The protests in Winston-Salem had become by midsummer a symbol of that tension.
Even though the crowds stayed calm, they blocked major thoroughfares through and around the city, including U.S. Highway 52 and part of Interstate 40. Then the organized marches splintered into smaller sit-ins at a local shopping center. Two grocery stores, Trader Joe’s and Publix, were forced to close early on June 29 and June 30 when demonstrators refused to move from their aisles. Outside the Publix, a white man driving an SUV rolled into the crowd of protesters, nearly hitting a person on a bike.
Thompson had reason to worry. People who were fed up with the protests grew increasingly vocal. “Parents should have taught them don’t play in the street!” a woman who once worked for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook. “RUN THEIR STUPID IGNORANT BUTTS OVER! It’s a road to be traveled on by vehicles, not whiney [sic] spoiled brats who thinks [sic] the world owes them something!”
Thompson remembers thinking about the car incident outside Publix: “We’ve gone all this time without any issues—no safety issues, nobody injured, but this could have been bad.” It could have been another Charlottesville.
“Things that have gone real well can change in 15 minutes,” Assistant Chief Wilson Weaver, who grew up on the east side of Winston-Salem, explained. “We want to let our people be heard; we want to let them do their thing and get their messages across while keeping everybody safe. But we don’t want to have to worry about something blowing up in the middle of a protest, or a car driving through the middle of a protest, or having to deal with an active-shooter-type situation.”
In other words, the concern was not that the protesters would become violent, but that they would become the targets of violence. This concern was not misplaced. According to research conducted this summer by the Chicago Project on Security & Threats, there were at least 72 documented incidents of cars ramming into crowds of protesters in 52 cities, resulting in multiple serious injuries and one death. Several people died from gunshot wounds at protests and counter-protests in Seattle; Austin; Portland, Oregon; and most recently in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where prosecutors say an Illinois teenager shot three protesters, killing two.
Thompson decided she could not allow large groups to continue gathering in the roads. On July 1, the department issued a news release stating that anyone who failed to comply with traffic laws would be arrested.
Around the same time that Thompson and her executive team were making changes to their policy, news broke that the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation was looking into the December 2019 death of a man named John Neville at the Forsyth County Detention Center, which is run by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, not the police. According to a state medical examiner’s report, Neville, 56, died of a brain injury and heart attack brought on by asphyxia after five guards forcibly restrained him in a face-down position—a scenario that bore painful similarities to George Floyd’s death. In the video that was released after local media filed a lawsuit, Neville, a father of five who had been detained on a misdemeanor assault charge, repeatedly cried, “I can’t breathe” and “Mama.” He lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital, where he was ultimately taken off life support.
Forsyth Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough kept the news of Neville’s death under wraps for six months, until the state finished its probe and the five guards who restrained Neville (as well as a jail nurse who appeared not to intervene) were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Though Thompson’s officers were not involved, she knew that Neville’s death would spark new protests focused around the jail, and because the building was in the middle of downtown, her department would have to enforce the policy it just laid out.
That did not go over well with a core group of social justice advocates in Winston-Salem, specifically the newly formed Triad Abolition Project, which called on the city to defund and eventually abolish the Winston-Salem Police Department. Some of its supporters, like 33-year-old Calvin Peña, had been present at the June 2 march downtown and they felt betrayed. What about Thompson’s promise to support them? The entire world was calling for an end to racial injustice, and the police were worried about traffic?
“The people who feel inconvenienced [by road closures] are the folks who do not wish to see this movement continue,” Peña, who is originally from Los Angeles, told me. “There’s two sides, honestly, right? People who are with the movement, and people who are not.”
Other activists felt it was important to meet with police to push for reforms, but the TAP was not interested in doing that. For most of the summer, they communicated their feelings to Sheriff Kimbrough with a large sign that read, in part, “BLOOD IS ON YOUR HANDS.” They were not interested in Thompson’s record of community outreach, either. To them, any attempt by law enforcement to build trust with citizens was disingenuous at best, a sinister surveillance attempt at worst. They encouraged their supporters not to trust the cops, and definitely not to call them.
To Frankie Gist, the organizer who liked Thompson’s “auntie energy,” this level of antagonism didn’t make sense. He considered regular meetings with city leaders, including those in law enforcement, a critical part of his job as an activist.
“We’re protesting and fighting for justice to be at the table,” Gist told me. “Our ancestors didn’t fight for us to just keep protesting and protesting and not get nothing done. … How are you ever going to get what you want from this lady if you’ll never sit down with her?”