In police killing of Andrew Brown, a national crisis comes to a small NC town

The scene of Wednesday's, April 21, 2021, police-involved shooting of Andrew Brown in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)
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Andrew Carter The News & Observer (TNS)

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — A day later, dried blood still stained the sidewalk along Roanoke Avenue and glass from the car remained in the crepe myrtle in the front yard. Michael Gordon’s grandkids often played there, and now a small piece of yellow police tape lingered on the ground near the steps to his porch. Above the numbers next to his front door was a small hole where a bullet entered.

Gordon left home Wednesday morning and returned not long after to a crime scene. He did not see what happened but the aftermath was seared into his mind: the car with the back window shot out, crashed into a tree; the body on the ground, covered with a sheet; the yellow tape wrapped around his house. Andrew Brown Jr. was the neighbor across the street, a man Gordon had known for decades.

Now Brown was dead next to Gordon’s driveway, another Black man whose life ended after an encounter with police. Brown, 42, died less than 24 hours after a Minneapolis police officer was convicted in the murder of George Floyd, whose death a year ago under that officer’s knee ignited a nationwide reckoning with police treatment of Black people.

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For a fleeting moment, the conviction of Derek Chauvin brought a sense of relief to many around the country. “And then the next day for this to happen in my hometown is really heartbreaking,” Gabriel Adkins, an Elizabeth City councilman, said during an interview on Friday. Moments earlier, Adkins greeted about 100 protesters who’d gathered outside Elizabeth City’s city hall, the origin point for days of marching after Brown’s death.

“Elizabeth City is a microcosm now of what is going on across the nation,” Mayor Bettie Parker said during a press conference Saturday, referencing how her city has joined a long list of others where a police confrontation ended in the loss of a Black life. “I see now that no city, small or large, is exempt.”

Parker and other city leaders have fought for days for the release of the police video that would show Brown’s killing, and Adkins on Friday told the people who’d gathered that the fight would continue. For two nights, by then, hundreds had marched peacefully through the streets here, chanting Brown’s name and blocking traffic and demanding the video.

For two nights, citizens pleaded for answers, but answers had not come. Now they were ready to march again.

“We’re doing everything that we can do as a city, and as a city council, to be able to bring some light to this family, to this situation,” Adkins said. “However, the sheriff department and the county officials are just not meeting us in the middle. And that’s what makes it hard, and that’s what stops, or pauses, the healing process. Because we’re still where we were Wednesday.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday joined the call for transparency, writing in a tweet that early accounts of Brown’s death are “extremely concerning,” and that the body camera footage “should be made public as quickly as possible.”

Facts have been difficult to come by. What’s known is that Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived Wednesday morning at 421 Perry St., just south of downtown Elizabeth City, with warrants to arrest Brown and search where he was living. Brown, a felon with a history of drug-related offenses, attempted to drive off, his tires spraying mud.

Deputies fired shots, Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten said in a taped statement, but how many shots remains unknown, as does the reasoning behind such force. Demetria Williams, who lives farther down Perry Street, and who knew Brown well, said she heard the first shot and ran outside and watched deputies continue firing.

“They unloaded on him,” she said.

Brown drove through a small grassy lot and across Roanoke Avenue, a narrow two-lane road, before crashing into the crepe myrtle in Gordon’s front yard. Williams said she saw authorities remove Brown from his vehicle and attempt to revive him but, “of course, I knew he was gone.” One of the shots deputies fired tore through Gordon’s house.

It entered above the numbers nailed to the outside wall — 500, the street address — and shattered the glass of a clock on the other side of the wall. The bullet went from there through a picture frame on the opposite wall, above a chair where Gordon’s wife often sits in the living room. From there the bullet continued through the kitchen.

“It hit my Crockpot,” Gordon said in a matter-of-fact way, pointing at it on Thursday, “and landed on the floor.”

Normally Gordon would have been home Wednesday morning, at the time of the shooting, and a day later he was still thanking God that he had not been home — that his wife hadn’t been, either; or that the grandkids hadn’t been over to visit. Gordon, an Army veteran, never saw combat and never came close to being shot at during his military service, he said.

Instead, such violence found him in his neighborhood. A national scourge arrived, in a literal way, at his doorstep. Like a lot of people, Gordon, who is Black, has followed the conversation surrounding police violence against Black people. “It’s sickening,” he said, “what’s going on in the world today.” A small ray of light beamed through the hole the bullet left.

His wife could’ve been sitting in her chair. Gordon could’ve been standing in his living room.

“That’s the right height of my damn head,” he said, looking at the broken glass of his clock.

Elizabeth City, population 18,000

Elizabeth City is a city of almost 18,000 on the edge of the Pasquotank River near the most northeastern corner of the state, about 18 miles south of the Virginia line and 50 miles south of Norfolk. Slightly more than half of Elizabeth City’s residents are Black; almost a quarter live in poverty.

