By Kimberlee Kruesi, Associated Press
According to Metro Nashville Police, at least 30 businesses and buildings were damaged after a peaceful “I Will Breathe” demonstration turned violent on Saturday. The rally was held to protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who died Monday after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck.
However, after the two-hour organized rally concluded, tensions escalated as protesters moved away from the state Capitol to a downtown Nashville police precinct. Fires were lit inside and outside the city’s historic courthouse, and a statue of a former state lawmaker and newspaper publisher who espoused racist views was toppled.
Only until a 10 p.m. curfew was ordered did the protesters finally begin to disperse.
By Sunday, the same area was quiet with business owners covering up smashed windows as spectators somberly took photos of the destruction. Yet the emotions of the night were still being felt as one black man stood quietly holding one arm up watching the courthouse be cleaned.
Mayor John Cooper described Saturday as a “heartbreaking night” for Nashville, noting that the area had recently already been ravaged by a fatal tornado nearly three months before that shortly followed the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cooper ordered a new curfew of 8 p.m. Sunday night. He and other community leaders, lamented that most of the destruction centered around Metro Nashville Courthouse and City Hall, where multiple fires went off in and around the building after protesters smashed in windows and spray-painted obscenities along the walls and nearby structures.
“Our metro courthouse, iconic for its role in the civil rights movement, was the site of much of tonight’s reprehensible vandalism,” Cooper said. “Sixty years ago, 3,000 nonviolent protesters marched to that same courthouse in a milestone moment for integration and yet tonight that same courthouse was defaced and set on fire.”
In 1960, area college student leaders in the sit-in movement challenged the injustice of desegregated lunch counters in a confrontation on the courthouse steps. After the mayor agreed that it was wrong, Nashville became the first southern city in the U.S. to desegregate its lunch counters.
Gov. Bill Lee authorized the National Guard to mobilize at the request of Cooper. More than 300 guardsman had been tapped to help in the “restoring order and limiting the destruction of property for as long as needed,” according to a statement.
Meanwhile, Metro Nashville Police tweeted that 28 people were arrested during the protest and four others were arrested after a 10 p.m. curfew was implemented Saturday evening.
Demonstrators earlier in the evening pulled down a statue outside the state Capitol of Edward Carmack.
Carmack was a politician in the early 1900s who wrote editorials lambasting the writings of prominent Tennessee civil rights journalist Ida B. Wells.
He was fatally shot in 1908 by a political rival.
Meanwhile, two Nashville malls announced they would remain closed on Sunday following the protest. The decision comes after retail stores have just recently been allowed to reopen due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Other parts of Tennessee also saw smaller protests clash with police on Saturday.
As in Nashville, police donned riot gear in Memphis due to a standoff with a crowd on Beale Street. Earlier that evening, protesters had held a demonstration at the National Civil Rights Museum, marking the fourth night in a row people had gathered in response to George Floyd’s death.
In Knoxville, police officials say a group of 50-100 individuals committed “numerous acts of vandalism” in the downtown area late Saturday by shooting fireworks, throwing trash cans into the road and smashing a portable toilet.
Police say an 18-year-old male was arrested after he allegedly threw an object into a police SUV, which hit a police officer on the head.