Like many American cities, Raleigh was rocked this summer by street protests decrying the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Peaceful protesters downtown were replaced by more agitated protestors after the sun set. Raleigh Police and Wake deputies showed up in riot gear, deputies immediately sent pepper gas flying, and a fray soon commenced. Instead of engaging the public, police and deputies used an iron-fist approach to clear the streets. As a result, those supposedly there to prevent a riot essentially guaranteed a riot. It was the first time in many decades that gas was used on a crowd in Raleigh.
The next morning downtown Raleigh looked like a war zone. Broken glass was everywhere. Spray painted graffiti covered buildings. A convenience store had been set on fire. At the same time, though, Raleighites from all walks of life came downtown to help clean up. Folks who were strangers only minutes ago were teaming up to put planters back in place and sweep up. It was great to see.
Travis and I went downtown to snap photos and view the damage. As I lingered to view the damage to a shattered storefront, a Black couple was passing me on the sidewalk. The man, looking pained at the destruction, locked eyes with me and gave a quiet, somber “good morning” and I returned it. I was so happy that he had thought to reach out and I was thrilled to return the favor. It was a simple gesture but made me smile the rest of the day, in spite of all the chaos. I love my Raleigh family.
Not all was peace and love, though. I passed one contractor, a white man, who was yelling at the nearest Black people he could find, blaming them for the destruction. I shook my head. That man doesn’t know those folks and ignorance fuels his fear.
Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin was apparently asleep when the chaos took place. I have to wonder who was coordinating the efforts. On subsequent nights, Baldwin declared a curfew but by then the damage was done. Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown was publicly critical of Wake Sheriff’s deploying gas, as she should be. Witnesses I spoke with confirmed that it was deputies who first filled the streets with smoke. That’s a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle.
To RPD’s credit, the department committed to reviewing its methods. Later protests had a much lighter touch, allowing legitimate First Amendment demonstrations without amping things up. I applauded this more enlightened approach. The less adversarial approach helped avoid needless violence and property damage. If the first night had been handled this way there would’ve been far less destruction.
One unfortunate victim of the police’s rough handling was to change Travis’s attitude about the police. Before the Floyd protests, he had assisted RPD in creating a video about the dangers of teens bringing guns on campus. He and his classmates were recognized by Chief Deck-Brown at a Raleigh City Council meeting. All that goodwill went up in smoke when the gas canisters starting flying downtown. That heavy-handed approach was pretty much the quickest way to destroy community trust. It was so, so stupid.
There were other protests, more curfews, and eventually things settled down. A recent N&O story reported that extra security provided outside the home of the Chief as a result of the protests cost taxpayers over $160,000. Chief Deck-Brown announced her retirement last week.