Non-violent protests, congratulate the police — violence erupts, blame the protesters?

A recent Politico story says Winston-Salem, NC police chief kept her city from blowing up during the summer uprisings; local activists say that is flat-out wrong.

By Brittany Pearl Battle & Bailey Pittenger
Co-founders of Triad Abolition Project

On October 15th 2020, a few weeks before the November election deadline, Politico published a story titled “How One Police Chief Kept Her City From Blowing Up This Summer.” The story provides a portraiture of the life of Winston-Salem Police Chief Catrina Thompson, emphasizing her role as a peaceful leader of her police force as well as of a potentially violent community. The story alienates local activists and paints progressive, non-violent direct actions as in fact violent. In the wake of nationwide civil rights marches and movements responding to the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Winston-Salem’s streets filled with demonstrators escorted by WSPD for some time, with WSPD vowing to protect protesters as well as agreeing with the cause. While WSPD officers and Chief Thompson smiled in photos with demonstrators, organizers continued to work towards educating the community on calls for abolition and ending police brutality and violence.

Winston-Salem, North Carolina has a population of about 250,000 people and is located in a region with a deep history of civil rights movements and non-violent direct actions. On February 23rd of this year, Winston-Salem celebrated the 60th anniversary of the first sit-in victory in North Carolina. In this op-ed, Triad Abolition Project co-founders respond with the story of local activism in the summer of 2020 that could have been erased had Politico’s report existed as its own destructive narrative.

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After weeks of claiming to stand with protesters, on July 8th, 2020, the Winston-Salem Police Department, under the command of Chief Catrina Thompson, began criminalizing and arresting the citizens they vowed to protect. Despite not a single act of violence occurring during protests which took place multiple times a week for five weeks, officers arrived outfitted with bags full of zip-ties and large canisters of pepper spray, some riding in a gorilla cart with an attached LRAD (long range acoustic device which can cause permanent hearing damage and has been historically used to quash protests). Protesters were confused. Some were afraid. Many were angry. We felt betrayed. Just days earlier, Chief Thompson had given an impassioned speech in plain clothes about her commitment to protect the citizens under her watch who were exercising their First Amendment right to protest for a cause she claimed to fully support. She had shed tears and even referenced her autistic son who she feared could possibly be mistreated by law enforcement because of the color of his skin and disability. But on July 8th, those promises were proven to be lip service. That empathy disappeared.

Dr. Brittany Battle was the first protester arrested and she was aggressively taken into custody by two police officers after recording one without a facial covering despite the city’s mask ordinance. She was charged with impeding traffic while standing on the sidewalk of a street that was already blocked off and closed to traffic by police. Three other protesters were arrested that day — two leaders of the Black Lives Matter organization who were standing on the same sidewalk, and one bicyclist in the street. A warrant was issued for a fifth protester and he was arrested at his home after 10pm that evening, on the same charge of impeding traffic.

Shortly after that day, Politico writer Bronwen Dickey says she sat down with Chief Thompson. She reflects on this meeting, describing Thompson as, “polished and professional but also clearly exhausted. Six weeks of protests, the coronavirus and the turmoil surrounding the Neville case had taken their toll, and her phone still chimed constantly. She had spent so much of her energy and so many of her department’s resources trying to repair the damage other officers at other agencies had caused.” Chief Thompson’s exhaustion was certainly not unique to her. We were in the middle of a global pandemic and racial uprising. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who was not exhausted and struggling under the weight of a world in turmoil. People were losing their jobs, small businesses were closing, people were being evicted, many were debilitated by Covid, some died. But here was Chief Thompson, exhausted and claiming to have extended resources despite her department receiving a Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding (CESF) grant totaling $523,520 on May 29th to fund Street Smart software to aid police officers in “[c]ombat[ing] the expected increase in crime due to job losses and the reduction of officers on the street” and purchase “shields, barricades, gloves, passive protector tools, helmets, shin and arm protectors, gas mask carriers, gas mask filters, magnum foggers, and magnum fogger carriers” for the Civil Disobedience Response Team. None of this funding has been used for community relief nor for Covid testing. In addition, the Winston-Salem City Council agreed to use another $367,000 of coronavirus relief funds for a 1% salary increase for police officers in order to demonstrate support for them during the trying time of civil unrest, and to use this support to retain and recruit officers. The police department’s increase came as teachers and healthcare workers in our community were doing many times their typical workload with not a raise in sight. So, the focus on Chief Thompson’s exhaustion seems a bit paradoxical to say the least.

