Updated 5:15 p.m.
GREENSBORO — The protesters who vandalized parts of the downtown Saturday night came from “outside the community” and marred what had been a peaceful demonstration, local officials said Sunday.
Greensboro Police Chief Brian James said the department is reviewing videos of the nighttime bedlam for clues to their identities.
“We have a lot of video that is available to us,” James said during a 25-minute news conference outside police headquarters.
He added that the department would press charges against anyone officers could identify committing a criminal act.
The chief said the authorities reached the conclusion that wrongdoers came from other areas based on intelligence provided by officers who interviewed local activists, with whom they have information-sharing relationships.
He said that so far, the department has no information indicating whether the outsiders were affiliated with any particular political or activist group or whether their leanings were on the political spectrum’s left or right wing.
James said the department made only one arrest during the day’s events and that was of a counter-protester who attempted to interfere with peaceful demonstrations early Saturday.
The chief said that some officers were struck by rocks, but no one was hurt seriously. Some police cruisers also were damaged by protesters during the Saturday night riot, he said.
He did not have a cost estimate for damages to city property or to local businesses, but he said local officials are working to prepare one.
James said the department went to great lengths to accommodate earlier phases of the protest, closing off Gate City Boulevard and a section of Interstate 40 so protesters could express their views.
The city even provided a Greensboro Transit Agency bus to carry peaceful protesters back to the downtown area, where most of them disbanded and left the area before things got ugly, the chief said.
But James said there was a second “wave” of protest driven largely by the outside activists that got out of hand on South Elm Street.
“At that point, we did deploy pepper spray to try to regain control of that particular area,” James said.
He said officers did not forcibly interdict vandals and looters in that area because to do so would have forced officers to break out of their crowd-control formation, intermingling with the crowd and putting at risk the health and safety of both officers and demonstrators.
He said the department will do an extensive “after action” review to determine if there is anything officers could have done differently or better. But he praised officers for their restraint and their efforts that helped keep the demonstration “peaceful and meaningful” for most of the day.
James said that in addition to officers on regular duty Saturday, the department assigned about 80 officers to monitor the protests. He said another 20 officers from the High Point Police Department, Guilford County Sheriff’s Office and the North Carolina Highway Patrol also participated.
Along with the mayor, Guilford County Sheriff Danny Rogers spoke at Sunday’s mid-afternoon news conference, asserting that he and his agency are committed to making sure everybody gets the fair treatment they deserve.
“The people that came into our county yesterday and brought this destruction with them, we will not tolerate,” Rogers said.
Updated 4:05 p.m.
GREENSBORO — Demonstrators' presence on railroad tracks in downtown Greensboro led Norfolk Southern to suspend train traffic through the city for nearly five hours overnight.
Norfolk Southern spokesman Martin Wattenbarger said that at about 10:30 p.m. Saturday night, local officials contacted the railroad requesting train traffic be held back temporarily through the area. Protesters had sat down on the tracks in downtown Greensboro.
The railroad resumed normal operations Sunday about 3:15 a.m., Wattenbarger said.
“There were no reported incidents involving Norfolk Southern trains or crew,” he said.
Updated 2:23 p.m.
GREENSBORO — The organizer of one of Saturday's protests downtown says the violence that came later that night was unnecessary and blamed it on a handful of outliers not associated with his group.
“We protested for 10 hours peacefully. Nobody was hurt. Nobody was arrested. No damage was done," said 27-year-old Anthony Morgan (Information has been changed to correct an error. See correction below. 8:30 p.m. Sunday, May 31) of Greensboro. "Then all hell broke loose.”
Morgan used Instagram to organize the first group of protesters that gathered in Greensboro Saturday. Morgan’s crowd started peacefully protesting at noon and spent the daylight hours marching from downtown, onto Gate City Boulevard and eventually onto Interstate 40, leading the Greensboro Police Department to shut down a section of the highway.
In an interview on Sunday, Morgan said he and several from his group decided to call it a day about 10 p.m. Others from the group ventured into downtown Greensboro, joining a second group of protesters that assembled around 5 p.m.
Morgan was already home by the time riot police descended into downtown streets with shields and shops were broken into and looted.
“There’s a way to get your point across without destroying property,” he said.
“We’re organizing peacefully,” Morgan said. “They’re organizing to cause chaos.”
