“Protesters were confused. Some were afraid. Many were angry. [They] felt betrayed. Just days earlier, Chief Thompson had given an impassioned speech in plain clothes about her commitment to protect the citizens under her watch who were exercising their First Amendment right to protest for a cause she claimed to fully support. She had shed tears….but on July 8th, those promises were proven to be lip service. That empathy disappeared.”
–Brittany Battle & Bailey Pittenger
“This is still racist Winston f***ing Salem!”
-Larry Little (circa 1992)
Brother John Neville: ‘George Floyd’ In Our Own Backyard
At a vigil on June 6th, in downtown Winston-Salem, I clumsily attempted to narrate a history of Black radicalism in Winston-Salem. I was hoping to interrupt the sense of placelessness that pervaded so much of the activity and ground the attendees in our local story. After that brief history lesson, I said, “It’s easy to look at racism in the national headlines and forget that it’s right up under your nose. Winston-Salem was founded in white supremacy and it continues to be marred and formed by white supremacy.” The evidence abounded. If one looked at the data, the daily structural violence of Winston-Salem was undeniable. A city that had been ranked 17th worst in eviction rates, 19th worst US city childhood poverty, and 4th hardest city for a child born into poverty to escape–is already a racist-capitalist tragedy. Yet, the “mundane” — but often more deadly — daily oppression has a numbing effect on the masses. The more effective and less detected evil is executed in slow-motion. Furthermore, a people accustomed to trauma will begin to normalize it and explain it in ways that obscure its root cause. To quote Kwame Ture again, “not only do we accept poverty, we even find it normal, and that…is because the oppressor makes his violence a part of the functioning of society.” Still, if one were waiting for the “sensational headline” of state-sponsored racialized violence in Winston-Salem, they would soon have it. And this tragic story would eerily mirror the details of George Floyd’s murder.
***CONTENT WARNING: State Violence Against Black People***
In December 2019, a Black man named John Neville had a health episode while being held captive in a cell in our county’s local detention center. The official – but contested – narrative is that he had fallen from his 4-feet tall top bunker while sleeping and began having what appeared to be seizures. Guards and nurses were called in and found Neville “shaking and sweating, with vomit on his clothes and blood around his mouth.” Instead of providing adequate care to a person who was clearly in crisis, they put a “spit mask” over his face and “hog-tied” him. Like George Floyd in 2020, and Eric Garner before him, John Neville pleaded for his life, uttering those fateful words, “I can’t breathe”, 27 times in the span of 3 minutes. Yet, those charged with his care, flippantly laughed and told jokes during this terrible ordeal. As a result of their murderous negligence and the use of the hog-tie restraint, Neville would eventually die of asphyxiation in a hospital that night—according to “official” reports. As life faded from his body, an inmate is heard in surveillance camera video footage saying, “y’all killed that man.” The inmates’ testimony underscored the agentic nature of the actions taken by the guards and nurses. When Neville’s body was taken out of the cell by paramedics, inmates joined voices singing “Amazing Grace.” Their raised voices stood in direct contradiction to, and condemnation of, the gracelessness of a nation-state much more committed to the preservation of cages and capital, than caring for its people. The song on their lips was both a lamentation and an invitation. It lamented the fact that the apartheid city of Winston-Salem is structurally hogtied — that there are spaces of deprivation that restrict, suppress, asphyxiate, and limit the life-breath chances of Black and brown communities. This city is not a place of life-giving “amazing grace,” but rather a death-dealing Bible-belt city organized around what antifascist theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” A cheap grace which seeks peace without justice, democracy without decolonization, healing without reparations, (re)conciliation without wealth redistribution, “forgiveness without repentance,” and unity without verity. Ultimately, their song is a radical invitation. Their raised voices invite and call us to cut through the bitter wails of Black suffering with the “sweet sound” of justice and beloved community.
Rhyming With 1992
Tragically and predictably, it would be a full 7 months before details of what happened to John Neville would become public. This “cover-up,” as many of us called it, was a tragic rhyme with a previous moment in Winston-Salem’s history: 1992. Like the year 2020,1992 was a year of uprisings and protests in the wake of a national headline-grabbing instance of police-violence. In 1992 it was the acquittal of the cops who brutally beat motorist Rodney King and the subsequent L.A. Rebellion. In 2020, it was the murder of George Floyd and the rebellions that sprung up around the country. Because the U.S. traps Black people in a single web of carcerality, what happens in L.A., or Minneapolis, or Ferguson, has a visceral impact on Black folks wherever they may live.
On a bone-deep level, we feel it as if it happened in our own backyard, and to our closest of kin.
The revolutionary potential of this reality haunts the powers that be. So efforts are made in every locale to de-link the problem. The last thing the powers want is for the dots to be connected locally — and certainly not internationally. This would bring about too much political clarity and liberatory intensity. As Malcolm X argued, “you can’t understand what is going on in Mississippi if you don’t understand what is going on in the Congo….the same [colonial] schemes are at work.”
