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In Little Rock, violence again breaks out

Vandals strike; tear gas used by Stephen Swofford, Rachel Herzog and John Moritz Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | June 2, 2020 at 7:30 a.m.
People from across Arkansas gather to protest Monday outside Little Rock City Hall. More photos at arkansasonline.com/62lrprotest/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

For a third night in a row, violence broke out Monday at a protest in downtown Little Rock.

Arkansas State Police troopers fired tear gas into a crowd of protesters about 10:45 p.m. at the state Capitol, dispersing a crowd that had numbered several hundred. They were there to protest the use of lethal force by police, specifically the May 25 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old man who died after a Minneapolis officer pressed his knee into the man's neck.

Just as a curfew took effect at 10 p.m., the Little Rock protesters began to march from the Capitol grounds east on West Capitol Avenue. Along the way, signs and buildings were spray-painted with graffiti, and windows and glass doors were smashed.

Mayor Frank Scott Jr., who had been at the protest most of evening, marched with demonstrators. As they got near the intersection of West Capitol and South Spring Street, several people in the crowd became unruly. Scott tried to calm them, but some of the protesters began throwing water bottles at the mayor, who was whisked away in a car while some people linked arms to keep others away.

[Gallery not loading above? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/62lrprotest/]

Tony Holt, a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was assaulted near the intersection of Capitol and State Street. He said he felt somebody take his reporter's notebook from his pocket, and then he was struck in the head.

He was taken by ambulance to UAMS Medical Center, where he was being treated late Monday night.

Buildings along Capitol were damaged, including Bank OZK, which had its front glass smashed.

Little Rock police reported that they arrested a man who had a stolen ATM from a bank on Capitol in the back of his truck after midnight.

Fire crews put out a fire at the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, 417 S. Victory St.

There were no reports available concerning arrests or injuries.

Earlier in the day, more than 30 people met on the steps of City Hall at about 7:30 a.m. They said they had been protesting at the Capitol and throughout the city for the previous two days, and they said they'd faced tear gas and what they saw as a response from law enforcement authorities that didn't match the overall calm nature of the demonstrations.

"We don't want to have this turmoil; we don't want to continue to be in fear of us peacefully protesting, because it's not going to stop us," said Natalie James, one of the protest's organizers, on Monday morning. "You see, we're still out here after being tear-gassed over and over and over, so tear gas is not going to work."

The weekend's protests in Little Rock remained largely peaceful, but on Saturday and Sunday nights, there were clashes between law enforcement authorities and protesters -- including the deployment of tear gas and noise-making devices -- after property was damaged.

By accounts from James and other demonstrators on Monday, protesters self-regulated a very small proportion of people in the crowd who attempted to damage property, but they also believed that people who broke windows downtown were separate from their group.

Scott and Police Chief Keith Humphrey also said they believe that people who caused damage around the state Capitol building and downtown were not from Little Rock.

CURFEW ORDER

Shortly before 1 p.m. Monday, Scott announced that he had signed an executive order to instate the 10 p.m. curfew starting that night, citing concerns about covid-19 spreading during the gatherings as well as about outside agitators.

Humphrey visited protesters outside City Hall at about 10:30 a.m. Monday, encouraging them to keep speaking out peacefully, addressing the weekend's events as well as Floyd's death.

"All I ask you to do is to continue to do what you're doing. I get it. I understand. I'm upset. Because that was just straight-up murder," Humphrey said. "I will say it rocked me to my core when I saw this man begging for his momma."

Humphrey reiterated his belief that people who damaged buildings were not from Little Rock.

"We've been peaceful here for the most part, and what's going on last night, we did have some stragglers coming in and causing some problems," the chief said. "Based on information that we received, we know that there are people who came in from the outside."

Humphrey spoke with demonstrators for about 20 minutes, answering questions and ending by leading the group in prayer.

Addressing the curfew order, Scott said in a statement that large gatherings could lead to more coronavirus cases among protesters who are not socially distancing or wearing face coverings.

The city has also received intelligence that "professional, out-of-state antagonists" posing as protesters intended to be destructive during future protests and strategically instigate acts of violence, putting peaceful protesters in harm's way.

Little Rock Police Department spokesman Eric Barnes said Monday that the department had received intelligence from other agencies about people arriving in the city. Another source for that information is Cody Hiland, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, according to the mayor's statement.

"Out of an abundance of caution, we are putting in place this curfew to protect our residents from outside forces who seek to do harm to our city and to continue to slow the spread of covid-19," Scott said in the statement. "We respect the rights of residents to peacefully protest and fully expect that they will."

Scott said he would continue to monitor the situation to determine when the curfew should be lifted. The curfew exempts individuals who are traveling to and from work, according to the statement.

Those found violating the curfew for the first time will be issued a warning, and further violations will result in a citation, which can carry a fine ranging from $150 to $185.

James, the protester and a business owner in Little Rock, said the recent demonstrations were to address local issues as well as national ones, including their opposition to the reinstatement of Little Rock officer Charles Starks, who fatally shot 30-year-old Bradley Blackshire during a traffic stop in 2019 and was put back on the force by a court order, and the need for term limits for judges.

"This is where it is. This is where change happens," she said. "They need to see us and we need to be in their face so they can see it. We're going to stay out there until they see it, until they hear us and we make some change, because we can't make the changes without our politicians hearing us say we want change, so what better way to make that change happen than to get in your face."

