SUBSCRIBE NOW

'We were obeying the law': Wilmington protesters say police are violating their rights

Jeff Neiburg
Delaware News Journal

One of the most-trafficked stretches of roadway in Wilmington's downtown – by both cars and people – is the 11 blocks of Market Street from Martin Luther King Boulevard to the north end of Rodney Square.

It's home to most of the city's downtown restaurants, The Queen music venue, multiple museums, apartments and other businesses both small and large.

For Wilmington's leadership, the stretch is a point of pride, the new restaurants and businesses a sign of Market Street's revitalization.

For some of the city's Black residents, Market Street is just another color barrier. The density of commercial and residential activity make it an easy target for protests and demonstrations.

"It’s just a main hub if you want to get your voice heard," said Wilmington activist Mahkieb Booker.

But multiple times this year, as protests and demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice have become common, Wilmington police officers have denied protesters access to Market Street.

About 50 Black Lives Matter protesters march in downtown Wilmington Friday, Aug. 21, 2020.

In one case, in early September, a small, peaceful protest of little more than a dozen people was denied entry to Market Street at Fourth Street. A standoff between police and protesters resulted in the arrest of a teenager and another man.

It wasn't the first time this year officers have blockaded Market. The News Journal has been present for at least five protests where Wilmington's officers have blocked Market Street between Rodney Square and Fourth Street, in the months after the unrest around the country over the May killing of George Floyd by an officer in Minneapolis

The ripple of unrest was felt here in Wilmington, and similar to other cities around the country peaceful protest morphed into violent rioting in that area of Market Street the night of May 30. Rioters broke the windows of businesses and police and civilian vehicles. They looted stores and set trash on fire. 

During a protest the following week, the city's largest developer, Buccini/Pollin Group, had private security on the ground to protect its properties while three Delaware police departments were also on hand. 

There was no rioting or looting that night, and there hasn't been any during the various protests since that have called for police and criminal justice reform, among other topics.

The blocking of Market Street, though, has happened multiple times since for crowds of 12 or 50, and protesters say the action is a violation of their rights.

Further, they say if not for the presence of officers on that early September day, no arrests would have been made and a peaceful protest would have started and ended without incident.

The police department said no specific policy is in place to protect that area of Market Street, which is home to a higher concentration of activity compared to other areas of the city's downtown.

The mayor's office said it has not directed the deployment or management of police officers to that stretch of roadway or elsewhere.

Wilmington police block protesters from moving up Market Street in September as the protesters call for the firing of an officer.

"Our objective is to ensure that those involved in demonstrations have the ability to safely exercise their First Amendment rights, while ensuring that residents and visitors uninvolved in an event have the ability to travel freely and safely, as well," Wilmington Police said.

On an otherwise sleepy Saturday afternoon on Market Street, protesters wondered who was in danger. And, more to the point, on that day and since, they wondered why they couldn't walk on a public sidewalk holding signs and chanting, exercising rights outlined in that First Amendment.

'Don't pump the brakes'

Booker, the Wilmington activist, was born in the city in 1970 to parents he called "revolutionaries."  

One of his early childhood memories is taking a trip with his mother to Philadelphia in the 1970s to protest then-Philly mayor Frank Rizzo, the maligned politician and former police commissioner who was the subject of a racial reckoning in the city that continued into 2020, when his controversial statue was removed from the area near Philadelphia's City Hall.

"I’m a product of the MLK assassination and brother Malcolm X," Booker said.

The 50-year-old has a favorite saying during protests. 

"Put your foot on the gas, don't pump the brakes," he'll sometimes yell repeatedly into a megaphone.

Booker has long been active in the social justice scene in Wilmington, but he's been putting his foot on the gas much more often in the months since Floyd's death, emboldened by the movement around the country.

The mobilization of police on Market Street, he said, "has been going on since the beginning of time."

He referenced the Wilmington riots of 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when violence unfolded on those same Market Street blocks, leading to the National Guard occupying the city for nine months.

