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Protesters practice civil disobedience in pursuit of ‘Justice for John Neville’ 

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Featured photo by Tommy Priest

20 protesters were arrested in Winston-Salem last week on charges of "impeding traffic"  

“I can’t breathe” were some of the last words uttered by John Elliot Neville, 56, while he lay hogtied and face-down as Forsyth County detention officers struggled to unsuccessfully remove his handcuffs. Neville was an African-American inmate who died at the hospital after being under the supervision of five detention officers and one nurse on Dec. 4, 2019.

If it wasn’t for the public’s outrage over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died under the knee of former-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May, Neville might have just been another grim statistic in Forsyth County. On July 8, District Attorney Jim O’Neill announced the details of Neville’s death at a press conference, which garnered national attention from the New York Times as well as local attention from Winston-Salem activists calling for justice. 

“At approximately 3:24 a.m., John Neville suffered an unknown medical condition as he slept, which caused him to fall from the top bunk of his cell and onto the concrete floor,” O’Neill said at the press conference. “Jail detention officers, as well as the on-call nurse, were dispatched to Neville’s cell. Upon arrival, detention officers, as well as the on-call nurse found a disoriented and confused John Neville.”

Neville was then moved to an observation cell to determine the cause of his distress, the D.A. said. Approximately 45 minutes later, Neville sustained injuries that eventually caused his death. Dr. Patrick Lance of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center found that Neville died of “complications of hypoxic-ischemic brain injury, due to cardiopulmonary arrest, due to positional and compressional asphyxia, during prone restraint.” Other conditions found by Lance included “acute, altered mental status and asthma.”

O’Neill told Neville’s children that their father’s unfortunate death was avoidable, and announced that the five former detention officers and one nurse on-duty that morning were charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter.

“A request was made on Dec. 5, 2019, by Sheriff Kimbrough and the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, to have the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation called in to investigate the circumstances of Mr. Neville’s death,” O’Neill said during the press conference. “Special Agent in Charge, Scott Williams was assigned the case and conducted the investigation. Agent Williams, upon completion of the matter and his investigation, turned over his findings to the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office in April of this year.”

On July 8 around 6 p.m., organizers of Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem held an “emergency rally” in front of the Forsyth County Detention Center, located at 201 N. Church St. in Winston-Salem, that ended with five arrests on charges of “impeding traffic.”

(YES! Weekly was on-scene livestreaming the rally and arrests via Facebook.

The outrage from protesters was not only due to the nature of Neville’s death but that it took almost seven months for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office to go public with this news. After about an hour of speakers, organizer/leader of BLMWS, Tony Ndege, announced that the group of about 40 would march around the Forsyth County jail and up to the Sheriff’s Office.

However, four Winston-Salem police officers on a utility golf cart equipped with a large white speaker, (that protesters alleged to be a Long Range Amplification Device or “LRAD,”, which as previously reported by Ian McDowell, can be used as a sonic weapon) met protesters on North Chestnut Street. Many from the group had veered off the sidewalk and into the street, when the officer announced that they had three minutes to vacate the road or they would be in violation of North Carolina General Statute § 20-174.1. After many had crossed the street and moved to the sidewalk, the arrests start taking place.

In the video at 01:11:11, Brittany Battle, Ph.D., is first arrested on charges of “impeding traffic” and the other three were arrested over the course of 10 minutes in front of the Forsyth County Public Safety Center. Around 9:30 p.m., with Ndege being the last one, all who were arrested were released on a written promise to appear in court. 

Ndege said the arrest of five people at this rally was not planned, and he feels it is directly related to the new details released from Neville’s death and the veto of North Carolina Senate Bill 168. S.B. 168 was introduced as an expansion of CBD for medical use but morphed into a bill that could limit transparency for the public in death investigations. Gov. Cooper vetoed the bill on July 6, after mounting pressure from protesters.

“I definitely think a lot of this is retaliation for not only having the event but the fact that we called very early for the veto of Senate Bill 168,” Ndege said of the arrests. “A day after we got all the information, we were starting to put two and two together like there might be a connection between S.B. 168 and John Neville. I can’t think of any other way to say it, it seems like it is a cover-up.”

Ndege, Battle and BLMWS co-organizer Kim Porter alleged that the FCSO and D.A. tried to cover-up the details of Neville’s death, and that the WSPD targeted organizers with the arrests in an attempt to intimidate protesters. 

Porter is a co-organizer for Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem and July 8 was her seventh protest that she helped organize. 

