Nashville courthouse burns as peaceful protest turns into violent riot

Nashville, Tenn., May 30 -
Nashville, Tenn., May 30 -"I can't breathe" rally at the Legislative Plaza in Nashville. (Photo: Odessa Kelly)

What began on Saturday as a peaceful protest assembled by social justice reformers, activists, politicians and faith leaders in response to the death of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis devolved into a violent riot that left Nashville in a state of emergency.

Before the day was over, Gov. Bill Lee called in the National Guard and Mayor John Cooper declared a state of emergency. Those actions came after rioters set the historic Metro Courthouse, regarded as a mecca of peaceful protests during the 1960s Civil Rights movement, ablaze. Rioters pushed  into the faces of police officers in front of the downtown precinct. Shortly before the city went under a 10 p.m.curfew, rioters broke windows and looted bars in the lower Broadway honky tonk district.

“This afternoon’s rally for George Floyd and racial justice was peaceful. I attended and listened,” Cooper said on Twitter. “We cannot let today’s message of reform descend into further violence. If you mean our city’s harm, go home.”

Nashville, Tenn., May 30- "I can't breathe" rally on the Legislative Plaza in Nashville. (Photo: Odessa Kelly)
Nashville, Tenn., May 30- “I can’t breathe” rally on the Legislative Plaza in Nashville. (Photo: Odessa Kelly)

Earlier in the day, leaders such as Charlane Oliver with the Equity Alliance and state Rep. Vincent Dixie used the violent death of Floyd as a rallying cry to organize and push for reforms. Floyd’s death was captured on camera after four Minnesota police officers violently arrested him and pinned him to the ground. One of those officers, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd’s neck during the incident and was charged on Friday with murder.

“We can’t change hearts. We can’t change minds. But we can change laws,” Dixie told the crowd on Saturday afternoon.

The scene in Nashville mirrored those in cities across the country where protests turned to riots and looting. From San Diego to Washington D.C., from Chicago to Atlanta, a groundswell of anger of Floyd’s death spurred rallies against police brutality.

When Nashville’s peaceful protest turned violent, organizers pushed the blame onto outsiders. American flags were set on fire. Expletive-laced graffiti was spray painted on buildings across town, and crowd members shouted profanities at the police.

“Our organization, in cooperation with other activists, held a peaceful rally today to protest themurder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd by police as well as to deliver a clear message to Metro and state government leaders that Tennesseans deeply oppose racism and police brutality,” the Equity Alliance said in a press release Saturday night. “The event drew some 4,000 attendees and our staff registered over 300 new voters. It was a peaceful assembly.

“It is our firm belief that those individuals defacing and destroying public property after the rally were not a part of the original event. The actions by this small group reflect neither the beliefs of the groups that led today’s peaceful assembly nor those of the majority of the attendees. This behavior dishonors the memory of George Floyd and other black Americans that have died unjustly at the hands of police.

“The Equity Alliance condemns and disavows tonight’s violent rioting. We urge anyone feeling heartfelt, honest anger over the murder of George Floyd to direct that energy toward November’s election. The only true way to change our nation for the better is by taking up our civic duty as Americans and making it clear with our vote that we reject racism in all its forms.”

When the evening wore on and officers could not control the crowd, a police SWAT team intervened with tear gas, riot-gear-clad officers and reinforced SUVs. Cooper declared the state of emergency a short time later. Then, Lee said he summoned the National Guard at the mayor’s request.

“The threat to both peace and property is unacceptable and we will work with local law enforcement and community leaders to restore safety and order,” Lee said. “This is not a reflection of our state or the fundamental American right to peaceful protest.”

The riot could not have come at a worse time for the beleaguered city, which is pondering a property tax increase to fix its cash-strapped budget. Several Nashville neighborhoods were rocked by tornadoes in early March, and then the pandemic put the city on an economic shutdown, especially hurting the downtown district where the rioters focused their attention.

Whether the initial rally got out of control, or outside groups infiltrated and caused the violence, there’s no doubt that a sense of racial injustice in Nashville has been building in recent years. Police officer-involved shootings of Jocques Clemmons in East Nashville and Daniel Hambrick in North Nashville led to an array of protests. But, those gatherings were consistently peaceful, giving Nashville a reputation for peaceful displays of outrage.

It’s a reputation that dates back to 1960 when protestors descended on the downtown courthouse demanding justice following the fire-bombing of councilman Z. Alexander Looby. Then-Mayor Ben West famously greeted the protestors on the courthouse steps and told organizer Dianne Nash that he agreed racial discrimination, such as barring black people from eating at downtown lunch counters, was wrong. Just a few yards away from the windows that were broken and used as entry points to start the courthouse fire, a historic marker commemorates that exchange between the activists and the mayor.

Lower Broadway honky tonks such as Margaritaville, Legends Corner and The Stage had their windows bashed out with rioters climbing in to steal some items. Looters stormed tourist hot spots like the Boot Barn. The crowd dispersed shortly before the curfew kicked in.

Metro Nashville Police reported no injuries were sustained during the evening’s events. Multiple police vehicles were significantly damaged and in addition to the property damage cited above, one window at the historic Ryman Auditorium was broken.

(This is a developing story. Please check back.)