Several thousand people gathered in downtown Nashville on Saturday afternoon for what started as a peaceful demonstration, but that later shifted into violence and vandalism.
The event began with a diverse crowd of faces — many covered in masks — standing should-to-shoulder, despite the global pandemic that has kept people 6 feet apart for weeks.
City officials, legislators, religious leaders and local activists mourned for the loss of those killed by police and called for reform.
“We cannot change minds. We cannot change hearts,” said state Rep. Vincent Dixie. “But we can change laws.”
Keith Caldwell, president of the local chapter of the NAACP and one of the organizers of the “I Will Breathe” rally, said he’d never seen War Memorial Plaza so full in more than 25 years as an organizer.
“There was a lot of kinetic energy,” he said. “There was a lot of people at their wit’s end and wanting change.”
The crowd repeatedly chanted in unison as one speaker after the next took the stand, shouting “I can’t breathe,” a reference to George Floyd, a black man who died last week in Minneapolis after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
And when one man tried to cause a disturbance, a group calmly escorted him off the plaza, as the crowd erupted in chants of, “We want peace.”
But, as the day wore on, tensions coursed between the city’s established Civil Rights leaders and younger activists.
Several speakers struggled to get out their words amid chants from the crowd — including Sheila Clemmons Lee, the mother of Jocques Clemmons, who was fatally shot by a Nashville officer in 2017.
As the sun sank in the sky, the mood began to shift, first slowly, then seemingly all at once.
An Initial Clash
Just before 5 p.m., the crowd spilled out of the plaza and onto the streets, marching through downtown Nashville with signs hoisted high. Demonstrators made their way to Lower Broadway, where the blare of country music mixed with the chants of “black lives matter.”
The crowd wound about a mile on foot, past Bridgestone Arena and the Music City Center, then parked outside of the police department’s Central Precinct on Korean Veterans Boulevard.
That’s when things started to turn.
People shouted: “Where’s the chief?” Onlookers climbed in the trees and hung from traffic signals. A few threw water bottles. Rocks. Traffic cones.
A parked patrol car was smashed, blows were exchanged with officers and several people were detained. Officers on horseback rode through the crowd, as helicopters hovered ahead.
The group moved again through downtown, circling back toward the convention center, where the walls had been tagged with graffiti and metal trash cans were dragged into the street.
But most of the crowd, thinning with each passing hour, remained peaceful.
Mothers and children, friends and siblings marched together in the heat. Protesters and police officers chatted with one another on the sidelines, leaning in as the chants around them grew louder.
And as the crowd passed along Broadway once more, some drivers honked in solidarity while employees and customers filed out of the honky tonks to take in the scene.
By the time the group made its way to City Hall, the tone had changed. Shattered glass spilled onto the front steps as a group bashed windows and spray painted the doors of the institution built in 1937.
Police — some on bikes in neon vests — stood face to face with rows of demonstrators. Other officers were in full riot gear, with shields and pads.
Around 8:15 p.m., smoke began to pour from the first floor, which houses Metro offices, including the mayor’s. Several people had set offices on fire, shoving signs into the now-broken windows to kindle the flames.
Police dispersed the crowd with tear gas.
Before 9 p.m., Mayor John Cooper declared a local state of emergency. A curfew was set for 10 p.m. Anyone who hadn’t cleared the streets would be arrested, police said.
“This is a heartbreaking night for our great city,” Cooper said in a video statement. “Nashville has been through a lot in the past three months, and tonight’s unacceptable vandalism does not define Nashville.”
The police said no officers were injured. Six vehicles took on heavy damage.
The department said some businesses on Broadway were damaged, but that officers had “essentially cleared” the streets by 10:45 p.m.
From Unity To Condemnation
Metro Councilmember Dave Rosenberg, who brought his kids to the afternoon rally, said he didn’t know how the city would move forward after the destruction.
“The paint can be washed off and the windows can be repaired,” he said. “But it’s tragic that the message of today is being pushed aside by the violent actions of a bunch of anarchists who … in large part are not there because of police brutality.”
The organizers of the peaceful demonstration outside the capitol also expressed disappointment. In a statement, the Equity Alliance condemned and disavowed the “violent rioting.”
“It is our firm belief that those individuals defacing and destroying public property after the rally were not a part of the original event,” the group’s co-founders wrote. “The actions by this small group reflect neither the beliefs of the groups that led today’s peaceful assembly nor those of the majority of the attendees. This behavior dishonors the memory of George Floyd and other black Americans that have died unjustly at the hands of police.”
State Rep. Harold Love, who co-organized the rally, said he was proud that so many people of different ages and races had come together to call for action.
He said he didn’t think setting fire to City Hall was the right way to bring about change. But he also understood the frustration of the moment.
“When people are not heard over and over and over again, then they carry out actions that are not necessarily what some may view as the best way to get some attention,” Love said, adding, “I do hope that people understand that we have to be strategic in our actions.”
Caldwell, of the NAACP, called the rally an “inflection point.”
“We need to harness this energy that is here, that it becomes productive,” he said. “Because, right now, people are so disappointed and dismayed that the energy is turning negative, because there’s a sense of hopelessness and despair.”