For this reason, the ruling elite of Winston-Salem tried hard to cover up certain details of the murder of a Black man named Carlos Stoner in 1992. On a night in late May of that year, he was brutally stabbed to death by a group of white men in Washington Park. They left the scene of the crime, only to return a half-hour later to castrate him and to place his genitals in his mouth. This post-mortem brutality was the calling card of white terrorist lynch mobs of the past. When reporting the murder, the WSPD and the ruling elite decided to withhold that specific detail– as well as the racial identities of those involved. They rightly believed that any relatively conscious Black person would immediately begin to suspect that this was more than a murder–but a racist act of terror. Keeping the tinderbox of Winston-Salem from exploding was more important than exposing the truth. But for the investigative journalism of the Winston-Salem Chronicle – the city’s historically Black-owned newspaper – this cover-up would not have been known until the trial.
Fast-forward 18 years: it took 270 days for details to emerge about the death of John Neville, and for charges to be pressed against those whose murderous negligence resulted in his demise. As usual, power conceded absolutely nothing without demands and pressure from protestors. One protest took place about 10 days prior to the July 8th press conference held by District Attorney Jim O’Neill announcing the indictments. On June 27th, another rally and march was organized by a coalition of grassroots organizations including Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem, Prisoner Outreach Initiative, Siembra NC, Winston for Peace, and my own beloved Drum Majors Alliance. This was just one day after Sheriff Kimbrough first uttered the name John Neville publicly in a vague and misleading response to an interview question. The march, like quite a few others before it, was centered on making demands around the ongoing Covid-19 infection crisis in the detention center. By this time, there were rumblings that the video footage of John Neville’s death would be absolutely damning and there were calls during the protest for the video to be released immediately. At the time, these calls were not official demands and, considering lack of clarity about the Neville family’s position on the matter, there was disagreement around whether this demand should be made. That said, the fire was intensified in this second wave of protests, and we would soon have all the evidence needed to indict Winston-Salem as a racist neoliberal city with strategically placed, accommodationist, Black leaders.
At the July 8th press conference, District Attorney and brazen Trumpist, Jim O’Neill, informed the press that he was charging Lt. Lavette Maria Williams, 48; Cpl. Edward Roussel, 51, Officer Christopher Bryan Stamper, 43; Officer Antonio Woodley Jr., 26; Officer Sarah Elizabeth Poole, 37; and nurse Michelle Heughins, 45 with involuntary manslaughter. In that same press conference, the first Black Sheriff of Winston-Salem, Bobby Kimbrough Jr, called the group of officers and the nurse who told jokes and laughed as Neville was dying under their care, “good men and women [who] made a bad decision [while]….trying to do the right thing.” In his comments, he also made it very clear that protesters who “crossed the line and broke the law” in response to this local issue would be swiftly prosecuted.
“It’s Raining In Bailey Park”: The Third Wave of Protests & #OccupyWSNC
Later that day, an emergency protest was organized in downtown Winston-Salem. The differences between this protest and those of the first wave were glaring. The participation was smaller, diminishing from crowds of up to 1,000 protestors down to about 30. Yes, it was organized on short notice. Yes, it was on a weekday. Yes, I myself couldn’t get down there until after the most intense moments had passed. After all the prior mobilizations, there was not enough organization to rally a strong response to a George Floyd-like situation in our own backyards. Secondly, this small crowd of protesters was met with an entirely different response from a law enforcement department that was purportedly in full “solidarity” with previous summer protests. There were no speeches of support from Chief Thompson or Sheriff Kimbrough. Mayor Joines did not make an appearance to smile and shake protesters hands. There were no photo-ops, and no cops were participating in hug-fests with protesters this time. Once the context shifted from the national to the local, law enforcement showed up ready to commit acts of suppression. Winston-Salem Forsyth County’s “upstanding image” had to be protected. Underscoring the shift in energy and tactics, Triad Abolition Project co-founders, Brittany Battle & Bailey Pittenger wrote in an October 2020 piece:
“Despite not a single act of violence occurring during protests which took place multiple times a week for five weeks, officers arrived outfitted with bags full of zip-ties and large canisters of pepper spray, some riding in a gorilla cart with an attached LRAD (long range acoustic device which can cause permanent hearing damage and has been historically used to quash protests.)”
That evening 5 protesters — including Brittany Battle and Tony Ndege of Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem — were arrested for “impeding traffic.” In reality, the road was already blocked off by the police, and the people arrested were either on the sidewalk or very close to it. They were not blocking traffic. Nevertheless, they were aggressively dragged off the sidewalk and handcuffed. It couldn’t be much more obvious that the moment protests took the turn from a “national headline” to a local issue, the temperature shifted. Though the most obvious aspect of this shift was amongst law enforcement, it was in no way limited to that sector. From City Council to county commissioners, from the Black petit-bourgeois to the clergy (mis)leadership class, to the armchair activists of social media and the so-called “concerned citizens” who had been loud in the streets for George Floyd—the script was completely flipped. Folks went from being on-the-ground cheerleaders and co-conspirators in “the resistance,” to missing-in-action naysayers and colluders with the carceral state.
