Unity Arises From Protest Destruction

By Brie Handgraaf The Wilson Daily Times, N.C.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) It is not just the big cities touched by violence. Several small business owners in a North Carolina community share their experiences fending off looters. Many banded together and kept their lights on all night in the hope it would help quell any disturbances.

Wilson

Even though Da Bayou has been closed for two months because of COVID-19, the restaurant and bar was among those initially targeted by protesters in a Sunday evening downtown disturbance.

"A couple of them jumped our patio, and five were headed to our place with baseball bats once they'd knocked out the windows across the street at the playhouse," said Amanda LeVoie, who owns the restaurant that is planned to reopen Saturday as The New Normal Restaurant and Bar. She said her husband, Chris, and many other business owners stayed in their businesses throughout the night in hopes of avoiding confrontations or damage. "Two jumped our fence and one tried to kick in the doors, but when they recognized Chris from club nights, a guy told them not to mess with our place. They jumped back over the fence, so club night saved us."

THE FIRST SPARK Marty Garris with Tig's Courtyard on Barnes Street said he first caught wind of the planned protests around 9 a.m. Sunday.

"We spent a very stressful and emotionally draining day trying to figure out how to prepare and trying to figure out what might happen," he said. "I was here at 9 o'clock Sunday morning and didn't leave until 2:30 a.m. Monday. I won't be surprised if it happens again."

The initial protest was planned for 5 p.m. at the courthouse, and business owners worried it would quickly turn from the peaceful gathering into something more insidious.

"Our downtown business specialist Kellianne Davis suggested that we 'shine a light,' both literally and figuratively from our storefronts," said Susan Kellum, downtown marketing and communications coordinator for the city of Wilson. Davis, who owns and operates Groove Geek Records and More on Barnes Street, hoped it would convey a message of unity toward protest participants. "Keeping lights on is always a good public safety practice. Since historic downtown WIlson has its own lighthouse, it became the symbol for the messaging."

Attorney Rhyan Breen lit his second floor offices on Goldsboro Street and passed the message along to other business owners to do the same. He also went downtown for the protest and stayed for several hours.

"You don't think you'll have to teach your kids that are 7 and 8 years old about systematic racism and why people get upset about it, but I gave them a little primer before I left, and they were scared," Breen said. "(My wife) Jessica let them stay in our bed until I got home, and they hugged me extra tight."

CATCHING FIRE The initial protest went well, and Breen spent the bulk of his time chatting with friends and strangers about the catalyst for the event and what can be done to stop further violence.

"It was upsetting to see it turn from a peaceful event, but I saw it change. I was standing on Goldsboro Street, waving and talking to everyone, but around 9:45 or 10 p.m., people stopped waving back, and the entire demeanor of folks seemed to change," Breen said. "Because I get to interface with juveniles as part of my job, I told the ones I knew to just go home, but they wouldn't be dissuaded. The scariest part were the people running toward the smoke, the shooting and the perceived danger."

Mayor Carlton Stevens said he heard about the 5 p.m. protest on Sunday morning and was eager to show his --and the city's -- support of the cause. He stuck around for a few hours before heading home. He thought the protest stayed peaceful, then learned about a disturbance at Walmart and watched The Wilson Times live Facebook videos as the situation turned violent in downtown.

"For those who kept everything peaceful, I am grateful for coming out and letting their voices be heard," he said. "To the ones who just want to destroy downtown Wilson or loot, the message against violence is lost by your use of violence. In order to have your voice heard, it has to be done in the right way, but their actions became the focus as well as what was damaged instead of the death of George Floyd. That won't help us move forward at all."

He was further dismayed when he learned of a list spread online with downtown shops specifically owned by black entrepreneurs with instructions to leave those businesses alone during the unrest.

"I would never, ever take part in a list that separates black businesses from any other business because my love is for Wilson as a whole. This is not a black and white issue, it is a right and wrong issue, so we should work to protect everybody and every business. To organize this list is just not right because we're working to fight systematic racism, but that list sends is racism.

"My entire premise when I ran for this office was for One Wilson and that means all of us coming together."

THE AFTERMATH Trish Bradshaw with Dance Studio B said she relied on friends to prepare her shop for possible issues since she was unable to get downtown.

Bradshaw was among the thousands of Wilsonians who watched the melee broadcast live on Facebook. She worried about what she would find when she returned Monday morning to the studio on the corner of Goldsboro and Nash streets, but was glad her windows were left unbroken.

"None of it makes any sense, and it is so sad," she said. "And I'm afraid it is not over. If the protest is productive, then some good can come from it, but when they are not even addressing the issue, I just ask 'Why?' I'm praying for all of us and that we can find some peace."

Officials worry about protesters turning violent again with businesses bracing for the possible economic ramifications, which are falling on the heels of two months of reduced business due to the global pandemic.

"I thought it was a very nice, peaceful protest at the courthouse. The part of the march I saw was the same way, and I was hoping our downtown would be the place that could show other communities how to have a peaceful protest, but all that changed when it got dark," Garris said. "I think it was a different group who just wanted to cause destruction without regard for how hard we've worked to bring downtown back or the fact that we feel the pain they feel. We need to stop being so divided."

A variety of business owners and strangers worked together early Monday to clean up the broken glass and board up shops damaged Sunday.

"Caroline Quinn and I picked up trash in front of the courthouse for a while. Another gentleman and I picked up a trash can that had been knocked into the street," Breen said. "It was refreshing to see people come together before the sun even came up to put our city back together." ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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