WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said he believes there is a significant sea of change in the United States when it comes to policing, and that the city’s seven straight days of protests against brutality are a testament to the power of the first amendment.
While Sunday, May 31 and Monday, June 1 saw some clashes between protestors and law enforcement, the rest of the week has seen peaceful demonstrations.
But there have been numerous rumors circulated on social media and questions seen and received by WECT about some aspects of the protests, particularly whether groups have had permits, and the fact that large gatherings are taking place in the middle of a global pandemic.
The city of Wilmington has a “picketing” ordinance, that requires any group planning a demonstration on public property to notify the city or police department if the group will be larger than 10 people.
According to city staff, the ordinance carries a potential Class-3 misdemeanor charge if violated, but the city generally tries to work with groups and organizers on a case by case basis.
In the case of the demonstrations taking place on the city hall steps, they aren’t being organized by a particular advocacy group or organization.
Still, Saffo said it is helpful for someone to be in contact with authorities and officials, because it can help mitigate confusion and tension.
“What, what our concern is that when people do not register with us, and we don’t know who they are, that creates some angst with with law enforcement and with elected leaders, because we have groups that may come in here that may be trying to do something that we’re not aware of, or may try to do harm to other people,” Saffo said. “The more that we know about that particular group, I think, the more that we get our guards down and we feel much more comfortable.”
The mayor has said multiple times this week that part of the heightened concern ahead of Sunday’s protests that ended up turning violent was the lack of understanding who the group was, and some indication that outside groups were potentially there to stir up trouble.
While the city and police department said as of Thursday, June 5 they had not received forms specific to the group, they said the unofficial organizers had been in touch with the police.
“The young people that are demonstrating—there’s a relationship there,” Saffo said. “They’re talking to our police department and talking to police officials. There’s a comfort level; they understand who these folks are, what they’re trying to do, you know, not a problem.”
Earlier this week the city announced it would not be having a fireworks display on Independence Day, because the event generally draws thousands of people and, with the coronavirus still making its way through the population, it would not be safe to hold the event.
Some have complained about the cancellation of events and the continued limitation of businesses due to the coronavirus; meanwhile, protestors are gathering en masse, to the point the city addressed it on social media.
Saffo pointed to the United States Constitution—individuals have the right to peaceably assemble, even if health officials and city leaders advise against it.
“Well, first, the First Amendment is very powerful, and it gives you a lot of leeway as individual citizens to be able to protest and demonstrate so that is given to you by the founding fathers of this great nation to be able to do that. Mayor, the City Council, the governor, nobody can take that right or take that away from you. So you have that right to be able to do that,” he said, but added, “We also are dealing with this pandemic; we are seeing a numbers increase. And we’re very concerned about that.”
Unlike citizens gathering to protest, Saffo said the city has control over what events it chooses to hold or not to hold, and at this time, they don’t feel comfortable going forward with large events.
“We as a city and city council made the decision that we did want to have mass gatherings of that nature and that something that we could control, we decided to put those off for the time being.”
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