The costs of bearing witness were no longer abstract. When faced with the concrete risks of burning bridges to the mayor’s office, too many would rather betray the cause of freedom. It was easier to show up for a Black neighbor who cried “I can’t breathe” across the nation than it was to show up for one who cried the same thing across the street in your local detention center. What’s more, the stigma of incarceration causes even some of those who claim to have justice commitments less likely to show solidarity.
Nevertheless, the demonstrations and arrests would not stop. Before the summer was over, an additional 50 arrests were made of protesters engaging in acts of civil disobedience (right under the shadow of the Sit-In historical marker) and a historic 49-day occupation of Bailey Park in downtown Winston-Salem would occur. The occupation was led by the Triad Abolition Project and a short-lived formation that sprouted up earlier in the summer called the Unity Coalition. Beginning in mid-July, and ending in early September, the occupation marked the beginning of the “third wave” of the summer protests. Like any organizing work, the occupation was not without its contradictions. Yet, it emerged as a courageous, tireless, and fruit-bearing effort! Through violent storms and rain, blistering hot days, constant surveillance by the police, ridicule and hostility from entrenched white and Black leadership, and interpersonal conflicts, the occupation remained intact until the prone restraint responsible for John Neville’s death was banned! It’s also very important to note that John Neville’s children – as well as other family members – vocally supported and participated in actions connected to the occupation. This was no small thing, and it embodied an ethic of care that kept track of the reality that John Neville was/is more than a cause. He was/is a person and dearly beloved father, brother, neighbor, and more.
To be transparent, I was very hesitant to participate in this effort and had deep concerns about the aims of some of its organizers based on their deeply problematic and counter-revolutionary activity earlier in the summer. This skepticism and critique was largely directed towards certain people within the Unity Coalition, not Triad Abolition Project. However, after learning of the Neville family’s support and having some dialogue with a brother-preacher who was involved, I cautiously used my limited capacity to show as much support and solidarity as possible. Triad Abolition would eventually break ties with the Unity Coalition during the course of the occupation. That split – which came on the heels of a legitimate attempt at transformative justice – will not be discussed in this piece. It is not my story to tell.
“The Other Patterson Avenue” & Black Radical Organizing
As I alluded to earlier, there is often an unspoken gap between home-grown working-class Black communities and certain flavors of organizing efforts. In some ways, this was apparent within the occupation. At the core of the occupation’s leadership were Black folks – mostly women and trans folx – who I have come to have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for! (As such, I joined the Triad Abolition Project only a year later.) Nevertheless, one critique of the occupation was that its multi-racial makeup did not include a strong contingency of the homegrown Black proletariat (have-nots) of Winston-Salem. I do not point this out as a disparagement of any kind. The same observation can and should be made about many other applaudable advocacy efforts in Winston-Salem. Without spending too much time on it here, let’s think about this gap in two ways:
1.) As the late great Black revolutionary, Walter Rodney would say, “people should organize where they are.” The make-up of the occupation was a genuine reflection of people building out from the spaces they already inhabited. This is not to be shamed, rather it should be honored. And in the middle of a pandemic, it was difficult to safely engage in meaningful cross-community work. Furthermore, lead organizers of the occupation were hesitant and cautious about making sweeping calls for Black working class and poor folks to put themselves in the eye of the storm. Rather, their orientation was to do mutual aid work to support those communities. It was their assessment that white folks needed to put their bodies on the line in this moment of pandemic.
2.) It’s often the case that working-class Black folks do not have the bandwidth to participate in certain forms of protest and organizing. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. It just tapers our perspective and expectations. It means that Black organizers – regardless of their class status – must constantly refine their methods, and where possible, resituate ourselves amongst the most oppressed communities, not as messianic saviors, but as good neighbors who move in the spirit of Ella Baker.
Pictures of OccupyWSNC in downtown Bailey Park.
At the time, I was engaged in a clumsy attempt to do just that, living with my family on what I have called “The Other Patterson Avenue.” The other Patterson Avenue is a historically Black, working-class/poor area of Winston-Salem. The people are beautiful and resilient, but the decades of systemic neglect are evident. On the other hand, Bailey Park, the site of the occupation, is smack dab in the middle of a billion-dollar downtown renewal effort on the very same street. Ironically divided by Martin Luther King Jr Ave, the two Patterson avenues are a window into the reality that there are two Winston-Salems. One Winston-Salem is marked by investment, access, and opportunity, and the other is marked by a living legacy of disinheritance and racist degradation.
Once while sitting on my porch on the 30th block of the “other Patterson,” a neighbor came by and got to talking about things going on in the city. He had known John Neville prior to his passing, had heard about the occupation, and was glad it was happening! Yet, I’ll never forget him saying, “I know they sittin’ targets down there, but can you imagine how ‘12’ [the police] would turn up if we had the hood side of Patterson Ave down there?” He took the words right out of my mouth. I look forward to the day when the Black and brown “domestic 3rd world” of Winston-Salem reclaims its radical birthright in a city that is home to legendary Black working class – and often women-led! – struggles and formations like the Local 22 and the first southern chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense!