Wilmington protest for Floyd turns violent; police order people off the streets
For most of Saturday, Wilmington residents protesting the death of George Floyd marched peacefully.
They shouted. They cried. They briefly shut down I-95. They demanded justice for the 46-year-old, all while traveling more than 6 miles through the city.
But as day gave way to night, protesters began smashing the windows of Market Street businesses. Broken glass littered sidewalks as police in riot gear started cordoning off downtown streets.
Around 10 p.m., police ordered people off downtown streets. First it was Market, then Shipley.
With chants of "I can't breathe" reverberating through the city's downtown, protesters grew increasingly angry and more destructive as the evening hours wore on, targeting car windows and briefly setting fire to trash that littered the streets.
The evening looting, which drew criticism from Gov. John Carney — he said he shared protesters' anger over Floyd's death but condemned the "random acts of vandalism against small businesses and this violence in our city" — was a continuation of the day's rally to demand justice for Floyd.
The protest began at Rodney Square at 11 a.m. with several hundred people, but quickly drew a crowd of more than 1,000. By 2:30 p.m., the couple hundred people remaining shut down I-95, nearly clashing with Delaware State Police.
Ultimately, the crowd left when troopers put away their long guns.
After leaving the interstate, the remaining group marched to Wilmington Police's downtown headquarters, where earlier in the day crowds had turned their anger over police abuse toward a line of officers standing outside the station.
Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki and Police Chief Robert Tracy spoke to the group in the evening, which temporarily calmed the protesters.
Protesters asked the two if they would request a resignation from any officer who said they were OK with what happened to Floyd. Both Tracy and Purzycki said yes, according to several protesters.
When asked about the comments later, Tracy clarified.
“My answer was yes,” he said. “Because no officer is OK with what happened in Minneapolis. The law enforcement community is stunned that someone would do that.”
A group of Wilmington police officers holding riot shields and batons then formed two rows along Market Street, briefly blocking the road between 8th and 9th Street. Some protesters complained the action would only inflame the situation.
Shortly after, the rows of police marched away, but later returned with armored vehicles.
Dion Wilson, a frequent critic of the city’s leadership, said he believed the multiracial nature of the Wilmington crowd, and similar protests nationally, kept police from responding more aggressively. It’s a sign of improvement over the past, he said.
“I was here in the '60s," Wilson said. “They used real bullets.”
As protesters marched up Market Street, though, some demonstrators began smashing the windows of the Bardea restaurant and Starbucks – two businesses that many of Wilmington’s leadership have pointed to in recent years as signs of the city’s revitalization.
Some protesters took aim at the long-simmering inequality in Wilmington represented by the recently revitalized Market Street. As they surveyed the damage at Bardea, one of the first to be vandalized, some recalled the beloved — and cheaper — fried chicken eatery it had replaced.
Still, protesters ultimately targeted businesses of all stripes throughout downtown, from upscale bars and restaurants to pawn shops and takeout joints. That, in turn, drew anger from other demonstrators, who decried the vandalism.
Drew Forrester, 24, from Wilmington, said he tried to keep peace with police by urging protesters to move along the street away from the damaged businesses.
“We can’t act immature. We can’t afford it,” he said. “Let’s do it the right way.”
He asked some of demonstrators, “What did Starbucks do to you?"
“We can’t afford it,” one protester replied.
Forrester and group of other civilians then stood guard outside the Walgreens at 9th and Market. Arguing ensued between those who opposed the break-ins and those who did not.
As the sun set over Wilmington, police officers on Market Street carried sticks and shields while protesters screamed "F*ck the police." As demonstrators smashed the windows of a BoostMobile on Market Street, a police officer was heard saying "Sargent, get out your stick."
By 7 p.m., the protesters had moved through Trolley Square, arriving down Delaware Avenue and turning onto North DuPont Street toward Pennsylvania Avenue near Brew HaHa and Acme.
Near that intersection, one man hopped on top of a moving car as it drove down the street. One woman carried a small child, with other children also in the crowd. Several cars were smashed in, enraging some of the residents who watched from their doorsteps.
One of those cars belonged to Amber Bonsall, who said she was visiting her friend in Trolley Square on Saturday evening when her Toyota Corolla’s window was shattered by one of the passing protesters.
She said she had just come out of the shower when she heard “a lot of yelling” and went out to see the crowd.
“I didn’t expect it to come to what it came to,” she said. She added that she saw some protesters emptying water bottles and throwing them on cars, but she didn’t see what broke her window.
