The hum of restaurants and diners filled a section of West Fourth Street in downtown Winston-Salem early Saturday evening.
But that was eclipsed a few hours later by demonstrators’ shouts of still-lingering questions regarding the jail-related death of John Elliott Neville in December 2019.
Ten people were arrested by Winston-Salem police for blocking traffic as a group of about 40 people marched the crosswalks of the intersection of Fourth and North Cherry streets. The demonstrators appeared about 7 o’clock and stayed for about an hour.
The portion of Fourth Street between North Marshall and Trade streets had been blocked for a test of street dining during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing local restaurants to put tables in the streets and host more guests from 5 to 10 p.m. Cherry Street had been left open to traffic, an opening that protesters used to spread their message while not marching through the sectioned-off dining zones.
Protesters circled until four broke off from the group to block the intersection. After roughly 15 minutes, they were arrested. Two more protesters replaced them, and they were also taken away. This happened with two more pairs of protesters until police eventually blocked the street with a combination of patrol cars and vans.
The group, a combination of the Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition, chanted, “If you cannot tell us why, this is why we occupy,” while calling for answers from Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough and District Attorney Jim O’Neill to provide more clarity surrounding the circumstances around the death of Neville, an inmate in the Forsyth County jail.
The Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalitions have been holding Occupy Winston-Salem protests at Bailey Park since July 15, occupying the space from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The 10 arrests Saturday follow 15 arrests made Friday during a similar march about the Neville case on North Liberty Street.
Neville died Dec. 4, 2019, but information regarding his treatment while in custody and the brain injury that caused his death didn’t come until seven months later when the Winston-Salem Journal reported his death in a June 26 article.
According to Neville’s autopsy, his brain injury occurred after his heart stopped beating. Neville asphyxiated while being restrained with his arms behind his back and his legs folded. He was revived multiple times at the jail and at the hospital before he ultimately died.
In addition to questions about Neville’s death, the protest groups have issued other demands: a ban on the prone restraint used by law enforcement on any civilian; a requirement that the public to be informed immediately of a death involving a sheriff’s deputy or police officer; and the dismissal of all charges against protesters from arrests that took place on July 8 and 9, when a total of 20 people were arrested during those two days.
As Saturday’s protesters navigated the intersection, their paths sometimes crossed with people heading to a meal. Shouts of support sprinkled the scene from the tables that decorated the street. And when traffic picked back up on Cherry, the occasional driver held a fist out their window while chants continued to ring.
Shortly after 8, the protests dissipated, and the night fell back into the clinking plates and glasses of late dinners.
With two hours left of the dining event, the restaurant hum overtook the street again.
On the heels of eight recent shootings in Winston-Salem, the city is experiencing gun violence that mirrors a national trend. Some observers say the coronavirus pandemic might be a factor.
Winston-Salem police have investigated 16 homicides so far this year, Assistant Police Chief Natoshia Miles said. During the same period in 2019, the city had 15 homicides.
“We believe many are gang-related shooting incidents, including retaliations,” Miles said about the recent shootings. “The uptick in gun violence across the city has not increased the number of homicides overall, but they are occurring more frequently than in previous years.”
Winston-Salem police will continue its work to reduce gun violence, but they need the support of the local community and the criminal justice system, Miles said in an email.
“We are trying to wrap our minds around the reasons this continues to happen,” Miles said. “We know there is a small percentage of individuals committing this and other crimes. However, I am afraid that if the community does not step up and help deal with the issue, it will continue.”
Mayor Allen Joines of Winston-Salem said he is troubled about the violent acts.
“One homicide is too many,” Joines said. “There may be some correlation to the pandemic as young people do not have the opportunity to utilize recreation centers, YMCAs and YWCAs, movie theaters and other places that offer them chances to interact positively and use up some energy.
“Now that school will be remote for the first quarter of this school year, there will be even less opportunity for our young people to engage in positive activities,” Joines said.
Police have responded to eight recent shootings. Here are those details.
The first shooting occurred at 11:43 p.m. on July 11 in the 1500 block of North Liberty Street.
Three people were injured in the parking lot of the Citgo gas station. Jacquan Terez Nivens, 26, sustained a gunshot wound to his arm. A 15-year-old male and a 17-year-old male also were wounded.
The second incident happened at 2:05 a.m. on July 13 in the 1200 block of Academy Street.
Kalil Nathaniel Rice, 19, of Capistrano Drive was later found dead in abandoned vehicle on Gray Avenue with a gunshot wound to his head. Police say Rice was playing Russian roulette with four other people.
Investigators learned that Rice fatally injured himself after one of five people in the vehicle suggested that they play the lethal game, police said. Russian roulette is a deadly game of chance in which a person spins the cylinder of a revolver holding only one bullet, aims the gun at his or her head, and pulls the trigger.
The third shooting happened at 4:26 p.m. on July 13 inside of Hanes Mall. Two groups of armed men fired shots at each other, but no one was hit by gunfire.
Jameel Zimmerman Jr., 20, of High Point was charged with discharging a firearm, and Antonio Lamont Barnes, 21, of Thomasville was charged resisting a public officer. Police are looking for three other people.
