Nashville Protests: From Peaceful to Riotous, to Peaceful Again

Nashville, Tennessee, is known for having mostly peaceful protests. No matter the cause, past marches with as many as 15,000 people, have shouted for attention for social justice issues, such as women’s rights, LGBT rights, civil rights, and more. In February of 1960, the Nashville sit-ins began at various lunch counters at the Woolworth, Walgreens, Kress, McLellan, and Grants stores along Fifth Avenue North. Unbeknownst to many, in the months leading up to the full-scale protests, smaller-scale demonstrations had occurred at Harveys Department Store and Cain-Sloan nearby to “test the waters,” so to speak. 

While many of the 1960’s sit-in demonstrations in Nashville were largely non-violent, on February 27, young, white males taunted black protesters sitting at the lunch counters of McLellan’s and Woolworths. Police presence was non-existent that particular day, giving attackers an easier time to administer harsh beatings. One man was even tossed down the staircase. Today, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., performs a daily reenactment of the infamous scene from that day in February that has gone down in history.

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Image: Sally Hendrick. Nashville sit-ins commemorative plaques on Fifth Avenue North.

Organized protest: “I Will Breathe”

This past week, protests have been happening after a black man, George Floyd, was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Officer Chauvin forced his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck for approximately 9 minutes, killing him in the process, as people around the scene videoed the incident and begged the officer to take his knee off his neck. Since then, charges of second-degree murder have been filed against the officer, and aiding and abetting murder charges have been brought against three additional officers at the scene who did nothing to stop Mr. Floyd’s death.

Social media feeds exploded with outcries for justice, which prompted the marches worldwide. Nashville’s protest was scheduled from 3 to 5 PM on Saturday, May 30. Although it was not organized by Mayor John Cooper, he acknowledged the gathering and attended in person as a show of support for the movement.

Rioting started after the official protest was over

After the protests were over, most people dispersed and left the area. Within a half-hour, incidents reportedly started happening outside the police precinct downtown behind the Music City Center, where someone damaged a police vehicle as crowds started to gather. It wasn’t until large groups of people came together at the courthouse between Union Avenue and James Robertson Parkway that things got out of hand. After windows were broken and graffiti was painted on the walls and doors of the courthouse, fires were ignited by several people, including a shirtless male covered in visible tattoos, later identified as Wesley Somers of Nashville. He was arrested within 24 hours.

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Not long after the fires were started, police set off tear gas bombs to disperse the crowds from the courthouse. The rioters proceeded to the tourist areas filled with honky-tonks, restaurants, and bars, where they continued to cause damage by breaking glass and looting stores. Soon after, they turned from Broadway and headed up Fifth Avenue North towards the Ryman Auditorium and then to the Avenue of the Arts, where there is a pharmacy, art galleries, and other stores, such as the Boost Mobile that was broken into and had a safe stolen. The incident was caught on camera from a building across the street.

Video credit: Sally Hendrick. Mob walking from the Ryman Auditorium to Avenue of the Arts, Nashville, TN, May 30, 2020.
Video credit: Sally Hendrick. Looting of Boost Mobile, Nashville, TN, May 30, 2020.

Warrants and arrests after the protests

Confusion about the protests was happening all over the U.S. as the initial purpose was meant to be peaceful. In Nashville, it was the aftermath that resulted in riots, much like in other cities. Jeneisha Harris, a young, black woman, who spoke at the official protest was accused of badly damaging a police car. A warrant was put out for her arrest 5 days later and delivered to her apartment by a SWAT team. That warrant was rescinded after further investigation.

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One of the men who started the courthouse fire was arrested within 24 hours. Wesley Somers of east Nashville “faces federal arson charges”.

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A 25-year-old man was arrested 5 days after the rioting for breaking windows at the courthouse with a skateboard and for damaging a police vehicle.

Another Nashville protest organized by teenagers

With the first protest turning into riots full of property damage, a group of four teenage girls pulled off another rally on Thursday, June 4, just five days later, where an estimated 10,000 people marched peacefully from the Bicentennial Park to Broadway and back to the Capitol. Nya Collins, Zee Thomas, Jade Fuller, and Emma Rose Smith, members of Teens for Equality, will go down in history for their heartfelt speeches and moment of silence that lasted for the same length of time that George Floyd was held down until he died.

As the rain came down over the crowd, most exited the area with a few people left wandering in groups around the city for several more hours until announcements were made by patrolling police officers that there had been a tornado warning issued with the storm.

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