Another organizer, 24-year-old Marcus Hunter, said protesters had a dialogue with Little Rock officers at the police substation on 12th Street on Sunday, but it didn't translate into protection from state authorities later that night. He said he would have appreciated if Little Rock officers had offered to help make demonstrators feel more secure at the Capitol.

"For me, I was mainly scared and terrified, because as someone who just kind of got thrown in, it's so heartbreaking to see," Hunter said. "You saw them being tear-gassed, and you know that they are being peaceful."

Blake Farris, a 25-year-old graduate student at Monday's protest, said that the response to the weekend protests further spotlighted the need for change.

"I think it's pretty clear, and I think pretty much the whole country is on board with what's happened, what has been happening," Farris said. "After the events of last night, it's just amplifying even further for me and for everyone else out there, we saw what happened, we saw what police were doing. They were responding to protests about police brutality with police brutality, which is too ironic to believe."

DOWNTOWN DAMAGE

About a dozen businesses and office buildings in the area around the state Capitol were left damaged Monday morning.

The Capitol building itself was spared any broken windows, and the only property damage visible was graffiti left by protesters.

Protesters had gathered mostly along the plaza area on the east side of the Capitol and near the intersections of Woodlane Street and Capitol Avenue on Friday and Saturday nights, according to reporters and video footage from the protests. Much of the visible damage Monday was a block away or more from the Capitol.

State police used tear gas around midnight Sunday to disperse the crowd, after state police Col. Bill Bryant said troopers witnessed protesters entering a state government office across from the Capitol and grew concerned that they might try to start fires.

But James said she believed that the state police were trying to aggravate protesters, rather than disperse them.

"They would take the canister and throw it in front of a group of women," she said. "They would take the canister and go in front of people sitting on the steps. Does that sound like they're trying to disperse the crowd? No."

The building across the street of the Capitol, the Winthrop Rockefeller Building, had many of its first-floor windows broken on Saturday night, according to a Little Rock Police Department report, and on Sunday night, officers responded to a call that protesters inside the building were attempting to light a fire. But after arriving at the building's entrance, officers said, they spoke to the building's manager, who reported that nothing had been stolen and that there were no signs of arson.

Catherine Hicks, a 33-year-old protester from Little Rock who attended the Sunday night rally, said she saw white men starting to break windows after police used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and that they were joined by two or three black men as people fled down Capitol Avenue.

A video she posted on Facebook shows several people breaking windows at the Democratic Party of Arkansas headquarters and Frances Flower Shop, which are both several blocks from the Capitol.

"If you can't sit peacefully on the steps of the state Capitol, and get tear-gassed for doing that, what do you expect them to do?" Hicks said Monday.

Outside the state Democratic Party headquarters on Monday, members of the party's executive team worked to clean up shattered glass and to put plywood up over the broken windows. A short, red pipe lay in the bushes in front of the building.

Michael John Gray, the chairman of the party, said he was called around midnight by the building's security system after the burglar alarm went off. Nothing was stolen, he said.

"It's just windows; windows can be replaced, lives can't," Gray said as he helped with repairs Monday morning.

Across the street, Betty Anderson expressed sympathy for the protests, despite two broken windows at her flower shop that she attributed to "rogue" actors.

"It's unfortunate, but I absolutely support what the protesters have to say, and I do not think this is what that was about," Anderson said, as she and her staff continued to prepare floral arrangements with the breeze blowing in.

Asked if the state police would reevaluate their decision to deploy tear gas following the dispersal of Sunday's crowd and subsequent damage, agency spokesman Bill Sadler said that decision would continue to "be based on what is happening in the moment."

Earlier in the weekend, the protests on Saturday night had left two restaurants damaged in the Victory Building on Capitol Avenue about a block away from the Capitol.

Tom Drogo, the owner of one of the damaged restaurants, Capitol Bistro, said he arrived at his business Sunday morning to find that a rock had been thrown through a front window, across the register and had landed in the kitchen. While cleaning up the streets outside Sunday, he said he also found a pair of shell casings that he kept behind the counter.

The bistro was again serving lunch Monday, and Drogo said he was thankful for a group of men on bikes who he had heard protected his business and a nearby Subway from more damage.

"They became guardian angels for our businesses," Drogo said.

The Victory Building is owned by the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System. At a trustees meeting Monday, system Executive Director Clint Rhoden said the damage had been limited to the two restaurants at street level.

"As far as I know, the damage amounted to busted-out glass and doors," Rhoden said. "They were plywooded up, and extra security was contacted yesterday to help mitigate that."

Barnes, the Little Rock police spokesman, also said there were vehicle caravans between 3 and 4 a.m. in several parts of the city. He said Monday evening that the department did not have any reports associated with property damage caused by the motorists, but it was still investigating.

"We definitely did have a group of vehicles driving through the city, really every part of the city from what I understand," Barnes said.

He said the caravan covered downtown, the Asher Avenue area, west Little Rock and some parts of southwest Little Rock.

Schanelle Smith, another protest organizer and 38-year-old Little Rock resident, said she had heard reports of white nationalists trying to instigate violence from law enforcement sources.

"It's unacceptable to come into our neighborhoods and damage our property," she said.

Addressing the group on the City Hall steps, Smith said she was working on a plan to get matching T-shirts for protesters to help identify outsiders.

Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 06/02/2020

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