The fourth incident occurred at 12:42 p.m. on July 15 on Timlic Avenue. A 14-year-old boy was shot in the leg in a drive-by shooting.
Jassy Salinas Vargas, 22, is charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon as well as shooting inside city limits and fleeing to elude arrest. Three people have been charged in the case.
The fifth shooting happened at 7:08 a.m. on July 15 in the 200 block of Cool Springs Road.
Karla Ragsdale Essick, 54, was shot and killed at the scene. Hermon Lowell Aycoth, 87, a neighbor, has been charged with murder in connection with Essick’s death.
The sixth shooting occurred at 1:43 a.m. on July 19 in the 1300 block of Thurmond Street.
Tevin Julian Douthit, 24, of Glen Forest Drive was shot and wounded by two other men. Douthit was taken to a local hospital with life-threatening injuries.
The seventh shooting happened at 9:55 p.m. on July 19 in the 1100 block of East 15th Street.
Rohaun Rutherford, 21, of Hemingway Street was found lying outside of that address with a gunshot wound. Rutherford was taken to a local hospital, where he died.
The latest shooting took place Saturday afternoon in the 900 block of Ferrell Avenue when two vehicles stopped in front of a residence and the occupants began firing at them, Winston-Salem Police said.
The victims — Zachery George, 19, Derisee Dillworth, 24, and Treyvez George, 21 — were standing in a yard on Ferrell Avenue and attempted to run inside but were struck by rounds before they could reach shelter inside, police said. The vehicles fled the area before police arrived.
All three men sustained serious injuries and were treated at a local hospital, police said. All three are in stable condition, and their injuries are not life-threatening.
Joines and police Capt. Steven Tollie pointed to similar gun violence taking place across the United States. For example, crime has spiked in cities such as New York, Dallas, Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Nationwide, protests have targeted police violence against Black people. The shootings in Winston-Salem have happened throughout the city.
Marva Reid, a local community activist, blames the COVID-19 outbreak for the local violence.
“People are confused,” Reid said. “We are bored, and we don’t know what to do.
“We, adults haven’t figured out anything for young people to do,” Reid said. “We haven’t figured out what we are going to do with ourselves. We don’t know what our futures look like.”
Sonya Horne of Winston-Salem said that city residents must stay alert to protect themselves.
“You have to be careful with the company that you keep,” Horne said she stood near where Rutherford was shot on East 15th Street. “They could have done something somewhere else and bring that drama with them.”
Charles Lee of Tobaccoville said that young people shouldn’t use guns to resolve their conflicts.
“They need to put those guns down and fight like we used to do,” Lee said as he stood in a front yard on Thurmond Street near where Douthit was shot and wounded.
“At least, you will get to see another day.”
Jeff MacIntosh, a member of the Winston-Salem City Council, said that guns are too plentiful in the city.
“It’s obviously pretty easy to come up with a gun if you are a 14-, 15-, (or a) 16-year-old kid in Winston-Salem,” said MacIntosh, a member of the city’s public-safety committee. “There is something wrong with that equation.”
MacIntosh and John Larson, another member of the Winston-Salem City Council, said that the coronavirus pandemic may be factor as well.
“COVID-19 has a psychological impact on (our) lives as well as an economic impact,” said Larson, a member of the city’s public-safety committee. “How’s that related to crime, I’m not sure how we peel that layer off.”
The local gun violence might be fueled by other factors, said Jack Monell, an associate professor of justice studies at Winston-Salem State University.
“We are seeing many in our community on short fuses for obvious reasons,” Monell said in an email. “Many feel stifled, worried about employment and stressed about how our future looks within the city, the state and nationally.
“With the uncertainty of the fall, frustration and anxiety will continue to impact some of the decisions our citizens make,” Monell said. “Without any proper interventions from community leaders, mental health and social services professionals and our law enforcement community, we will continue to see a steady rise.”
A group of Black Winston-Salem firefighters is blasting a city plan to bring in outside consultants to look into allegations of racism they say has been expressed by white firefighters in person and on social media.
The Omnibus group issued a statement Friday that called the city’s plan to bring in outside consultants “diversionary tactics” that the city would use “to make a mockery of our revelations.”
Omnibus is the name of a group of some 14 current and former firefighters who say they’re coming forward now to expose long-standing problems of racism within the department.
In addition to offensive social media postings by white firefighters, the group is talking about other incidents ranging from leaving a gorilla mask on the desk of a Black recruit to spitting tobacco juice into a firefighter’s boot.
The group held a news conference last Monday in which they demanded the resignation of Fire Chief William “Trey” Mayo and demanded control over who would investigate their claims.
“If we thought with any level of certainty that the city was capable of performing or choosing an entity to perform an investigation into the numerous violations of city policy, we would concede,” the group’s Friday statement read. “However, nothing could be further from the truth, and you insist on performing your own damage control.”
City officials are in the process of picking a consulting firm to do what is called a “climate assessment” of the department. The idea is that the consultants would meet with firefighters individually and in groups, conduct surveys and other activities in search of any problems of sexism, racism, favoritism or harassment.
