Last summer, people flooded the streets of Winston-Salem, fueled by anger over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Many had seen cellphone footage of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, placing his knee on the neck of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, for more than nine minutes. Floyd said repeatedly that he could not breathe.
Chauvin was sentenced June 25 to serve 22½ years in a Minnesota prison after he was convicted of second-degree murder and charges in connection with Floyd’s death.
During those summer months last year, hundreds of demonstrators demanded an end to police violence toward Black people and other people of color and to hold officers accountable for their actions. In some cases, they called for defunding the police and dismantling the prison system.
The protests in Winston-Salem were peaceful, with Winston-Salem Police Chief Catrina Thompson, who refused requests for comment for this story, talking to protesters and officers blocking off traffic in an effort to protect demonstrators.
Even when demonstrators shut down major thoroughfares like Interstate 40 and U.S. 52, no arrests were made.
But in late June 2020, a shift occurred.
After keeping quiet for more than six months, Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. of Forsyth County confirmed that John Neville, 56, of Greensboro, had died as a result of an incident at the Forsyth County Jail.
Video footage later showed deputies piled on top of Neville in a jail cell while he lay face down on a mattress, with his hands behind his back and his legs folded toward his buttocks. The deputies had been trying to get handcuffs off him, and over a three-minute period, Neville said, “I can’t breathe,” 28 times.
Five former detention officers and a nurse are facing charges of involuntary manslaughter. Neville’s death sparked protests at the Forsyth County Jail, and Winston-Salem police arrested four demonstrators on July 8, the same day that the detention officers and the nurse were charged in connection with Neville’s death.
After that, a total of 55 people would be arrested and the Triad Abolition Project would lead a 49-day occupation of Bailey Park to protest Neville’s death.
Charges against the majority of the people arrested are still pending.
Brittany Battle, a co-founder of Triad Abolition Project, was among the first five people arrested on July 8 as demonstrators demanded justice for Neville. When the protests were centered on Floyd, Taylor and others, everyone was on board, Battle said. There was a shift when demonstrators began focusing on what happened to Neville, she said.
“It became clear to everyone that people were not invested in changing the system if anything at their front door needed to be changed,” Battle said.
A year later, the question remains — what has changed in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County?
The answer depends on whom you ask.
Kimbrough said some policy changes have occurred within the sheriff’s office since the protests.
For example, deputies and detention officers at the Forsyth County Jail “have an obligation to intervene when you see something that is against policy,” Kimbrough said.
The sheriff said he has talked to many deputies and detention officers in the aftermath of the protests. Those officers “have become a lot more conscientious … in how they do their jobs,” Kimbrough said.
After meeting with protesters last summer, Kimbrough agreed to ban the use of the bent leg-prone restraint (also known informally as the hog-tie restraint) among deputies and detention officers.
The sheriff’s office also began a policy of issuing a news release about any jail inmate death per the family’s wishes on a case-by-case basis.
Kimbrough said that protesters didn’t influence that measure as the sheriff’s office adopted the policy as a best practice used by other sheriff’s offices across North Carolina and the country.
Battle disputes that, saying that Kimbrough announced those policy changes during a meeting with her and others, including Miranda Jones of Hate Out of Winston-Salem.
In May, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners chose NaphCare Inc. of Birmingham, Ala. to handle health care services at the jail, with the company’s new contract set to take effect Sept. 1.
Many protesters demanded that the county drop Wellpath of Nashville, Tenn., as the health-care provider to the jail’s inmates, especially after Neville’s jail-related death in December 2019. Wellpath had faced several lawsuits over the death of inmates at the Forsyth County Jail.
The protesters’ demand to drop Wellpath was a strong factor in the commissioners’ decision to hire Naphcare Inc. as the medical provider at the jail, Kimbrough said.
Kimbrough didn’t get a vote in the decision to hire NaphCare.
The protesters’ demand surrounding Wellpath was a minor factor in the change, said David Plyler, the chairman of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners.
The commissioners considered the protesters’ concerns about Wellpath, Plyler said.
Black Lives Matter — Winston-Salem and Hate Out of Winston are local groups whose protests resonated with some local residents, Kimbrough said.