“The whole point that we were out there demonstrating because John Neville was murdered and if he hadn’t been at the Forsyth County jail, then he wouldn’t have died,” Porter said. “It took them almost seven months to bring this to the public, and the only reason why we feel like the Sheriff’s department made it public was because of the pressure they were getting from the press, and because they weren’t protected by the Senate Bill 168.” 

 Battle is an assistant professor in the sociology department at Wake Forest University teaching courses such as the Principles of Sociology, Criminology, Social Justice, as well as, Courts and Criminal Procedure. Battle said she had to go to the emergency room and follow-up with an orthopedic doctor after being arrested because her wrist was injured.

“It couldn’t be any more clear that the reason they are now turning toward carceral punishment for protesters is because we are directly protesting something that happened in this city that has now been picked up by national news media and they are afraid of having light shown in their own house,” Battle said. “They were fine when they could point the finger at Louisville and Minneapolis, and Atlanta—that was OK, but now when we are shining a light in their own house, they don’t like that.”

Battle also criticized WSPD Chief Catrina Thompson for “going back on her public, on-camera promises” to protect peaceful protesters.

“Our chief of police likes to say, our city police are good people who love the protesters out there and these incidences are just a matter of a few bad apples,” Battle said. “If that was the case, we would not have seen a conspired cover-up that brought in multiple people and no one speaking on it—including the DA, including the Sheriff’s Office—for nearly seven months. We would not have seen that if it was just a matter of a few bad apples.”

Battle said her arrest would not stop her from continuing to protest and demanding justice.

“Everything about the protest was peaceful including the chant that we were shouting the moment they started arresting us,” Battle said, noting the “this is a peaceful protest” chant yelled by protesters that day. “It is clear to me that they do not want us drawing attention to the murder, cover-up and systematic attempt to get the story of John Neville to never come to light. Whether it was through S.B. 168, whether it was through the D.A. and Sheriff’s actions of not being honest about what happened to him, even though they were called on to have transparency in his case for months. Now, all of those things are coming to light, and now, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County does not want their house to be questioned.”

YES! Weekly sent a list of questions regarding the arrests on July 8, including a question about the WSPD chief’s alleged hypocrisy toward peaceful protests and the WSPD’s alleged possession of an LRAD.

 Captain J.E. Gomez of the WSPD responded via email that the WSPD would only release information that is considered “public information on the incidents and arrests.”

 “We are not able to respond to your other questions regarding these matters as they relate to pending court cases.”

According to the police summary of the July 8 arrests, “After several speeches the protesters stated they were going to march. Officers with the police department spoke to personnel walking in front of the group, reminding them of the need to stay on the sidewalk and out of the street. This courtesy was given in support of the press release distributed on 07-01-20, informing citizens of the need to observe the laws while protesting. As the group of protesters turned onto northbound Chestnut Street from Second Street, a large group started walking in the middle of the street, in violation of the law. Officers gave the protesters an initial warning to clear the street or they would be arrested and charged. Officers also provided the protesters three minutes to comply with the request. During the three minutes the protesters continued to walk in the street and officers gave two more additional warnings to the protesters. The protesters turned west on Third Street and then north onto Church Street. The group stopped in front of 301  N. Church St., The Forsyth County Public Safety Center. Most of the protesters were still in the street refusing to comply with the requests of the officers. The three minutes elapsed and officers moved toward the crowd instructing them to move onto the sidewalk. The protesters moved onto the sidewalk, then several individuals decided to walk back into the street at which time officers began making custodial arrests. After the four individuals listed were arrested, the remaining protesters remained on the sidewalk. Officers continued to monitor the group, which remained at that location for several minutes then returned to their starting point at the Forsyth County Law Enforcement Detention Center. The group utilized the sidewalks on their return. There were no other violations of the law observed after the arrests were made. There were no injuries to the protesters or officers on the scene.”

Battle said she believes that her arrest was triggered by a question she asked one of the officers. 

“It was clear that they were upset that I was recording the officer that had no mask on,” Battle said. “That is what I said on my Facebook live, and immediately when I said that, he started coming toward me.”

 YES! Weekly sent a follow-up question to Gomez about Gov. Cooper’s mask mandate. Gomez wrote that, “there appears to be a good bit of public misunderstanding over what the governor’s order on masks actually requires.”