To more fully understand the deceit of Chief Thompson’s response to protests and the cognitive dissonance of congratulating her for “keeping the city from blowing up,” it is important to contextualize what happened in Winston-Salem during the summer of 2020 and before, but also what happened around the nation. As the Washington Post reported, tracking nearly 8,000 protests across all 50 states and DC this summer, 93% were non-violent. So there is nothing particularly special about Winston-Salem in this regard. But perhaps more importantly, during a WSPD Town Trust Talk on June 16th, Chief Thompson told citizens, “[W]e’re expected to be everything: teachers, babysitters, healthcare workers, mental health providers, oh and by the way, handling crime as well. … I’d be happy to reallocate our funding into those programs or into those people or organizations that can provide those things.”

However, even with consistent calls from the community to reallocate funds from WSPD to support long-term strategies for education, restorative justice services, and employment programs, the City continues to pour taxpayer dollars from the General Fund into WSPD via their $78 million budget, 83% of which is used solely on WSPD personnel who make up over 1 in 4 city employees.

Coincidently, the arrests of protesters in Winston-Salem began the same day that the Forsyth County District Attorney and Sheriff held a joint press conference announcing involuntary manslaughter charges against five deputies and a Wellpath nurse in the death of John Neville. As protesters stopped traffic on major highways and main city thoroughfares, marching to demand justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor throughout June, Chief Thompson and her officers posed for photographs and shared tears. Many in the community seemed to soak it all in, believing strongly that the department was on the right side of justice and would do the right thing by organizers and supporters who were lifting their voices for justice for Black and brown victims of white supremacy and police violence. But that commitment to justice and the support of the First Amendment right to peaceful assembly came to a screeching halt on July 8th when that peaceful assembly turned the focus inward to the actions of local law enforcement who had acted so recklessly and with such malice that a man was ignored for more than 45 minutes while he called out that he could not breathe more than 20 times. Just as protesters had done for the previous five weeks, we convened, made informed demands for policy change, and marched. There was no violence or destruction, at least not from those assembled. Officers from the same department who had just days before vowed to protect protesters as long as they remained peaceful, were now aggressively taking organizers into custody, in a clear attempt to quash the group who was calling for local police accountability rather than shining a light on the bad acts of departments hundreds of miles away. After July 8th, Thompson was not seen engaging with protesters ever again, despite calls for her presence, and her expressed commitment to support their efforts only weeks before. Emails and calls made to her by organizers and supporters have gone unanswered.

One set of unanswered emails are particularly telling-the ones calling for justice for Ella Crawley. Ms. Dickey’s story would lead readers to believe that Chief Thompson’s attention was fully on pursuing justice for Ms. Crawley. However, Black Ops: Rebellion of Black Women and Hate Out of Winston organizers and supporters, under the leadership of Arnita Miles and Miranda Jones, staged a 200-person demonstration in support of justice for Ms. Crawley on May 30th, signaling numerous calls and emails to Chief Thompson to not only act on pursuing justice for Ms. Crawley, but also to prioritize the safety and protection of Black women by making them a priority when it comes to Covid testing and other health disparities in the community. Furthermore, both Chief Thompson and Ms. Dickey failed to mention the Black woman whose charges on a WSPD officer who sexually assaulted her while responding to her 911 call earlier this year were dismissed by the DA’s office upon her death this summer.

Black women organizers in Winston-Salem are calling for the prioritization of safety and protection for Black women through more support for services such as healthcare, education, access to quality food, and employment opportunities, not increased policing. If we are to center community notions of safety and protection, we have to limit the tools of policing that continue to cause harm.

Six Black women and trans folks stand in front of a tent in the rain with their fists raised. There are signs resting behind.
Six Black women and trans folks stand in front of a tent in the rain with their fists raised. There are signs resting behind.
Black women and trans folks lead a “There is No Justice Here” Rally for Black Women Victims of Police Violence event in Winston-Salem.

Given all this, we were surprised to see a story which credits Chief Thompson for maintaining non-violence in a community that is, in truth, led by Black women organizers engaged in justice work and protection for Black women and our broader community. Chief Thompson’s leadership as a Black woman (re)produces the destructive carceral state. The leadership of Black women organizers attempts to undo this harm. Ms. Dickey claims there were no arrests and no injuries in Winston-Salem. That is factually incorrect. The WSPD arrested fifty-five protesters and one of those arrested is still in physical therapy more than three months after the incident and facing a potential surgical repair for a wrist injury caused by officers aggressively handling her arm. Ms. Dickey describes a coup among activists who she claims bitterly criticized Thompson after cheering her weeks earlier. That is also just not factually correct. The activists criticizing the chief and her department after the announcement of the details of Mr. Neville’s case were the same ones criticizing her while she took pictures with her supporters. We were the same ones calling for the defunding of WSPD, a call that Chief Thompson implicitly said made sense in her Trust Talk comments about police being asked to do too many things. We were never under any illusions that having a Black woman police chief meant that we were any safer, and the response to Mr. Neville’s murder did not shift that understanding.