It’s clear that the concerns of the Omnibus firefighters have been brewing for some time.
In his June 7-13 weekly update sent to fire department members, Mayo told firefighters that tensions were running high in America and the world following the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.
“Reactions to these tensions can be strong and controversial, and people are entitled to their opinions,” Mayo wrote. “However, we have to be mindful of our discussions, given that everyone in an assigned work group does not share the same opinion.”
Mayo said his staffers ought to avoid controversial topics while at work, and watch their conduct on social media. He said “people may still know who you are, and off-duty activity can quickly become a major on-duty distraction.”
Omnibus firefighters are sharing screen shots of social media posts by white firefighters that they found “highly offensive and disheartening,” and blame Mayo for failing to bring the offenders to account.
“These open displays of racism and social intolerance are occurring more frequently and contain more venom with each passing event,” the firefighters wrote, in a message that wound up in the hands of North Ward Council Member D.D. Adams on June 29. The firefighters said they were responding to Mayo’s comments in his weekly update.
In the message, the firefighters talked about how the death of Floyd lit a spark that caused people to end their silence over racism that they have experienced.
“Just as the killing of Mr. Floyd is not an isolated incident, neither are the occurrences of social media violations,” the firefighters wrote. They said Southeast Ward Council member James Taylor also got a copy of the message.
One of the social media posts pointed out by Omnibus group members showed a Confederate battle flag along with the statement that “If this symbol represents racism in America ... SO DO THESE.” Beneath the statement was an assortment of logos from groups such as the NAACP, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the Democratic Party and Black Entertainment Television.
Omnibus members said another posting featured an exchange between two white Winston-Salem firefighters, in what appeared to be a running exchange over the word Dixie.
In the conversation, one person said that people “wanting change should do some research on the topic — what they find will change how they view it.” That person went on to say that people should “learn from history and be better because of it, not remove or try to erase it. First riots, removal of statues, changing the names of events, there is no end to this.”
The other firefighter in the conversation responded by saying “exactly ... They’re ignorant of their history.”
Mayo and two fire captains are named by the Omnibus group as employees it suspects of “blatant, gross and repeated violations” of code of conduct policies. The group says that if their conduct is proven by investigation, they expect those employees to be fired.
The two fire captains have declined to comment. Mayo has been on vacation and could not be reached.
The alternative newspaper Triad City Beat shared screenshots from another white firefighter that showed multiple posts deriding the Black Lives Matter protests and equating them with looters.
The Omnibus firefighters said in their message sent to Adams that Mayo’s failure to condemn remarks that white firefighters have made on social media “speaks to his unwillingness to express concern and sympathy for those affected.”
Meanwhile, Assistant City Manager Damon Dequenne said Friday that the city will proceed with its plans to hire an outside consultant, despite the objections of the Omnibus group.
Dequenne expressed frustration that no one from the group has directly contacted city officials with their concerns. Asked about the various social media posts that the firefighters have found objectionable, Dequenne said the Omnibus group hasn’t shared them with the city.
“Nobody in our employee base has reached out to anyone in this office, the attorney’s office, human resources or the fire department,” Dequenne said. “The doors are open for anyone to come in and talk with whomever they feel comfortable. I’m personally available to meet with them.”
Presenting their cases to the media and in public announcements like the one last Monday doesn’t give the city what it needs to check out the complaints, Dequenne said.
“They have to come to us, but this isn’t helping,” Dequenne said.
Thomas Penn, an Omnibus member who spoke out during last Monday’s new conference, said the group went public because the city had had the message sent to Adams and Taylor for more than two weeks, and they hadn’t heard anything.
One action the city did take almost immediately after the Omnibus news conference last week was to extend the social media policy covering the police department over the fire department as well.
That policy says that employees are free to express themselves on social media as long as they don’t say things that impair the working relationships in the department or impair discipline and harmony.
As well, employees are cautioned that they can be disciplined — even fired — for violations, and are specifically forbidden from making statements on social media that “ridicule, malign, disparage or otherwise express bias against any race, any religion or any protected class of individuals.”
When she received Penn’s message, Adams forwarded it on to city officials, and Dequenne began looking for companies that could come in and examine the fire department.
Adams said firefighter concerns have in the past typically revolved around whether they were getting adequate equipment to do their jobs safely.
“I would listen to them and talk about their issues,” Adams said. “It was basically all about equipment, sometimes it was about training, sometimes it was hours and vacation and overtime.”
But over the years, she added, she has heard “on and off” about harassment and concerns of racial bias.
One of Adams’ underlying concerns has been improving minority hires. She noted that many white firefighters come from rural departments in search of better pay and advancement, but that urban Blacks have not had the same opportunities.
City administrators point out that the Winston-Salem Fire Department has a better record than most other cities in diverse hiring.
They also say that when the hired consultant prepares a report on the fire department, it will be made public, with the exception of personnel investigations protected by state law.
Adams said she commends the firefighters who came forward, and said city employees should not fear they will face retribution for speaking out.
“During the time that we are living, Black people feel more comfortable about pointing out things that have happened,” Adams said. “No better time than now.”