ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — Night after night, they march: parents pushing strollers, a grandma with two hip replacements, preachers, lawyers, lifelong residents and recent transplants. Some are Black, some white — all protesting the death of Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man who was killed in a fusillade of gunfire from sheriff’s deputies.
The April 21 shooting aggravated racial tensions simmering below the surface in this majority-Black hamlet in the far northeastern corner of the state, according to protesters.
The city’s mayor, manager and police chief all are Black. It is home to a historically Black college, and before the Civil War was a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping people escape slavery along the Pasquotank River and into the nearby Dismal Swamp.
But Brown’s death, and the failure to release the full body camera footage of the incident, has awakened a deep sense of suspicion and mistrust in a community that had thought it might be insulated. Through a year of reckoning with racial inequity provoked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many in Elizabeth City said they felt safe from the worst trauma.
“Never would I have thought that it would hit here in Elizabeth City,” said Daniel Bowser, 44, who is Black and grew up in town. “Yes, we have a lot of injustices going on around here, but not to this extent.”
“This right here is shocking,” said Daquan Johnson, a 22-year-old Black man who works at the local Walmart. “But I think it happened for a reason … It sheds light on a lot of things.”
Now Elizabeth City finds itself the latest dateline in the national debate over police violence against Black Americans: The media have descended en masse. TV helicopters circle overhead some afternoons. Civil rights lawyers Bakari Sellers and Ben Crump are helping represent Brown’s family, and the Rev. William Barber and clergy leaders from all over the state have converged to call for justice.
Members of the New Black Panther Party came down from Washington this week, joining a procession of social media personalities and bystanders streaming Facebook Live commentary outside the local government complex.
The withholding of the full video footage has fueled a sense of a cover-up. Although Brown’s family says the footage shows Brown had his hands on the steering wheel the whole time, a prosecutor says Brown twice made contact with officers with his car before they began to shoot.
On Tuesday evening, as a crowd began gathering for the nightly protest march, one couple sat on folding chairs in the shade. He wore a black fedora and bow tie, she wore a church dress, like grandparents waiting for an Easter parade.
When several hundred people began marching up East Colonial Avenue, the man in the fedora sprang to his feet, plunged into the crowd and grabbed a bullhorn.
“Hands up!” he shouted. “Don’t shoot!” the crowd responded, over and over until the Rev. Timothy Stallings, 60, was too hoarse to keep going. Like many of his neighbors, Stallings, who is Black, has been transformed by a new sense of urgent purpose.
“This is a small town,” he said as the march went on without him. “We love everybody. We meet one another at Food Lion, we meet one another at Walmart, we meet one another at the local red light. So this is a loving and caring community, and we’re just asking for some police reform all across the country.”
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The downtown water tower proclaims Elizabeth City the “Harbor of Hospitality.” It was once the hub of the Dismal Swamp Canal, a project envisioned by George Washington to connect the Albemarle Sound to the Chesapeake Bay. Enslaved workers spent 12 years digging the 22-mile ditch by hand before it opened in 1805.
Today the dark brown waters of the canal are little used. Elizabeth City sits between the region’s farmland and popular beaches, but is out of the way for vacationers headed to the Outer Banks.
The neighborhood where Brown was shot lies just south of downtown, in an area of modest, older homes where most residents are Black. Elizabeth City has a population of about 17,750, according to U.S. Census estimates — just over half the residents are Black and about 43% are white.
The surrounding Pasquotank County is majority white. Elizabeth City is under the jurisdiction of both city police and the county sheriff, who is white. The shooting involved only sheriff’s deputies.
Many Black residents say the community’s racial tensions have tended to lurk in the background. A Confederate monument to “Our Heroes” stands outside the downtown courthouse, for instance, but it’s within sight of M.L. King Jr. Drive. Elizabeth City was in federal hands for most of the Civil War.
“I’ve got white buddies. I’ve got relatives married to white women,” said Michael Gordon Sr., 60, who is Black and a disabled veteran. Local schools integrated when he was 6 years old, he said, although he can still remember using separate bathrooms as a young child.
Like most Black men interviewed in town this week, Gordon said he feels conscious of his race around law enforcement. But now, he said, he realizes bigger pressures were building.
“And my physics teacher taught me that anything under pressure will explode,” he said.
For Gordon, that explosion came last week in his front yard.
Brown lived across a well-traveled intersection from Gordon’s house. When deputies arrived that Wednesday morning to serve felony arrest and search warrants on drug-related charges, Brown was in his car in his driveway.
Deputies shot at Brown as he attempted to drive away. Family members who local officials allowed to see 20 seconds of body camera footage say Brown posed no threat. The local prosecutor has offered a contradictory account, saying that Brown’s car made contact twice with deputies, although no one was injured.
Brown made it across a vacant lot next to his house, crossed the road and crashed into a crepe myrtle in Gordon’s front yard. Family members released an autopsy report this week that said Brown was shot five times, with a fatal wound to the back of his head.
Gordon and his wife were out of the house at the time, which he views as a blessing. A bullet pierced the siding next to his front door, passed through a clock on the other side of the wall, traveled across his living room, through another wall and hit a crockpot on the kitchen counter.
Many mornings, he said, his young grandchildren would have been sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast at that hour. Or he might have been walking through the living room. The thought of what might have happened makes him furious.
“Why were they discharging weapons here? It’s just crazy,” he said.
Car tracks are still visible across the vacant lot, and mud from spinning tires is splattered across the side of Brown’s house. A front window is smashed. One day this week, white rental cars belonging to reporters and photographers lined the curb.