Fifty-two years later, it remains a controversial stretch of roadway for the city's majority-Black community. Some protesters and activists view the Market Street mall as a racial barrier, while city officials point to its revitalization as a boon to the city's future.

That was true in late May, when a day of peaceful protest took a very violent turn. Some protesters that night took aim at the long-simmering inequality in Wilmington they feel is represented by the recently revitalized Market Street.

But the protesters and activists who continued their mission in the weeks and months that followed say that wasn't them: It was opportunists taking advantage of the situation.

While larger nearby cities like Philadelphia and New York had frequent large protests and demonstrations most of the summer and into the fall, the crowds in Wilmington have been small but persistent.

The resurfacing of the the 2015 police-involved shooting of Jeremy McDole brought his sister, Keandra, and others to the streets at almost a weekly pace in the summer.

Recently, McDole has staged almost daily protests outside Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki's Highlands home, demanding a meeting to address the city's rising gun violence.

NOTICE THE PROTESTERS? Here's why they've been outside Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki's house for days

Most of the time during the summer, McDole's group, which would typically protest for racial equality in the criminal justice system or to reopen her brother's case, would gather outside the Carvel Building in Wilmington. On one Saturday, a larger group of a few dozen protesters marched. Police allowed them to march on Market Street that day, July 11. Six days later, police blocked a group of a few dozen people from getting onto Market Street.

Booker, McDole and Chandra Pitts, who runs the Wilmington-based One Village Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to helping children in marginalized communities, were all in attendance that day.

A late-July protest and march organized by Food Not Bombs Wilmington got a police  escort from Trolley Square to Rodney Square. But police blocked Market Street with bikes until the group, which was less than two dozen people, dissipated, even holding the line as four protesters sat in the square and chatted.

A month later, Booker, McDole and Pitts were among a group of more than 50 people who marched from 31st and Market streets into the city's downtown. Police provided an escort for that march. The group included a drum line and children.

Pitts, a frequent attendee of protests in the city, told the crowd gathered at the beginning of the march that the business district in the downtown area "does not belong to us."

"How many of us own buildings?" she asked.

The march that day, which started in an area of the city going through a violent year, passed by dozens of city businesses, including a Jamaican restaurant, Chinese restaurant and multiple liquor stores. The group planned to head to North French Street between Eighth and Ninth streets, a block that houses the offices of many city employees and elected officials.

As the group reached the intersection of 11th and King streets, police formed one line across King and another across 11th, preventing the protesters from entering Rodney Square or gaining access to Market Street.

Police block off the area of Rodney Square as a group of about 50 Black Lives Matter protesters march in Wilmington Friday, Aug. 21, 2020.

That rubbed some the wrong way.

"When they see us come out, they should know it’s going to be peaceful," McDole said. "That’s what we’ve been doing for five years."

"When you see familiar faces – me, Chandra, Keandra – we have never broken so much as a glass bottle," Booker said. "That sent us a very bad message that they really don’t give a damn about us."

Three days later, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Lauren Witzke held a rally at Rodney Square that called for the return of the Caesar Rodney statue. Of the 30 or so attendees, a few carried guns.

Around six officers stood across the street outside the DuPont Building and waved at  Witzke after she told the officers, "We love you, and we have your back."

Wilmington Police did not provide an answer when asked if the attendees to Witzke's rally would have been allowed to march down Market Street that night if they wanted.

'A right to free speech'

Around 15 people gathered outside Wilmington's police headquarters on the afternoon of Sept. 5, a sunny late-summer Saturday. The subject of their protest was a Wilmington police officer who they said frequently uses violent tactics and harasses members of the community. They were demanding his firing.

About 30 minutes into their scheduled demonstration, which organizers promoted on social media, the group decided to move. 

Using the city's sidewalks, the protesters spaced out and headed west on Fourth Street toward Market Street. When they reached Market, the protesters – a group of white and Black people ranging in age from teenaged to 50s – were met by a wall of officers. Police, some using bicycles, blocked Market Street and told protesters they had to go a different way.

