Delawareans joined protests across the country Saturday over the death of an unarmed black man in police custody.
A day of protest in Delaware's largest city over the killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer began peacefully, with signs and speeches on Rodney Square. Demonstrators temporarily shut down a major interstate highway during the afternoon and spoke with the Mayor and city police chief. Things took a destructive turn by sundown, with property damaged in multiple parts of the city.
A group of demonstrators marched on to I-95 north in Wilmington between the Martin Luther King Blvd. and Delaware Ave exits around 2 p.m. – closing the highway for about 90 minutes. State police blocked off the southbound side several exits north of the protest.
Demonstrators occasionally chanted as nearly as many people watched them from nearby overpasses. They departed without incident around 3:30 p.m.
A group reconvened at the New Castle County Court House, chanting, "No justice, no peace." A group on motorcycles roared past down King Street, and demonstrators cheered and raised their fists in recognition. They marched down King Street, blocking traffic.
The group gathered minutes later at the Wilmington Police station on Walnut Street. Several officers stood in front of the entrance, separated from the demonstrators by a low plastic barricade.
Wilmington Police Chief Robert Tracy spoke with a few protesters briefly over the barricade. Protesters spoke through a megaphone to applause, while music played over a speaker. "Something's got to give," one shouted. Meanwhile, officers in tactical gear watched and appeared to take photos from the roof of the station.
Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki eventually emerged from the station.
He attempted to address the protesters with a megaphone, but was drowned out. After demonstrators handed him a microphone attached to a large painted boombox, he said his administration aims to make Wilmington "a just city."
"It's a city of fairness," said Purzycki. "That's what we try to do."
Protesters asked him whether he would request the resignation of any police officers who “agree with what happened to Mr. Floyd.”
Purzycki said he did not know of any such police officers.
“Yes or no,” demonstrators demanded.
“He said yes!” one shouted, as Purzycki’s response was again drowned out.
By 6 p.m., police in riot gear were deployed to block off portions of Market Street, where several businesses had been damaged. A protester verbally confronted a line of police. “It’s the same protest. It’s the same exact fight,” another civilian shouted. “We matter.”
At that point, the damage appeared to be limited a few broken storefront windows, including at Starbucks and Bardea, and graffiti on signs promoting shows at The Grand Opera House.
By 9:30 p.m., journalists from the News Journal reported on social media that about a dozen stores on Market Street had been damaged or broken into, and some looted — and that cars in the Trolley Square neighborhood had been smashed. A reporter from WDEL tweeted that he was punched and his phone was taken.
Gov. John Carney released a statement Saturday evening condemning the vandalism and violence.
"I’ve heard the anger and frustration from so many Delawareans in the days since George Floyd’s death," he wrote. "I share that anger. But these random acts of vandalism against small businesses, and this violence in our city, is unacceptable and counterproductive. It’s an insult to the cause and it needs to stop."
"In the days and months ahead," he added, "we all need to commit ourselves to healing the racial discord and addressing the systemic inequality that gives rise to it. But we need to do so peacefully and in good faith."
Earlier Saturday, demonstrators packed the sidewalk along one side of Rodney Square in Wilmington, expressing outrage over the killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer.
Mahkeib Booker, leader of Wilmington Black Lives Matter, called for policy change at the local level and body cameras for Wilmington police.
Passing cars honked in support of the demonstration.
"Black lives matter, and it’s a shame that all these people are dying in vain,” said Wilmington resident Shanique Jones. “But I’m going to keep on fighting. I’m upset about it, but I’m going to keep on fighting.”
Jones also pointed to a “dichotomy” evident during the pandemic.
“It’s crazy how we can be essential workers but yet, at the same time, you don’t care about our lives,” she said.
Saturday was William Leary’s first protest.
“I came out here to support black people and un-support police brutality,” he said.
“Because that’s wrong, and I don’t think they should be getting away with it.”
Joshua Harvest Church Pastor Derrick Johnson, an organizer of the rally on Rodney Square, said the message was unity — and that demonstrators will not take the killing of black people at the hands of police anymore.
Edward Burks lives north of Wilmington and brought his family to the rally at Rodney Square.
“We decided as a family to come out today because of the injustices that have been going on for quite some time,” he said. “It’s been a really tough past week for African Americans, black people, everything dating from the man who was jogging who got killed, to the man who was accused of assaulting a woman in a park, to the recent tragedy [of George Floyd’s killing]. So it’s only right we come out here and show support for what’s happening to our people.”
Burks said change needs to happen all over the country, including in Delaware.
“What happens in Delaware affects what happens in the rest of the country, and visa versa,” he said. “So we have to stick together, not just as black people, but as every race stick together, and ensure that we bring change.”
Delaware State Police could not be reached immediately for comment.
This story has been updated and corrected. A previous version described protesters blocking I-95 south, instead of I-95 north.