Elizabeth City police arrested four protesters, including former City Councilor Kirk Rivers, Monday, charging them with impeding traffic as they marched on Ehringhaus Street calling for release of sheriff’s deputies’ body camera footage in Andrew Brown Jr.’s shooting death.
According to Rivers, he and about 50 protesters had a permit to march from the Public Safety Building on Colonial Avenue to the Burger King at the intersection of Ehringhaus Street and Halstead Boulevard.
Rivers, who has led or participated in protests of Brown’s shooting death every day since they began on April 21, said conditions were rainy, so the march’s participation was smaller than expected. The march was scheduled to take place just hours after Brown’s funeral at Fountain of Life Church on U.S. Highway 17 South.
Rivers said the marchers were being escorted by police vehicles — 10 in front of protesters, 15 behind them — along Ehringhaus Street when the front line of police vehicles suddenly stopped at the intersection of Brooks Avenue.
“The officers got out and made a beeline to the young lady who was leading the chant,” Rivers said. He said she was using a bullhorn to call out to marchers: “Say his name! Release the tapes!”
Rivers said he approached officers and told them that the march was being conducted peacefully.
“But they kept saying, ‘You’re stopping, you’re stopping,’” Rivers said. “I told them if they hadn’t stopped, we wouldn’t have stopped.”
Police officers arrested and handcuffed the woman who had been leading the chant and then arrested and handcuffed him, Rivers said. They also arrested two other protesters and took them all to the Pasquotank Magistrate’s Office where they were each charged with impeding traffic, sitting, standing or lying, and issued $250 secured bonds, Rivers said.
An official with the Pasquotank County Clerk of Court’s Office confirmed the charges and secured bonds and said the other three people arrested included Melissa Matthews, 22, of the 900 block of Small Drive, Elizabeth City; James Goar, 45, of the 1000 block of Honeycutt Ave., Elizabeth City; and Mallory Thornton, 33, of the 1800 block of Daniels Farm Road, Mebane. All have first appearances scheduled for June 24.
Rivers, who took part in another protest on Ehringhaus Street Tuesday night, said he was puzzled by police officers’ decision to arrest him and the three other marchers.
“I guess they decided enough was enough,” he said. “But I’m still a little puzzled because peaceful protests is what we’ve been all about. Is it disruptive? Yes. But what took place (with Brown’s shooting) disrupted a family’s life.
Asked why police chose to arrest only four protesters, Rivers said “that’s a question you’ll need to ask the officers.”
A post on the Elizabeth City Police Department’s Facebook page at 6:15 p.m. Monday warned motorists to expect delays and road closures on Road Street, Colonial Avenue and Ehringhaus Street as police redirected traffic around “citizens exercising their constitutional right to a peaceful protest.”
Two subsequent posts, however, said police had issued a warning to “protesters who are blocking the roadway and intersections and not walking.”
Neither City Manager Montre Freeman nor city police Chief Eddie Buffaloe responded to phone calls Tuesday seeking comment on the arrests.
But during an interview over the weekend, Freeman explained his decision to start requiring protest leaders to secure a permit.
The city’s long-standing policy requires a permit to protest on public property, but Freeman said he waived the requirement during the first 10 days of protests following Brown’s fatal shooting.
“We did not want to make an angry, frustrating situation even more tumultuous by requiring a permit to protest,” he said. “We just did not want to do that.”
Freeman believes now, in the third week of protests over Brown’s shooting death by deputies, and especially after discussing the matter with protest leaders, the city is in a better position to begin enforcing the protest permit ordinance.
Requiring a permit explaining when and where protests will take place and estimates of how many protesters will participate will allow the city to better respond to the protests, Freeman said.
“It will allow us to better plan for the protests and inform our citizens where they’ll be taking place so we can redirect traffic,” he said.
Having more information about the protests will also allow first responders to respond quicker to crimes and other emergencies like fires and to residents who are suffering health crises, he said.
Under the existing ordinance, those seeking to protest are required to get an approved permit 15 days prior to their event on city property. However, Freeman said he planned to waive that requirement for the next 14 days.
Under what he described over the weekend as a two-week “grace period,” protest leaders can seek a daily permit from the city and get approval the same day, Freeman said.
Rivers said he doesn’t agree with either the curfew or the permit to protest, believing they are both infringements on the right to peacefully assemble. He said he met with city officials to discuss the curfew and left the meeting appreciative for officials “transparency” but still not convinced it was necessary, especially since the protests he’s been leading have typically wrapped up at 10:30 p.m.
He said regardless of the obstacles — curfew, permit and now, apparently, “no stopping in the street” — the protests he’s leading don’t want to lose focus on their goal: getting the body camera footage of deputies’ shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. released to Brown family’s and the public.
“We’ve adjusted as the city adjusts,” he said. “We definitely don’t have to agree with them about the curfew or the permit. We will do what we have to do to get our point across about releasing the tape.”
The four arrests Monday night weren’t the first during the Brown protests for impeding traffic. In fact, two other people were charged with impeding traffic at the intersection of Elizabeth and Water streets near the Camden Causeway Bridge on Saturday. Another 18 people have been arrested since the curfew went into effect for violating the curfew.
Asked how the city planned to handle permit violations, Freeman said he’ll leave that up to Buffaloe. He said he did not envision police shutting down a protest or arresting protesters who violate the conditions of their group’s permit.
“Sometimes people do things without knowing they’re violating a permit,” he said.
He noted the patience police have exercised up until now responding to curfew violators.
“During the first night after the curfew, we did not make the first arrest until 9:42 p.m., which was about an hour and 42 minutes later,” he said. “The next night it (the first arrests) was more than two hours” after the curfew.
Freeman said he believes effective community policing requires such restraint, particularly in highly tense situations like Brown’s shooting death by law enforcement.
Asked what the city plans to do after the two-week grace period, Freeman said it will enforce the 15-day notice requirement.
Responding to criticism Friday from several civil rights groups about the city’s decision to enforce the protest permit requirement, Freeman said the city “is following the Constitution.”
“We can regulate the time, place and matter of protests,” he said.
Freeman also noted that responsible governance requires the city to be able to balance peaceful protesters’ rights with the needs of citizens.
“I support the protesters, but the protests are not the only thing that is happening in they city,” he said. “I have to make sure we can respond to the rest of what’s going on in the city, too. When a 911 call goes out, our emergency responders need to be able to get to (the caller) to provide the assistance they need.”
Freeman encouraged citizens to “be patient as we work through this as best we can.” He also applauded protesters “for honoring their word.”
“We want to continue to do what we need to to keep the protesters safe and respond to the needs of the citizens of Elizabeth City,” he said.