“It’s a mess, that’s what it is,” Alfonzo Smith, 64, said from the shade of his front porch next door. Smith was out of state when the shooting happened. His neighbor William Lewis, 60, sitting next to him, said he hadn’t seen such violence in 17 years of living nearby.
Lewis said he felt a sense of vindication last week when the Minneapolis jury convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin for murdering Floyd. Then, the very next day: “Boom, comes this,” Lewis said. “Man, I’ll tell you. It’s a crazy world.”
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The night of the shooting, the city council held an emergency meeting. Council member Gabriel Adkins, who is Black, spoke with raw emotion about the events of the day.
“I never thought that I would look at CNN news and see my hometown,” he said, as seen in a video of the remarks. “People are afraid. I mean, we’re afraid. As a Black man sitting here tonight, I’m afraid.”
Driving his car, Adkins said, he worries about seeing police. Is he going the speed limit, seat belt on, doing everything right? “I’m afraid that I may be the next one, you know.”
Saying he was trying not to cry, Adkins came back again and again to the pain of the moment. “It hurts to be a Black man in this day and time,” he said. “I just want the people of Elizabeth City to know that we hear you.”
After that, Adkins temporarily closed his catering business and has joined protest marches almost every night. This week, Adkins said his pain was partly due to shock that the police violence in other cities could happen in his hometown.
“Everybody’s emotions are all over the place,” he said. “Everybody still wants answers … Right now the community is in limbo.”
With a judge’s ruling Wednesday that the body camera footage will not be released to the public for at least 30 days, that sense of limbo could continue.
Three deputies have resigned since the shooting and seven are on leave. After keeping a low profile at first, Sheriff Tommy Wooten II has begun making public comments.
“The Community here in Pasquotank County is obviously hurting from the tragic situation that happened here as well as other tragic situations across the country,” he told The Washington Post in an email on Thursday. “Despite those challenges, I’ve been encouraged by many positive conversations I’ve had recently with African American leaders in this county. I’ve promised them transparency and accountability and am working every day to ensure that happens as soon as possible.”
Wooten said he advocated for releasing the video footage and was disappointed by the judge’s ruling.
And he defended the efforts his department has made to reach out to the community since he took office in 2018, citing more than 60 events at schools, libraries and churches, as well as food drives and purchasing Christmas presents for the needy.
“As we work towards justice and accountability after this tragic situation, I know I have much more to do in order to bring our community through this situation and emerge stronger in the end,” he said.
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The nightly protest marches have been largely free of violence, graffiti or property damage — part of a goal, repeated by many participants, of showing the rest of the country how it’s done. The primary issue has been traffic.
“It took me an hour and a half just to get to Walgreens to pick up a prescription for my daughter,” said a 68-year-old white woman at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on the edge of town. A banner on the front of the building proclaimed: “We Are America.”
The woman refused to give her name, saying she feared reprisals for speaking about the volatile subject of the protests. Hearing the conversation, Cheryl, 74, scurried out of the kitchen wearing an apron and smoking a cigarette.
“None of this is necessary,” she said, also refusing to be fully identified for fear of reprisals. Wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “Land of the Free,” Cheryl said an army of out-of-town agitators was stirring things up for their own benefit.
“I blame the Left. I blame anybody who thinks America is bad. It’s not,” she said.
But both women expressed sympathy for Black community members trying to get answers about the shooting.
“I do understand their concerns, with what we hear on the news,” said Jim Sullivan, 74, a white Navy retiree arriving at the hall for a cool drink.
The city is under a state of emergency this week. On Tuesday, leaders imposed an 8 p.m. curfew, and the result was perhaps the biggest crowd of marchers to date, organizers said.
Beginning a little after 5 p.m., several hundred people headed down a city street lined with churches, schools and once-grand old homes with weedy rose beds and crooked fence gates.
After blocking a major intersection for more than an hour, some protesters wanted to go find the mayor’s house. But Adkins counseled against it. Too threatening, he said.
Instead, the multiracial, multigenerational army turned back downtown and shut down access to the main bridge over the Pasquotank River.
As 8 p.m. approached with the crowd milling at the foot of the bridge, city police stationed several blocks away in two directions began playing taped warnings to disperse or “you may be arrested or subject to other police action.”
Some protesters left, but dozens stayed, intent on defying the curfew. Finally, a little before 9:30 p.m., about 16 police officers in full riot gear and wielding long sticks formed a line across Water Street, with dozens of uniformed officers behind them.
It was a jarring sight. Residents lined the rooftop and doorways of a renovated warehouse apartment building to get a look.
“We didn’t even know y’all had that equipment!” one voice rang out from the protesters. Amid taunts and chants of “Say his name! Andrew Brown!” from the crowd, the officers advanced in formation. At least six protesters were arrested by the time the street cleared about 10:45 p.m.
The next day, crowds returned downtown, ready to march again.
There was a sense, among some, that they were seeing their hometown in an unflattering new light.
Sarah Richardson, 54, who is Black, said her husband is a military veteran who works at the shipyard in Newport News, Va. He leaves every morning just after 4 to meet a commuter van for the hour-and-20-minute trek in predawn darkness.
The other day, she said, he decided to start wearing his shipyard badge on the outside of his shirt. “In case he gets stopped, he wants to show that he’s going somewhere on business,” Richardson said. “It’s frustrating. But we refuse to live in fear. God says we need to love our neighbors.”