By Kendall McGee | May 31, 2020 at 5:14 PM EDT – Updated June 1 at 9:03 AM
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – A curfew was put into effect in the City of Wilmington until 6 a.m. Monday, June 1, after law enforcement leaders say a crowd of protesters refused to listen to orders to clear streets and intersections in downtown Sunday evening.
“Out of an abundance of caution and to keep our citizens safe, Mayor Bill Saffo has issued a state of emergency in the city, in effect immediately,” a tweet from the City of Wilmington stated. “A curfew is in effect until 6 am. Please refrain from any non-essential activity.”
A crowd of protesters started gathering in downtown around 6 p.m. Sunday, with demonstrators later chanting “George Floyd,” “no justice, no peace,” and “can’t breathe.”
New Hanover County sheriff’s deputies used inert gas to try to move the crowd along shortly after 8 p.m. — two hours into the protest in front of Thalian Hall. Police said multiple objects were thrown at the New Hanover County courthouse.
According to a tweet from the WPD, protesters began throwing fireworks at vehicles on Front and Princess streets just before 9 p.m.
Inert gas also was deployed again shortly before 9:30 p.m.
A rock was thrown at 128 South, shattering the glass door of the Front Street business.
According to online jail records, eight people were charged with failure to disperse on command. Three of those people also were charged with a curfew violation, while two were charged with inciting to riot.
New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon told WECT that law enforcement officers spotted three or four people with guns in the crowd. He said one man who was arrested had a gun in his possession. District Attorney Ben David later confirmed a second arrest.
“You can’t damage our town,” McMahon said. “It was not the local groups if you noticed. Again we want you to come and be peaceful, but you have to follow the rules.”
When a WECT reporter suggested that the events of the night might not help the public’s perception of local law enforcement, McMahon strongly disagreed.
“I think you’re absolutely wrong because the people tonight were doing criminal acts,” McMahon said. “So Wilmington should be very proud of their law enforcement tonight. This was violent, this was unlawful, so we’re going to protect Wilmington so you’re wrong. The public should be very proud of us,” McMahon said.
The District Attorney echoed several of McMahon’s comments.
“Violence, lawlessness will not be tolerated,” New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David said. “To be very clear, we renounce the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, and we respect people’s rights to protest that. There have been a couple arrests made at this point. We’ll see them in court tomorrow. We will do all we can to make sure this city is safe while upholding people’s constitutional rights.”
Mayor Saffo added: “There was nothing about any kind of peaceful protest here. This was to incite a riot.”
New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon
District Attorney Ben David
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo
Protesters in downtown Wilmington
Crowds largely disbanded later in the evening, but rumors persisted as to potential future problem areas for the city. Police and deputies were patrolling several locations, including Independence Mall and Mayfaire.
The gathering was scheduled originally to protest the death of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis days ago while in police custody. Crowds in other North Carolina cities became violent over the weekend, prompting Governor Cooper to offer National Guard assistance in places like Raleigh and Charlotte.
There were reports earlier in the day Sunday that the protest for downtown Wilmington was cancelled, but by 7 p.m. the crowd in Wilmington was present on both sides of the street in front of city hall. Local police urged citizens to stay off the roads for safety reasons.
At least one business shut down early Sunday evening in Wilmington out of an abundance of caution.
While plans for another demonstration were floating around social media this week, local leaders said the Sunday protest was not affiliated with the local Black Lives Matter Movement or the New Hanover County NAACP.
Leaders say they grew concerned this weekend with some of the things being asked of Sunday’s protesters, given outbreaks of violence seen in many cities across the country. Saturday night, a dozen people were arrested in Raleigh and businesses were vandalized. In Fayetteville, the historic Market House was set on fire this weekend.
Plans posted online asked people to wear dark clothing, cover their tattoos and faces, avoid filming and gather after dark.
NAACP president Deborah Dicks Maxwell said the instructions seemed to indicate protesters were preparing for something more serious than a brief demonstration.
“There doesn’t need to be a rally in the city of 1898 from 6 to 9 o’clock. While I’m sure it could have been held peacefully, you’re lending the chance for something dangerous to happen when you’re holding something that late and that dark. Sun goes down at 8:15 p.m. and you need to be home. We don’t want a curfew, we don’t want trouble. We’re tired of people dying, but this is my home and we want peace for the port,” said Maxwell.
Wilmington City Councilman Kevin Spears also acknowledged the Sunday protest in a Facebook post, agreeing he was concerned about the situation escalating.
“We have the opportunity to be an untouched city in North Carolina and the cancellation of this rally is one more day we’re untouched. So each day gives us a better chance of going through this time of turmoil as a city untattered. Then people will say ‘How did Wilmington do that?’ Because we all stuck together: black, brown, white, Latino, Jewish, Christian, Muslim… we all stood together,” said Maxwell.
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