We always knew that police do not keep us safe, an understanding that undergirds our position as abolitionists.

OccupyWSNC participants sit in the grass. A sign which reads “Abolish the Police” rests against the chair of one participant.
OccupyWSNC participants sit in the grass. A sign which reads “Abolish the Police” rests against the chair of one participant.
OCCUPYWSNC participants converse overlooking the former R. J. Reynolds factory smokestacks in downtown Winston-Salem.

Abolition calls for the end of mass incarceration through the dismantling of the prison industrial complex, of which policing is just one part. Policing is a tool of control, repression, criminalization, and dehumanization which upholds the power of the people profiting off the exploitation and death of oppressed communities. According to Reuters, the toll behind bars falls disproportionately on Black Americans, who accounted for at least 28% of jail deaths in the past 10 years, more than twice their share of the U.S. population. Chief Thompson’s messaging in early summer protests and in Politico demonstrates what the Department of Justice’s Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) defines as personalized messaging after “racially charged incidents” to gain trust by bringing “community leaders to the table.” It is a “proactive relationship building” that earns police what’s called “a moment of pause” for the Chief to have time to avoid “civil unrest” or argue for increased policing in moments of “civil unrest.” It seems Chief Thompson’s pledges, promises, and pronouncements were just a page out of the COPS playbook. Other community members suggested activists needed to pursue a proverbial seat at the table with those in positions of power to get things done.

Fortunately for us, we know getting a seat at the table does not help us. When the table is serving oppression, it should be dismantled, regardless of whether a Black woman sits at its head.

The uprising which took place in Winston-Salem was part of a historic movement that has shifted national dialogues about racial injustice and continued to push the needle slowly but surely toward dismantling white supremacy, building on the work of generations of freedom fighters who paved the way before us. Maintaining a 49-day occupation was no simple feat, one that was made possible only because of the immense support shown by our community. While our community came together to push for policy demands, food, supplies, and educational resources were regularly distributed to all OccupyWSNC demonstrators and supporters. We were contributing to the tradition of mutual aid and care in Winston-Salem that helps build communities not incarcerate them. After the first five arrests on July 8th, fifty subsequent civil disobedience arrests occurred in just twenty days.

While being arrested, demonstrators were told by WSPD officers, “This is pointless,” and, “Why do we [WSPD] bear the burden of this?” But the point is clear for us: policing is violence.

Two OCCUPYWSNC participants are arrested. They are photographed being handcuffed by two officers.
Two OCCUPYWSNC participants are arrested. They are photographed being handcuffed by two officers.
OCCUPYWSNC participants are arrested in an act of civil disobedience in front of the landmark sign commemorating the sit-in movement in Winston-Salem.

With 712 WSPD employees costing on average $91k each from the General Fund to maintain the status quo of a region with a persistent history of racial oppression, police violence, and a negligent and deathly jail system, we model the community, safety, and protection that not only provides improved resources, but uplifts us and emphasizes love and compassion, not violence. As Angela Davis says, “the future depends on us to think and imagine…knowledge plays a role in the transformation of society,” and so every action and narrative of our movement provides a lesson for us all as we struggle for justice and reimagine our community without policing and harm. The community solidarity of Triad Abolition Project continues with civic engagement in City and County meetings, bimonthly direct-action marches at the local jail, and collaborative actions across grassroots organizations demanding community control of health, education, employment, housing, and food resources.

The uprising in Winston-Salem during the summer of 2020 remained non-violent because of the intention and commitment of the comrades that made up the movement knowing that any additional police contact put Black and brown people in grave danger, not because of a police chief who failed to keep her promises and flamed the fire of unrest by instructing her officers to criminalize us.

To be clear, we were non-violent, not peaceful; there can never be peace for the oppressed until there is liberation. The chant is “No Justice, No Peace”-we mean literally that.

We organize in order to envision and demonstrate a sustained community of support, the same community which we ask our City to support and uphold. We continue to push forward in the pursuit of justice, and along the long journey toward abolition and safety for us all. We do this with joy, not violence, unlike Chief Thompson and her department.

Dr. Brittany Pearl Battle is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Wake Forest University and co-founder of Triad Abolition Project.