Twenty-eight people were arrested Saturday night in Nashville, and another man was taken into custody on suspected arson Sunday evening, after a peaceful rally turned chaotic. Protestors set fires in the Metro Courthouse, broke windows, graffitied buildings and vandalized business along Lower Broadway.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper declared a state of emergency and imposed an 8 p.m. curfew Sunday night. The curfew will be in effect until 6 a.m. Monday.
Police used flash bangs and tear gas to disperse demonstrators Saturday night, clearing downtown streets by 11 p.m. According to Metro Police, those arrested range in age from 17 to 61 years old — most were 30 or younger. Nearly all live in Middle Tennessee, though some individuals came from as far away Chicago; Arlington, Texas; and Buffalo, N.Y.
Metro police later announced they’d arrested another man, 25-year-old Wesley Somers of Madison, on suspicion of setting fire to the Metro Courthouse. Somers is being charged with felony arson, vandalism and disorderly conduct. Police say he was identified with help from the community.
Photos and video of a shirtless white man reaching into the fire at the courthouse circulated widely on social media Sunday. People linked the picture to Somers by noting distinctive tattoos.
Police tell The Tennessean that they’re uncertain what motivated a group of demonstrators to riot in the downtown. They suspect antifa or white supremacists could have infiltrated the initial rally held Saturday afternoon, in a bid to stoke unrest.
The “I Will Breathe” rally drew about 1,000 people to War Memorial Plaza. After it wound down around 5 p.m. on Saturday, some protesters began a mile-long march through the downtown. Police say a total of 30 buildings and businesses were damaged in its wake and six patrol cars were damaged. No officers were injured.
Tenn. Gov. Bill Lee said the National Guard had been mobilized and could assist local police in enforcing the curfew, if asked. Lee also said the state would investigate the incidents, saying there’s “reason to believe that many of those involved in unlawful acts are not Tennesseans.”
“The right to peaceful protest is foundational to our country,” Lee said, “but the violence and vandalism that occurred in Nashville last night was unlawful and tears at the fabric of our community.”
‘Testament to disenchantment’
It wasn’t immediately clear how the destruction started. The afternoon began with a rally that had little unrest. Participants at one point chanted for peace and escorted an agitator away.
Organizers objected to the turn of events. Keith Caldwell is president of the Nashville NAACP.
“I don’t think it reflects on the tone of the rally today. But it does reflect on the unrest that is here, and about how policing is done in this city. So, it’s just as much a testament to people’s disenchantment as the nonviolent rally was today.”
One protestor, Lamont Lockridge, had come to Nashville from Murfreesboro for the rally. He’s a senior at MTSU and president of its Black Student Union.
Lockridge says the chaos and violence wasn’t planned, and from what he saw, those setting fire to city hall were white and not part of the original group of protestors. Still, he understands why this rally felt so different from those past.
“I want to make sure people understand that it’s not just about a name. It’s not just about a George Floyd, or it’s not just about a Trayvon Martin or a Sandra Bland,” he said. “It’s about all of the times where there is police brutality and we don’t hear about it. … That’s where that aggression comes from.”
Lockridge says isolation from the pandemic — and how it is disproportionately impacting communities of color — is also fueling the anger felt by protestors.
Broken windows and fires
Demonstrators toppled a statue on the Tennessee State Capitol grounds of Edward Carmack. The segregationist newspaper publisher and state lawmaker is often remembered today for writing editorials attacking the Memphis journalist Ida B. Wells, who tried to draw attention to lynchings.
Ryman Auditorium, Bridgestone Arena and the Music City Center were vandalized, along with a number of businesses along Lower Broadway. Protesters also clashed with police in front of the Central Precinct. Six patrol cars were damaged, but no officers were injured.
This morning, Cooper said he surveyed the damage.
Last night’s vandalism was shameful. I surveyed the damage and was briefed by our police and fire chiefs this morning. I want to thank our dedicated police officers and firefighters for their work. Metro is investigating and will continue to arrest those responsible.
— Mayor John Cooper (@JohnCooper4Nash) May 31, 2020
The Nashville Fire Department says investigators are looking into who set fire to several buildings, including the Metro Courthouse, Margaritaville, Boot Barn and The Stage.
Here is a list of notable establishments damaged by last night’s unrest, according to Metro Police:
- Historic Metro Courthouse ( Graffiti, fire and water damage, broken windows)
- Ryman Auditorium ( Window damage)
- Boost Mobile (Damage to doors and windows, stolen phones)
- Dick’s Last Resort (Broken window)
- Margaritaville (Damage to window and door, possible theft, graffiti)
- Sbarro ( Broken windows)
- Market Street Mercantile (Broken windows, possible theft)
- Wild Horse Saloon (Broken window)
- Legends Corner (Broken window)
- The Stage (Broken window)
- Layla’s (Broken window)
- Boot Barn (Broken window)