It is a city, in some parts, filled with the ghosts of once-stately old homes with wraparound porches on tree-lined streets, where people with money used to live back when money flowed more freely here. In other parts, including the one where Brown died, it is a place of tightly clustered modest homes; of neighborhoods and people that have long grown used to going without.

Nowadays, Elizabeth City is best known for being the home of Elizabeth City State University, an HBCU founded in 1891. The city, not far from the Outer Banks, is the seat of Pasquotank County, which, politically, is perhaps the most divided of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

During the 2020 election, Joe Biden won Pasquotank by 62 votes over Donald Trump. Yet Biden won Elizabeth City by about an 80-20 margin. The city is more racially diverse, and poorer. The county, meanwhile, with a population of about 40,000, is nearly 60% white, and has a higher income level and lower poverty rate than the city.

The tension between urban and rural has played out here since Wednesday morning. Elizabeth City officials, including Parker and members of the city council, have often reminded the public that it was the county sheriff’s department, and not Elizabeth City police, that killed Brown. Those leaders have, at times, expressed the same sort of exasperation as those who’ve marched the streets.

Montre Freeman, the Elizabeth City manager, spoke in a sometimes mournful tone on Saturday, describing how he reacted to the news that a Black man had been killed by police in his city. As a Black man and a father, “It felt like yet another one,” Freeman said, referencing the continued killings nationwide. “That’s how it felt. That’s how it continues to feel.”

Other community leaders have used the shooting to remind citizens that their voice matters, along with their votes. City leaders have described the relationship between the community and the Elizabeth City Police Department as an amicable one. Parker, the mayor, said city police are known as “peace officers.” Since Wednesday, she said, the city has had little communication with the sheriff’s department, which Parker said has shared few details of the shooting. As a result, Wooten has become a target of ire and contempt in the city.

“You get what you don’t vote for,” Keith Rivers, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, told protesters before a march on Thursday night, referring to the election of Wooten as Pasquotank sheriff. “We want the sheriff to come out and talk with us,” Rivers said through a loudspeaker, to cheers from people who have demanded the same.

Wooten has not often made himself available, at least not in person. Outside of a press conference on Wednesday, his statements since Brown’s death have come over video, without the opportunity for citizens to confront him. Late Friday afternoon, Wooten spoke in a grainy broadcast over Facebook Live, sitting in front of a church altar, and referenced “a lot of unknowns out there, a lot of misconceptions.”

He reiterated that the State Bureau of Investigation had begun an inquiry into the shooting that led to Brown’s death. Earlier in the day, media reports cited police scanner audio that revealed Brown had been shot in the back, which supported Demetria Williams’ account that deputies opened fire on Brown as he was driving away. According to another report, three Pasquotank deputies had resigned and seven had been placed on leave.

A third night of protest

The protesters gathered again downtown on Friday, outside of Elizabeth City headquarters near the corner of Colonial Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, and at times they yelled and at times they simply held signs high, some of which said: “Where are you Wooten?” and “HE DIDN’T HAVE TO DIE” and “STOP KILLING US.”

“No details. We have none,” Adkins, the city councilman, said after an emergency meeting in which the council directed the city attorney to petition the sheriff, and then the court, if necessary, to release video of the shooting. “We hear hearsay, but no facts … nothing from who it needs to come from to give us some facts and transparency — nothing.

“It’s very frustrating. And to begin to be able to heal, you have to have some type of answers, as to why. And those questions are still being unanswered, as to why. So the anger and the emotions and the people, and the family are building up even more.”

Adkins is 34, and a lifelong resident of Elizabeth City. This is where he grew up and where he became a business owner and an elected official, now in his second term as a councilman. He learned of the shooting, at first, from a CNN news app alert on his phone, and in that moment he said he thought: “Wow, am I really reading this?”

As a Black man, Adkins has given considerable thought in recent years to the nationwide epidemic of law enforcement violence against Black people. He has thought about what he might tell his three young children one day about interacting with police, and he has thought about how to avoid such interactions on his own.

Since Wednesday morning, his thoughts have been especially heavy. He has been unable to sleep, unable to shake his fear. He’d been trying to be a leader for his city and his fellow citizens but in some ways he was like everybody else, processing the news that an Elizabeth City man’s name had become the latest social media hashtag, the most recent reason to march in the streets.

“I never thought that it would be right here, at home,” Adkins said.

A makeshift memorial

The day after the shooting, two balloons, one blue and one white, were tied to the chain link fence near the corner of Perry and Roanoke, where Brown died. Parts of the fence were curled back, leaving a gap beneath the balloons. On the ground there were a couple flowers left in Brown’s memory, and maybe 20 yards beyond were the tire tracks he left when he attempted to drive away.