“We didn’t do anything to provoke it at all,” she said, adding that her hands were shaking. “It’s hard for me at this moment to look past that.”
Many residents walked outside their home and watched as the crowd marched away.
“I seriously don’t understand why they’re coming through the streets of Wilmington like this,” said a white woman standing next to Bonsall. “It’s not going to solve any problem. Why destroy personal property? What does that do?”
“It’s just ridiculous,” she said. “Where’s (the) humanity?”
Communities of color say they have been asking that same question for years, and are fed up with the lack of change after every police killing.
Bertrand Morales, a 51-year-old Wilmington resident who marched earlier in the day, said prior to the Saturday rally, he'd never attended a protest before. After Floyd's killing on Monday, though, he said "it just hit home."
"Some days I live in fear, and I have to pull myself out of bed to go out every day because I don't know if it will happen to me," said Morales, who is black. "I just really want for it to stop — I just want some equality, some fairness."
That message was echoed by other protesters on Saturday, though in a more violent way as darkness fell on Wilmington.
Around 8:30 p.m., protesters broke into La Fia and Merchant Bar and stole their liquor. A reporter for WDEL was also punched in the left eye by protesters.
Tracy, Wilmington's police chief, was on Market Street overseeing the protest as armored vehicles stationed near downtown. By 9:30 p.m., one tactical vehicle rolled down Market Street, telling protesters to clear the road as their rally was now an "unlawful assembly."
Solid Gold Jewelers on Ninth Street appeared to be a total loss, with its display case strewn along the sidewalk outside the storefront. A convenience store half a block away on Ninth and Orange streets suffered a similar fate, as did the Mecca Body Oils, Incense Beans and Variety Store, next door.
When asked, one man said he was taking part in the ransacking of businesses on Orange Street because peaceful protests don’t change things. As it stands now, the country isn’t made for black people, he said.
“Who is Independence Day for?" he asked. “It’s for people with liberty. We ain’t got that.”
As he spoke, a once-raging dumpster fire on Orange Street died down to just a few small flames. Dozens of people watched. Some continued chants of “black lives matter,” heard earlier in the day. Some held products that appeared to be taken from nearby shops.
Watching the scene play out was Shannon Pressey, a Newark man who had been at the protests since people first gathered at Rodney Square at 11 a.m. He called the destruction around him “wrong,” and said many carrying it out might be opportunists. But “they have reason to be upset."
By 10 p.m., Wilmington police began their process of clearing streets. A police officer wearing a gas mask at 9th and Shipley streets prohibited demonstrators from walking to Market Street where police in riot gear had been gathering next to an armored vehicle.
Minutes later, a police officer farther south along Shipley spoke through a loud speaker.
“This is an unlawful assembly. You must leave now. Get off the street,” he said. “If you are on the street, you will submit to arrest.”
Wilmington officials have not commented on the looting, but issued a statement earlier in the day saying they were "outraged" by Floyd's death.
"We also take this opportunity to mourn the loss of other people of color who have died needlessly in recent months and years through a troubling history of racial divide in our country," the city said.
Just before 10:30 p.m., the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware echoed Wilmington in a statement, saying the "extreme measures" that protesters took throughout the night come from "the deep-rooted pain from centuries of oppression and systemic racism" in the country.
"We don’t have to agree with what’s happening in the city tonight, but we must understand why it’s happening in order to move forward," said Mike Brickner, executive director of ACLU of Delaware. "Police violence and murder by police are all too common in Black and Brown communities, and Delaware is no exception."
Neither Wilmington nor state officials have indicated they plan to implement curfews that many large cities have seen in the wake of violent protests, including in nearby Philadelphia.
But Carney said earlier in the night that the violence was "unacceptable and counterproductive."
"It’s an insult to the cause and it needs to stop," he said. "In the days and months ahead, we all need to commit ourselves to healing the racial discord and addressing the systemic inequality that gives rise to it.
"But we need to do so peacefully and in good faith."
Faith leaders also weighed in, including Rev. Christopher Bullock, a pastor at Caanan Baptist Church. He called for a statewide coalition of Delaware faith leaders to pray and denounce the violence spreading in Wilmington and throughout the nation arising from Floyd’s killing.
“Our nation is painfully in despair,” Bullock said in a statement late Saturday. “Over 100,000 Americans have perished due to COVID-19. Another 41 million are unemployed. Our nation is restless about the unfortunate death of George Floyd and others, at the hands of police. Peaceful protest and demonstrations have their place, but the ugliness of looting, anarchy and lawlessness is never acceptable.”
Reporters Esteban Parra and Karl Baker contributed to this story.