 Gomez wrote that masks are required for customers, patrons, or guests of retail businesses, restaurants, salons and tattoo parlors, child care facilities, long-term care and nursing home facilities, state government buildings, meat and poultry processing plants, on public transportation and in private transportation regulated by the government, and in areas where workers cannot socially distance while working.

“There are many exceptions to workers/customers/patrons having to wear a mask even in the situations listed above, including because of a health condition, due to age (children under 11 are generally exempted), while eating and drinking, where the wearing of a mask would interfere with a person’s ability to drive a motor vehicle or operate equipment, while working from home, while operating a private vehicle, etc. Any worker/customer/patron who declines to wear a mask under any of these listed exceptions cannot be required to produce documentation or any other proof that the exception applies. There is not a general requirement for people to wear a mask while out of doors and more than 6 feet from others. In recognition of the public health benefits of wearing masks, officers will be required to wear masks where doing so does not interfere with the officer’s ability to safely and effectively perform their duties.”

According to a press release on Gov. Cooper’s official website published on June 24, growing evidence shows that consistently wearing a cloth face mask can decrease the spread of COVID-19, especially for those who aren’t showing symptoms.

“Under today’s executive order, people must wear face coverings when in public places where physical distancing is not possible. In addition, certain businesses must have employees and customers wear face coverings, including retail businesses, restaurants, personal care and grooming; employees of child care centers and camps; state government agencies under the Governor’s Cabinet; workers and riders of transportation; and workers in construction/trades, manufacturing, agriculture, meat processing and healthcare and long-term care settings.”

Richard Crawford-Rowell was the fifth person arrested that evening. According to the police summary, “As officers approached him, he fled the scene and did not return. Officers were able to identify him and obtain a warrant for his arrest. He was arrested without incident later that same night.”

Crawford-Rowell said he fled the protest once he saw the police block North Church Street. About 30 minutes to an hour later, he said the police were at his front door.

“She put me in handcuffs and put me in the back of her car,” he alleged. “This lady went flying...and I am in handcuffs and I didn’t have a seatbelt in the back of the car...she slung around while I had no seatbelt on, and when she slammed on the brakes, I went forward with my hands behind my back in the police car.”

“This isn’t going to stop me from protesting in the streets,” Crawford-Rowell added.

Battle and Porter believe the charge of “impeding traffic” is not substantial because they said police had already blocked off the street. 

“None of us—even if we were in the street—were impeding traffic,” Battle said. “I stepped off into a [parallel] parking spot, and was immediately back on the curb.”

Angaza Laughinghouse, field manager of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, wrote in an email that the First Amendment is the source of protester protections because “it establishes the right people have to express themselves without the government silencing them.” 

When asked if there were any protections for protesters regarding traffic laws, he wrote, “If protesters are looking for protection regarding traffic laws, the best thing they can do is to get a permit before protesting.”

When asked if standing on a sidewalk or parking space constitutes impeding traffic, Laughinghouse wrote: “If the person is merely standing on a sidewalk or in a parking space, they should not be arrested for impeding traffic because they are not willfully impeding traffic.”

When asked if protesters adhere to a warning could they still be arrested, Laughinghouse replied: “No. If people complied with the dispersal order, they should not be arrested.”

When asked if there are police cars blocking the road, could protesters be arrested for impeding traffic, he responded by writing that, “In this scenario, it sounds like they have no choice but to walk in the road. As such, they should not be arrested since they are not willfully impeding traffic.”

Porter said her arrest has made her more committed to justice and “more determined and more resolved to help lift voices and justice for black and brown people in our community and elsewhere. It’s not going to hold any of us back.”

Porter recalled protesting for Deshawn Lamont Coley, who died at the Forsyth County Detention Center in 2017.

“It is a repeat of what we have seen all over again, and it is not appropriate,” Porter said. “I think that it is very significant that on the only day of protest that Winston-Salem has had recently for Black Lives Matter, they decided to arrest people that coincided with being the day the news was released that five police officers and a nurse employed by the county were responsible for the death of John Neville—I don’t think that was an accident—it feels like it is intimidation. I feel like it is a way to quiet our demands of justice for John Neville, and quite frankly, our demands for transparency and what happened to him, and our demand that it won’t happen again to anyone else.”

 On July 9 around 8:30 p.m., The Unity Coalition and Triad Abolition Project organized a demonstration at the same spot where the arrests the previous day happened, at 301 N. Church St. After about two hours of speakers, leaders from the two organizations began to orchestrate what they called “a planned act of civil disobedience.” Two by two (and some in threes) protesters peacefully walked out into the middle of the street in front of the Forsyth County Public Safety Center with their hands in the air or already behind their backs. 