The neighborhood had become the center of a story that was gaining national attention. Television crews set up cameras pointing at the house where Brown lived, mud from the car tires splattered on the side. It was impossible for visitors to understand what residents here already knew and what they lived with — that the sound of gunshots was almost as familiar as the sight of people lined up outside the nearby social services center, seeking help with their utility bills.

“It’s real,” Demetria Williams said of a police killing happening on her street. She acknowledged Brown’s criminal record, the troubles of his past and even his present at the time of his death, but she knew him to be “a good dude.”

“He wasn’t violent,” she said. “Didn’t carry a gun. Minded his business.”

His car came to rest on a sidewalk about 600 feet from an elementary school.

“It lets you know that no matter what city or state you’re in, it could happen to you,” said Daniel Bowser, another neighbor who knew Brown and considered him a friend, on Thursday. “It could happen to anybody.”

Hours later, Bowser arrived downtown with a large sign that said “No justice, no peace.” He was often near the front of those marching, leading the way. Before the protesting began, several speakers took turns addressing those who’d gathered. Some talked about the importance of voting and others the importance of faith, of a community coming together.

Nearly all of them spoke of their shared grief at another Black life lost in a police shooting.

“I am so tired — I am so tired — of watching my brothers and sisters die at the hands of the police,” Rivers, the local NAACP president, said. “I am so tired of watching my young brothers go to jail. I am so tired of apologizing for being Black.”

His voice rose while people cheered him on.

“We are unapologetically Black,” Rivers said, shouting.

“Let us see the video!” a woman in the crowd yelled.

Soon the marchers were off, winding their way through downtown and toward the corner of Perry and Roanoke, about a mile away. When they arrived, about 200 people stood in the intersection where Brown died. A local pastor named Tony Rice began sharing testimony, people surrounding him on all sides, and he spoke of the history of Elizabeth City, of Africans being sold into slavery at the nearby waterfront long ago.

And now, Rice said, communities like this one, predominantly Black and poorer and besieged by problems ranging from poverty to drug abuse, needed more support and outreach and hope.

“Can I get a witness?” Rice asked, and people responded with Amens before the pastor finished. “Lord I’m asking you to protect this family. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

The protesters then marched north on Brooks Avenue and west on Ehringhaus Street, one of the main commercial arteries of the city. At times they marched arm in arm and at times they stopped to block traffic at intersections. They marched a mile down one of Elizabeth City’s busiest streets, now empty except for them, and marched past the fast food places and the strip malls.

More seemed to join along the way, so that by the time the protesters reached Ehringhaus and Halstead, one of the city’s largest intersections, they might have been about 400 strong. Among them was Malysia Walker, 19, who marched with five of her younger siblings, ages 2 to 10. Walker held the 2-year-old in her arms while she marched.

“I feel like we should do this a lot more,” she said, acknowledging her concern for her siblings. “I feel like everybody should come together a lot more, to stop these police officers from killing us.”

Brown by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies. BY ANDREW CARTER

Music and bottled water

At the intersection of Ehringhaus and Halstead, people danced to music from a speaker somebody had wheeled into the middle of the street. A couple of young employees from a nearby Food Lion handed out bottled water from a grocery cart. Kirk Rivers, the brother of NAACP chapter president Keith Rivers, soon addressed the protesters, telling them to keep showing up.

“It just reached a point where people are tired,” Kirk Rivers said in an interview. “But this has been happening — this is not something that just took over last night. So people are coming out. People are showing that we’re together. …

“We’re not just doing this for the city of Elizabeth City. But we’re here for the city of Elizabeth City, the state of North Carolina and the United States of America, that police have to be trained and have to understand — don’t judge us by the color of our skin.”

Soon it was dark and the people began the long walk back toward downtown, where the march began. Among them was Ernest Banks, 65, and this movement had become especially important to him because Brown died in the neighborhood where Banks grew up. He lived there as a boy, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and Banks could remember marching in those days, too.

Now he wore a face mask that said “good” on one side and “trouble” on the other. Banks had joined the protests in hopes of making “good trouble” — the phrase that longtime congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, who died last year, had turned into a rallying cry.

“If something you feel that strongly about it, you need to go out and voice your opinion,” said Banks, a 20-year military veteran. “It doesn’t mean you need to go out and start a whole lot of bad trouble. Well then you get a group together like we got now to make it good trouble.

“You don’t have to tear your city down to get your point across. You can get it done in unity. Like we’re doing tonight. Like we did last night. Like we’re going to do for the rest of this week, or month, or next month, the following month.”

For one night, at least, the marching was over in Elizabeth City. Yet in another way it felt like a movement here was only beginning, that people had only just started a march down a long road.

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