Hours of peaceful anti-racist demonstrations throughout downtown Winston-Salem saw a rally that brought together more than 1,000 people, an impassioned speech from the city’s police chief and the shutdown of U.S. 52.
Four hours after it started, a day of energy, rage and hope ended with a prayer close to where it began, at the intersection of Sixth and Trade streets.
There were no arrests.
Organized by Joshua Black and Calvin Peña, the Protest Against Racial Injustice on Tuesday was meant to be a mostly stationary affair in a parking lot at the corner of Sixth and Liberty streets. Black told the Journal Tuesday morning he thought close to a thousand people might come.
No march was organized — Black said he was worried about possible violence — but inevitably, there were two: one before Black and fellow planners spoke, and another that led to the highway.
Demonstrators marched initially from Sixth to Church and then south on Church to Second, and came back on Main. The protesters snaked around the block and then some, occupying more than four city blocks at a time until the massive group settled in for their message.
Stay peaceful and go home
The parking lot filled up quickly at the corner of Sixth and Liberty. The event, originally scheduled for a lot near the downtown bus station, was moved because of concerns it was too small.
Turns out, the new location would struggle with the attendance, too. More than 1,000 people showed up to hear Black and his fellow speakers talk about racial and social injustices that have affected black lives.
Listeners poured onto the streets and filled out to the wall at the back of the lot, some shouting that they couldn’t hear leaders over their megaphone. A lectern stood on the sidewalk across from onlookers, but no one ever used it. Those who spoke stood on the pavement.
Black first reminded the group of the power of their message in answering racial injustice close to home. Over the weekend, racist comments appeared on the Facebook account of Michael Berrier, owner of Old Winston Barber & Style Co. Berrier claimed the account was hacked. As of Tuesday, both the Facebook pages for Berrier and his business had been deleted, and he’d been evicted from his space. People accomplished that, Black reminded the crowd, without rioting and violence.
“We used our voice,” Black said.
But frankly, he said, he’s tired. He wants those who only lambast the community’s problems to step in and do something about them. Tuesday’s protest was about racial injustice, sure, but also about helping to build each other up. There’s far more to do.
This was by far Winston-Salem’s largest protest, and the leaders responded by keeping it under control and pounding home their message. They wanted to stay peaceful and for everyone to go home once the speeches finished.
Violence could not be allowed to exist at this moment, Black said, and so did the others he handed the megaphone off to. Black then made way for Calvin Peña, who affirmed that message again.
A transplant from the West Coast, Peña recalled the Rodney King riots that developed after his assault by police, and how it banded together the black and Mexican communities during a time they were tense.
The U.S. has that similar moment with the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, on top of the countless other unnecessary deaths due to police brutality or racism.
“They cannot stop us,” Peña said. “They cannot stop this.”
Frankie Gist and Molly Grace followed him with different points. Gist implored a predominantly white crowd to avoid the clout of social media for the good of social change. Grace used her time to convey the responsibility white people play in the needed social change.
At one point, she asked the white protesters to stand up to see their sheer number. Today doesn’t count as fulfilling their duty, she said. This is the start of a learning process.
“Every one of us here has a responsibility to every black person here to stand up and then get help, sit down and get to work,” Grace said. “To start reading books written by black people. To start spending time on the internet, doing some research on your own.
“To stop saying I don’t have enough time,” Grace added as the crowd roared.
N.C. Rep. Derwin Montgomery and Nathan Scovens, pastor of Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, also spoke while Mayor Allen Joines stood in the background. Scovens encouraged those who watched that there’s still much to be handled for the safety of black people.
“We will not be satisfied with mediocrity,” Scovens said.
“We will not be satisfied with saying that all lives matter— all lives will not matter until black lives matter.
“And we can breathe until America gets off of our necks.”
Aside from a few housekeeping notes and future plans, the meeting was over.
The gatherers were implored again to go home. They didn’t.
‘I hurt just like they hurt’
For four days, the demonstrators had been peaceful, but an encounter with a police officer in his car at the intersection of Cherry and Fifth streets nearly became a flash point for violence.
While Black and Peña asked people to disperse, hundreds lingered and began marching through downtown, filling the roads and stopping traffic. The marchers encouraged one another to get in the streets and off the sidewalks.
As they made their way through downtown, the head of the column came to the intersection of Fifth and Cherry streets when the marchers stopped to demonstrate in front of a police officer in his car. The officer, who was blocking traffic for the marchers, had his window down.