“I’m all for peaceful protests,” Kimbrough said. “I’m all for people who are about changes.”
While the sheriff didn’t specifically mention the Triad Abolition Project by name, Kimbrough said he didn’t always understand some protesters’ goals.
“You want to abolish law enforcement and the prison system …,” Kimbrough asked. “I consider myself as an intelligent person, but that won’t work in the free world. Look at what is happening now.”
Kimbrough pointed to the June 14 incident in which William Coleman Scott, 26, is accused of firing more than a dozen shots into a police substation, then leading officers on a crosstown car chase that ended with exchanges of gunfire at Hanes Park. Scott, who was wounded, was arrested by officers.
Scott has been charged with murder in the deaths of his mother and grandmother that happened before the shots were fired at the police substation. Scott is also charged with attempted murder of a law-enforcement officer.
Scott is being held in the Forsyth County Jail with no bond allowed on the murder charges and with his bond set at $3 million on the attempted first-degree murder charge.
“Who would you have sent to Hanes Park ...,” Kimbrough asked. “Who would have sent, a social worker? Who would you have sent? That’s the question if you abolish law enforcement.”
Kimbrough said he supports training professionals to accompany law enforcement officers on some calls, but law enforcement agencies would need more money, not less money.
But Battle said law enforcement agencies don’t stop violence, even with all the taxpayer money they get.
“We’ve had these systems in place for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years but crime still occurs, violence still occurs,” she said. “We’ve spent billions of dollars on this system. We would be foolish to believe that this system would be able to prevent (crime).”
The protestsWinston-Salem saw more than two weeks of protests over the death of George Floyd and other Black people who were killed by police, including Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky.
Taylor, 26, was killed in March 2020 when three armed police detectives broke her front door as they executed a search warrant. Last year, a Jefferson County grand jury charged one officer with putting Taylor’s neighbors in danger, but issued no charges related to her death.
In Winston-Salem, protesters marched through downtown and blocked major thoroughfares, including U.S. 52, Interstate 40, University Parkway, Hanes Mall Boulevard and the Five Points intersection.
Battle, an assistant professor of sociology at Wake Forest University, said she started attending the marches in Winston-Salem soon after George Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020. She helped organize a march with Black Lives Matter — Winston-Salem that started at Joel Coliseum and went along University Parkway.
Protesters held banners accusing Kimbrough and Jim O’Neill, Forsyth County district attorney, of covering up Neville’s death and said that they had blood on their hands. O’Neill did not respond to a request for comment about last year’s protests.
The occupation of Bailey Park ended in September. Battle said she has seen some concrete changes, pointing to the policy changes at the sheriff’s office.
The Winston-Salem City Council also is looking to establish an alternative response program so that police officers are not the ones responding to a person who is having a mental-health crisis.
The city is also looking to support a violence interrupter program, where trusted community members help deal with situations before they become violent.
The city is also putting money toward SOAR (Successful Outcomes After Release) and YouthBuild, programs designed to help people who have just gotten out of prison and young people.
Battle said the long-term goal is reallocating funding from law-enforcement agencies and back toward the community and abolishing the penal state.
The focus, she said, is to create responses to crime that don’t involve putting people in jails and to find ways to combat the root causes of crime, such as poverty, housing insecurity and substandard education.
“Our goal in abolition is to make sure people have their needs met,” she said. “Abolition is not calling for there not be any consequences or no response to harm. We call for those responses to harm not to be based in carcerality.”
Frankie Gist of Winston-Salem, one of the protesters, said he has seen more unity among people within the city since the protests.
“People from all races became friends, business partners, collaborators, family and most of all — the village,” said Gist, the founder of HOPE Dealers Outreach that addresses poverty and injustice in Winston-Salem.
“I understand now that all white men and women aren’t the same,” Gist said. “It made me understand that there is a true fight within the world, and I understand that racism is only a sign of self-hatred.
“Now I understand that we all must work together in order to achieve equality,” Gist said.
Gist said he has met with law enforcement officials and city officials to find ways to improve the lives of city residents.
