The images from last night are striking.
New Hanover County sheriff’s deputies in riot gear across Third Street. Wilmington police officers taking a knee on Front Street in solidarity with protesters.
Firecrackers launched at the police. Tear gas launched at the protesters.
Protesters running away, some pouring milk on others’ burning eyes.
But what stood out the most this weekend in Wilmington was not Sunday’s striking images. It was Facebook posts on Saturday night.
To put it mildly, our country is a confusing place these days.
On top of the uncertainty and anger caused by the coronavirus and the resulting shutdown, we now face the uncertainly and anger caused by George Floyd’s death and the resulting backlash.
Protests, rioting and looting filled TV screens and social media posts for the past week.
This weekend it came here, but Wilmington offered a clear contrast.
On Saturday afternoon, a peaceful protest at the 1898 Memorial was held in a steady rain.
On Sunday night, the protest led to tear gas, broken windows and arrests.
But it could have been much worse without the warnings and guidance of local, African American leaders.
After Saturday’s protest took place, word began to spread about another, ominous-sounding protest on Sunday.
Rather than rest on the success of the peaceful protest, these leaders looked into what was happening and sent out warnings.
Here are parts of their Facebook posts on Saturday night:
Wilmington City Councilman Kevin Spears – "Good evening everyone; it has been brought to my attention that the Black Lives Matter protest tomorrow is not being put on by the original Black Lives Matter Wilmington organization. The fear is that someone is trying to stir up some stuff in our city. I’m all for expression and peaceful protests but I don’t want to see our city being destroyed because someone feels like it’ll be fun or exciting to get people hurt. If it’s not Vance Williams’ BLM please don’t participate."
Deborah Dicks Maxwell, president of the New Hanover County NAACP – "The event being held tomorrow is not being hosted by the people who had today's event. Red Flags: why do they want you in all black with the sun going down. Why no filming and to cover your face and tattoos? Who are you hiding from? If we are being peaceful don't we want the world to know?"
Vance Williams, Black Lives Matter's local chapter – "I am not connected to anything that's happening tomorrow concerning a rally. A group has named themselves Black Lives Matter that I'm not familiar with nor anybody in my group. I have never met or been involved with any forms of activism with them. Some of the questions that you have messaged me I have answered and have no further information. I am not responsible for anything that might occur."
In the end, the warnings by Vance, Deborah, Kevin and others were likely responsible for preventing a bad situation from becoming significantly worse.
In many cities this past week, peaceful protestors have been swept up in demonstrations with those seeking violence, looting and starting fires. In the end, particularly on TV and social media snippets, it’s hard to tell who’s who.
It’s much clearer in Wilmington.
For African American leaders in a community living with the legacy of 1898 and facing the unrest of 2020, their actions are beyond impressive.
The lasting image of this weekend should be their actions and what didn’t happen last night.
Rob Kaiser is the publisher of the Greater Wilmington Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].