A protest of police earlier this year resulted in two people being arrested after an altercation, apparently sparked when an officer tried to take a bullhorn a protester was using near a line of police at Market and Fourth Streets in Wilmington.

Over the next two hours, a standoff at the intersection resulted in the arrest of two protesters, including a teenager, following a scuffle with officers. The incident left those in attendance feeling their rights had been violated. Other pedestrians were allowed to pass the blockade on the sidewalk.

It was just another example, activist Monique Fegans said that day, of the city's officers "protecting property over people."

In a statement that day and again the following week, police said "we sometimes institute temporary restrictions for pedestrian and vehicular traffic to aid in the flow of traffic for residents and visitors, and to ensure the safety of those participating in demonstrations."

With little foot and vehicular traffic on a quiet Saturday, protesters said the presence of officers was the only reason arrests had to be made,

"We were obeying the law," Booker said.

More than one protester that day had a megaphone. One of them, a teen boy, stood close to a Wilmington officer and did not obey commands when the officer asked him to back away, according to court documents.

A protester uses a bullhorn moments before being arrested while in a standoff between Wilmington police blocking Market Street and protesters calling for the removal of an officer they said was abusive to members of the public.

The documents say the teen was using the megaphone's siren and caused ringing in the officer's ears. According to the documents, the officer "extended his arms to remove" the teen from his "personal space." The teen, documents say, grabbed the officer and "pushed" him.

A video recorded from the scene shows a different story.

The teen is heard using the megaphone and at one point yells "white power," appearing to taunt the officer. The video then shows the officer grab the microphone and attempt to take the teen into custody. Court documents say the teen resisted by "attempting to drop his body weight and pull away" from the officer.

That's when Warren Wood got involved. The 29-year-old "pushed" the officer off of the teen and then resisted arrest, according to the court documents.

Warren Wood, 29, stands opposite a Wilmington Police officer during a protest on Sept. 5, 2020.

Police said two officers were injured during the altercation. The court documents say the officer arresting the teenager had a laceration on his left leg. Another officer suffered a "tweak" to his neck.

The court documents make a point to reiterate that Wood, the teen and other protesters were shouting obscenities at the officers.

Terence Jones, whose nonprofit, Total Justice, is providing council for the two arrested protesters through Wilmington's Igwe Sharma Law Firm, said the obscenities shouldn't have been reason to make an arrest. 

"If your skin is that thin, you don’t deserve to be a police officer," he said. "He reacted like a thug. He doesn’t deserve to wear that badge.

"You have a right to free speech. What the officer did was egregious."

Wood, who is an assistant high school football coach, and the teen were both charged with offensive touching of a police officer. Wood, according to court documents, was also charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. He will be in court in April, Jones said. The teen, meanwhile, had his case continued until February, according to Jones.

Prior to the incident, Booker tried to break free of the group and walk alone past the police line north on Market Street. He was not allowed to pass. He said he told the officers he wanted to walk up the street to get a slice of pizza and use the bathroom.

"There was one officer there I have a lot of respect for," Booker said. "I told him, 'Come on, man, you can't do this. It's a public sidewalk.'"

But Booker, carrying his Black Lives Matter flag, was not allowed to pass.

"You can’t deny a person their constitutional rights," he later said. "What if I needed water to take my medicine?"

Booker and McDole both mentioned they were interested in pursuing legal options to sue the city for violating their rights.

"We didn’t want to interrupt outdoor dining or anything," McDole said. "All of our protests have been peaceful. We’ve never had altercations with police.

"If you’re a police officer your feelings shouldn’t be involved. It was just ridiculous."

The police department did not answer when asked if it thought police presence exacerbated the situation.

The News Journal asked John Rago, deputy chief of staff for Purzycki, if the mayor's office supported the blocking of the roadway.

"Our office reviewed details regarding this matter and we support the police department’s actions and decisions," he said in an email.

Contact Jeff Neiburg at jneiburg@delawareonline.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Neiburg.