“I’ve seen city officials, law enforcement and city residents open their minds and begin to see the true meaning behind change,” Gist said. “Some stepped up to the plate and some didn’t …”
Protesters and city residents must build relationships with each other “that will give the opportunity to hear each other out and get true understanding of what ‘change’ really means and equal rights for all citizens really means,” Gist said.
Tony Ndege, a protest organizer for Black Lives Matter — Winston-Salem, said that the protests didn’t change the behavior of city leaders.
“There has definitely been a sea change in terms of solidarity between different people here and nationally,” Ndege said. “The goal now is to connect this solidarity to the common roots of our problems.”
Ndege said he thinks that Police Chief Thompson “is more sensitive in her wording and a few surface policies, however, as long as the system is in place not a whole lot will change.
“Why,” Ndege asked, “because this is what the system is meant to do — keep poor and exploited people in their place.”
Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said he wasn’t sure that there have been many changes in the protests’ aftermath.
“The good news is that our officers had established great rapport with the community prior to the protests last summer,” Joines said.
Prior to the protests, Thompson visited local communities and talked with residents about their concerns, and the Winston-Salem Police Department used community policing efforts, Joines said.
Those measures are helpful for police and local residents, Joines said.
“I will say that there is a more heightened sensitivity to the issues and the protests,” Joines said. “And I am so proud with the way our officers interacted with the citizens, and I am so proud with the way our citizens interacted with them (the officers).”
Joines said he was initially “a little nervous” when he saw protesters demonstrating in his neighborhood. Joines said that protesters appeared to be agitated.
“My teenage son asked me, ‘What are you going to do, Allen?,’” the mayor said.
Joines responded that he was going to go outside and talk to the protesters. During his appearance with the protesters, Joines then talked to several demonstrators outside of his house.
The protesters talked to Joines about their demands, including shifting money from the Winston-Salem Police Department to programs that would help poverty-stricken areas in eastern Winston-Salem.
Joines said that some residents will never be totally satisfied with police. However, he pointed to a recent citizen survey that showed more than 75% of city residents are very satisfied with police.
The mayor has met with members of Black Lives Matter — Winston-Salem and Hate Out of Winston.
“That heightened sensitivity helps us do our jobs a little better,” Joines said.
Aly Jones, speaking for the group, Hate Out of Winston, said she hasn’t seen much change after the protests.
“We had this huge up swell of participation and outrage and conversation that lasted for a couple months and then went away …,” Jones said. “Every seven to 10 years, something tragic happens and there is a huge burst of outrage and then nothing happens.”
Hate Out of Winston is committed to improving the lives of Black people, Jones said. The organization supports a reallocation of city money from the police department’s budget to programs that provide education and vocational training that lead to fewer police arrests of young people, she said.
“It really is the epitome of white privilege to say, ‘I have burnt out on this work,” Jones said.
Last summer’s protests attracted hundreds of white residents who demonstrated along with Black and Hispanic protesters.
“They were there for a minute, but when the rubber hit the road, they couldn’t do it,” Jones said of white protesters. “It’s really disheartening … It’s not incumbent on Black Americans to change the system of white supremacy in the United States.”
Since the protests, many community activists and their organizations are working together to challenge “a lot of structures as they stand,” said Jillian Sechrest, a representative of the Winston-Salem branch of the N.C. Piedmont Democratic Socialists of America.
The Democratic Socialists of America grew in popularity, Sechrest said, partly because of the last summer of protests in Winston-Salem and other cities and because of the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who describes himself as a Democratic socialist.
“There is so much work to be done,” Sechrest said. “It will take the community.”
Olivia Moore is just 17. Last summer, she used social media to organize the first protest in Winston-Salem for George Floyd.
Among young people, she has seen some change. Many of her friends have gotten more politically active.
“I wasn’t very outspoken about politics either until I really saw that George Floyd video and I was like, this hurts because I’m a Black girl, I live in America and I live in the South, and I’m seeing things that could happen to my father, my uncle or my brother or me,” she said.
She said she still sees racial disparities in Winston-Salem and it’s up to elected leaders to make change.
“I have learned that the best thing that youth can do is combat the issues directly and share and share and share because we’re the future and so many adults know that and if they don’t listen to us, it will be a terrible thing for them,” Moore said.