Though he’s disappointed with how the protests ended Saturday, he said it hasn’t deterred him from organizing another peaceful demonstration.
“Phase two is in motion,” Morgan said. He didn’t want to give any details, but said what’s coming will be much bigger than what was organized Saturday.
Updated 1:12 p.m.
GREENSBORO — Guilford County Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston said he thinks right-wing activists are to blame for Saturday’s demonstrations turning violent and going on to damage the International Civil Rights Center and Museum among a variety of other downtown structures.
“I saw some people who looked like they might be right wing, just basically standing back and judging the crowd,” Alston said. “I think they are being paid by some right-wing organization to go around and disrupt.”
Alston said museum officials have some video of Saturday night’s events that they plan to review to see whether they can identify the culprits.
Alston said that he had monitored the demonstrations near the museum — which he co-founded — Saturday evening at 5:30 and 8:30. The events seemed to be peaceful, gatherings mostly of people who he assumed were concerned local residents.
The museum later suffered about $5,000 in damage when someone used an unknown object to smash the exterior portion of a large, double-pane display window. Alston said the interior layer of the glass was not damaged, however the whole double-glass panel will have to be replaced.
“We don’t think it was a brick,” Alston said, adding that the projectile could have been something as small as a pellet fired from a BB gun.
The museum was damaged after he left, Alston said, adding that he decided to go home because the marchers had left the museum area.
Alston said he understands that local officials might consider imposing a curfew Sunday to prevent any additional protests from spiraling out of control.
“I think that would be in order,” he said.
Updated 12:53 p.m.
GREENSBORO — Mayor Nancy Vaughan said Sunday the downtown destruction late Saturday night was likely caused by a smaller group of people that did not represent the generally peaceful protesters.
“It was a small fraction of people who made things take a turn in the wrong direction,” she said.
Vaughan said the south end of downtown near Gate City Boulevard took the brunt of the damage, with several store windows broken out.
Farther to the north, somebody broke windows at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum on South Elm Street. Vaughan said she has heard reports that outsiders who were not involved in the protests deliberately broke the windows to sow unrest.
“We would not be the first city where that has happened,” she said.
She said she was watching a Facebook Live feed of the events Saturday night and said that when windows were broken, peaceful protesters screamed at those doing the damage. The protesters said to those doing damage that they were not sending the right message, that they were not a part of what the group was trying to do in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Vaughan said.
“I heard people screaming at people doing that, saying, ‘That’s not what we were about,’” Vaughan said.
“There were some people who were embedded there just to wreak havoc and it wasn’t about the message,” she said.
As she spoke on the phone Sunday morning, Vaughan was downtown surveying damage and talking to volunteers who had come to help clean up and board up windows in anticipation of any further disturbances.
She said business owners and other people downtown were in good spirits.
Vaughan said she is not aware of any demonstrations planned for today and she is not inclined to enact any kind of curfew, though all options are on the table at this time.
“I don’t know how effective curfews are and it can be a temptation for people to come in and try to break them,” Vaughan said. “We’ve seen cities that have curfews and they don’t do a darned thing,” she said.
Vaughan saluted the Greensboro Police Department for helping to control the situation without contributing to any unrest.
“I think they did a wonderful job yesterday,” Vaughan said. “They showed a lot of restraint and de-escalated the situation. I think the city is in a much better place because of their actions.”
Owners of small businesses along South Elm Street began cleanup this morning after an evening of protests over the death of George Floyd resulted in property damage from looting.
Greensboro Police Department officers and crime scene investigators worked at several businesses this morning along South Elm Street, between the railroad tracks and Gate City Boulevard.
Jim Waters, owner of the Mellow Mushroom restaurant, said his business sustained an estimated $25,000 to $50,000 in loss that included several broken windows along Elm Street and behind the building, stolen alcohol and iPads and damage to point-of-sale terminals. The restaurant's stained glass remained intact, and he said insurance would cover his losses.
Downtown Greensboro Inc., an economic development organization that spurs investment in the center city, was among the properties sustaining damage.
Further north on Elm, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum also lost a plate-glass window. The museum is in the same building that housed the Woolworth's at which four N.C. A&T students staged a sit-in that was a watershed moment in the civil rights moment.
Correction: Anthony Morgan's last name was incorrect when a portion of this story first published about 2:20 p.m. on Sunday, May 31.