The fatal shooting of a black man by sheriff’s deputies caused shock waves in Elizabeth City, North Carolina
ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. – The trial of the murder of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was ending when Dakwon Gibbs told a friend that the murder of George Floyd – and others like him – would never happen in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
“I said, ‘We live in a very small city; we are a small community, “said Gibbs, 22.” And two days later it happened. I thought wrong. I thought it was very wrong. “
The fatal shot by Andrew Brown Jr. by the sheriff’s deputies sent shockwaves through this small, mostly black town in the northeastern part of the state. Despite occupying an important place in African American history in the 19th and 20th centuries, Elizabeth City seemed too close-knit and too remote to become a hot spot in the 21st century, say some residents.
That changed when Brown, 42, was shot by Pasquotank County sheriff’s aides carrying out drug-related search and arrest warrants at his home on April 21. Brown was at the wheel of his car when he was shot five times, including in the back of the head, according to an independent autopsy commissioned by his family.
The footage from the police camera has yet to be made public or shown in its entirety to Brown’s family. And the shooting sparked peaceful protests every night, with protesters demanding the release of the video and police reform. Crowds of police and television camera crews descended into the city center by the river.
“We see all these things happening around the world, but we never thought that something like this would happen in our city,” said city council member Gabriel Adkins during an emergency meeting called after the shooting.
“And people are scared. … They are afraid that, you know, the riots are going to start, ”said Adkins.
Surrounded by miles of flat farmland, Elizabeth City is a picturesque-looking urban center for a relatively isolated region. The economy is anchored in large part by a large US Coast Guard base, which often deploys rescue missions in the neighboring Atlantic Ocean. It is also home to Elizabeth City State University, a historically black university founded in 1891. Still, more than one in five people live in poverty in the city.
The city is about an hour’s drive from Virginia’s Hampton Roads region, as well as North Carolina’s Outer Banks tourist. But it is not a place that many people go through – or that they have heard of.
“I am sorry that this is the first time that many people have heard about Elizabeth City,” said Melissa Stuckey, professor of history at the university. “Because it is a place where the struggles for black freedom have taken place over many decades.”
The city is on the banks of the Pasquotank River and emerged in the 19th century because of its proximity to the Great Dark Swamp. Cypresses and cedars were cut to make their rot-proof wood and turned into masts for ships and posts. Enslaved Americans were put to work there. But the swamp was also a place where they sought refuge after escaping slavery.
During the Civil War, black troops marched to Elizabeth City after President Abraham Lincoln allowed African Americans to enlist. They participated in attacks that liberated nearby plantations.
In the 1940s, the city boasted a strong black business community. And in the 1960s, Elizabeth City residents – and students at her university – worked to break up the region’s businesses, with many being arrested.
“In many ways, I see what is happening on our streets today as part of a long history of struggles for black freedom in the region and in the United States,” said Stuckey. “And it is a difficult time. But it is a moment that we can take from the past to get excited about what people are doing now on the streets. “
Linwood Gallop, 52, an electrician, has marched in all protests since the day Brown was killed. He grew up in the same neighborhood where Brown was shot, taking the school bus on the corner and buying nickel mints from a nearby store.
Although Gallop only knew Brown in passing, he rejects any suggestion from the authorities that the shooting was justified. The city is galvanized, he said, because it is so close.
“They are trying to criminalize us. But we know each other. It’s very personal, “said Gallop.” That’s why it’s not working here. “
Gallop also pointed out that it was the county sheriff’s deputies working as part of an anti-drug task force that shot Brown – not the city police force.
“I can’t think of a policeman shooting someone 30 years from now – we are not used to it happening here,” said Gallop. “If we don’t know him, we know someone who knows him. We can literally call someone and say, ‘Hey man, the police are looking for you. Go downtown. ‘ “
Ernest Banks, 65, who owns a shoe store in the city center, also participated in many of the protest marches.
“We can still go on like this,” he said. “This is not going to die.”