Protesters blocked the intersection and began chanting George Floyd’s name, along with “No justice, no peace,” at the officer.
A small group of protesters, one of them wearing a ski mask, told people to “circle him up,” and encouraged people to surround the police cruiser. The officer did not make direct eye contact with any of those yelling at him, and he rolled his window up. People got closer and closer to the cruiser.
The tension apparent, another protester, an older woman named Khalilah Campbell, attempted to talk the protesters down, telling the crowd “This isn’t what we’re here for.” Her pleas worked, and the crowd headed on down Cherry.
Protesters stopped at various intersections downtown, mainly to disrupt traffic. Eventually, they came to the intersection of Marshall and Sixth streets, where an unlikely speech was made.
“These men and women you see around here, most of them aren’t even on duty,” an emotional Police Chief Catrina Thompson told about 200 protesters sitting in the street.
“They’re here because they love this job, they love this city and they love you.”
Thompson, through tears, said she understands the pain and the fear black people are feeling — she feels it, too.
“I saw what I saw, and I hurt just like they hurt,” Thompson said afterwards about the video showing Floyd’s death. She told the crowd about her autistic son, who at 15 years old, might not understand if an officer told him to put his hands where they could see them. She understands.
Thompson wants people to know she’s proud of her city, too. She’s proud to be the people’s chief of police.
“I thought as their chief, I owed it to them to by being out here,” she said afterwards. “I believe in the people of Winston-Salem. We did it Saturday and Sunday peacefully. I know that we can (stay peaceful) if that’s what we want to do.”
Standing with her command staff by the side of the road, Thompson watched as the marchers went forward. They were headed to the highway.
The highway is closed
A portion of the crowd left after the speech, but others started marching with an energy that indicated they were in for the long haul. As evening fell, they circled through various downtown streets with some marchers peeling off to head off home after about an hour of walking; others joined in.
The mass of marchers, two-blocks-strong at times, walked past people dining along Fourth Street, with many diners encouraging them, and the staff at Xcaret handing out water bottles.
Police monitored the marchers on bicycles and in their cruisers, seemingly letting the marchers dictate the route.
After reaching an intersection, a few marchers in the lead would decide a route, with no clear destination in mind. But as they headed north on Patterson Avenue, they took a right on Fifth Street, and it soon became clear that they had a destination in mind — U.S. 52, long a symbol of the city’s racial divide.
Around 8:30 p.m., the crowd paused for a few seconds on the Fifth Street bridge, holding signs that elicited honks from vehicles passing underneath. A few bold marchers crossed on to the east side of the Fifth Street bridge then hurtled down a grassy bank onto the highway, an incredibly high-risk move given the cars were still rushing past at 60 mph.
Some marchers watched incredulously and waited on the overpass. After a few more cars passed, police effectively shut down both sides of the highway, blocking traffic with their patrol cars, and about 200 marchers streamed down the bank onto the road as the sun set over the city’s skyline.
Marchers paused for a bit. They lay down in the middle of the road and stood on the concrete barrier before heading north to the Martin Luther KIng Jr. Drive exit. One marcher, who declined to give his name but said he was from Charlotte, told a reporter that shutting down the road was meant to make a statement.
“Now, we’re going to give you something to cry for,” the man said. “Y’all going to stop killing our people. You’re going to listen to what black folks got to say because we got something to say. We’re tired of dying in these streets, so until y’all stop killing us in these streets, we’re going to keep shutting these streets down.”
Around 9 p.m., they headed back downtown, yelling to people looking down from their apartments along Fifth Street: “Open up your wallets.”
As they marched up Fifth Street, the group turned back onto Trade, when the night’s most volatile chants broke out: “No justice, no peace. F-- — these racist ass police.”
Moments before, officers doing traffic control at the intersection had raised their fists in the air, a sign of solidarity. The protesters continued down Trade, slowly, before stopping in the intersection of Trade and Sixth, yards from where the evening started.
“No justice, no peace. F- — these racist ass police. No justice, no peace. F- — these racist ass police,” over and over, until people started losing their voices.
Eventually, a man spoke up and asked people to pray. The demonstrators, maybe 100 of them left now, bowed their heads. Someone prayed — it was too quiet to hear what they prayed about — and then everyone cheered, congratulating each other for another peaceful night of protests. It was time to go home.
Journal Reporter John Hinton contributed to this story.