rocks, water bottles and canisters back at police and deputies. Officers used CS gas, inert gas, rubber bullets, sock rounds and other non-lethal measures to disperse crowds.

One memorable moment happened earlier in the evening when several WPD officers and Interim Police Chief Donny Williams took a knee to connect with protesters. Its an image WPD wants people to remember.

“I think that was an effort to let them know we were there with them. We didn’t want anyone hurt. Our officers wanted to go home safely just like they did. So over a period of time, our officers took their masks off and let them know we don’t want any problems. We don’t want anyone to get hurt. We’re glad there were no injuries last night, no law enforcement officers or citizens but there were several arrests made last night,” said Thompson.

Mayor Bill Saffo says now that the demonstration is over, the real work begins.

“But what we saw yesterday was not about demonstrating. It was about creating chaos in our community and we’re seeing that happen around the country. It’s unfortunate because there’s a message the nation is talking about, which is police brutality and what we can do to combat that and make things better between police and the citizens they protect and I think that message is being lost in this violence that’s taking place across the country,” said the mayor.

The mayor and officials with the police department are pleading for people with concerns about how the department operates to reach out to them directly. Good or bad, they want to hear from people.

“There’s an opportunity here. We want people to come in and talk to us. Tell us what their concerns are. Let our police chief and his staff and our Sheriff Ed McMahon and his staff show the people what we are doing. If there’s things we need to improve upon, we want to hear from the community—what can we do to improve the relationship between our law enforcement officials and our community? At the end of the day, we’re all in this together," said Saffo.

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