Around 18 police officers (12 without masks) arrested 15 people for impeding traffic at approximately 11-11:30 p.m. According to the police summary, “There was a courtesy press release distributed on 07-01-20, informing citizens of the need to observe the laws while protesting. Before the protest started at 2100 hours, Lieutenant Hart had a conversation with the protestors reminding them to stay on the sidewalk and not to block the streets. Between speeches the protestors marched around the Sheriff’s Department on different occasions while staying on the sidewalk with no issues. Around 2300 hours, the protestors lined up along the sidewalk. The protestors started walking in small groups and then standing in the middle of the roadway. It was dark and this roadway was open to vehicular traffic, posing a safety concern. Each group of protestors standing in the middle of the roadway were notified that they were violating the law by impending traffic and to go back on to the sidewalk. Several protestors refused to comply. Officers began making custodial arrests. After making the above listed arrests, the remaining protestors left the area while walking on the sidewalk. There were no other violations of law observed after the arrests were made. There were no injuries to the protesters or officers on the scene. Everyone that was placed under arrest was given a written promise and a court date.”

The rest of the group, led by activist Sara Hines, marched back to the Magistrate’s office to wait for others’ release. At approximately 1:30 a.m., the last person released was Calvin Peña, a lead organizer with The Unity Coalition.

In an official statement, the Triad Abolition Project and The Unity Coalition called the July 9 arrests “an act of civil disobedience, an act of nonviolent direct action, because our brothers, sisters, and siblings are being murdered, mistreated, abused, and neglected in the county jail here in Winston-Salem and in many places across the country.”

“This action was intentional, organized, and widely supported by members of the Winston Salem and Forsyth County community as a method of social justice protest with a long history in the U.S. and around the world,” the official release stated. “We call for the dismissal of all charges against peaceful demonstrators in Winston-Salem. We call for an end to the criminalization of peaceful protests in the future. We demand that WSPD no longer use intimidation tactics and tools of violence, such as the LRAD, against citizens exercising our Constitutional democratic rights. We will not be threatened into silence. We will not grow weary in this unprecedented movement for Black lives. We will continue to boldly demand justice.”

 Two of the protesters arrested noted after their release “how dirty the ceiling tiles and walls” were, and that several officers were working closely together without wearing masks inside the Detention Center. 

Jack Kerley, 28, was the last person arrested and the first one released. He said he witnessed the arrests on July 8, which had him “fired up.”

“It was a chance to use my privilege and make a statement,” Kerley said of his arrest. “I don’t have a job that I have to worry about right now, and I have enough money in my bank account in case I had to bail myself out if I needed to. I wasn’t scared of it and I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

Levi Holbein was another protester that was arrested.

“I just didn’t want them to be able to bully us and tell us we can’t exercise our rights when just last week, two weeks ago, we were walking down the street and it wasn’t a problem,” Holbein said of his arrest. “They didn’t have any problems until this week, so I didn’t want them to be able to do that without us standing up against it. We are protesting, if we don’t send a message back, they will just keep thinking they can keep doing more.”

Tina Trutanich is a member of BLMWS, Prison Outreach Initiative and the group Hate Out of Winston, and she was also one of 15 arrested on charges of “impeding traffic” that night.

“We need to abolish the police, that is all I have to say,” she said. “There was a person in there who needed to get to work at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning, and she was pleading with officers. I just think we need to abolish the police—we need to implement the ‘8 to abolish’ strategy and we need to get rid of mass incarceration. That is all I can think of that is clear to me right now.” 

Every evening since July 9, protesters have gathered outside the Public Safety Center to facilitate educational sessions and discussions around topics such as abolition and voter suppression. 

On Wednesday, July 15 there will be an “Occupy The Block” from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. (location is to be announced) that according to the flyer, would include guest speakers, networking, education and “peaceful demands regarding racial injustice and foul play in the jail.” 

Attendees are encouraged to wear masks, practice social distancing and bring an umbrella for shade. Water, snacks and food will be provided, and the flyer states that attendees are free to come and go as they please.

Katie Murawski is the editor-in-chief of YES! Weekly. Her alter egos include The Grimberlyn Reaper, skater/public relations board chair for Greensboro Roller Derby, and Roy Fahrenheit, drag entertainer and self-proclaimed King of Glamp.

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