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Religious leaders from across North Carolina marched in Elizabeth City Saturday to demand transparency and accountability in the death of Andrew Brown Jr., who was fatally shot outside his home last month by Pasquotank County deputies serving search and arrest warrants.
Saturday’s event sometimes echoed the anger and frustration of the lay protests that have persisted for more than two weeks, but also had the tone of a church revival. Active and retired pastors said they were in Elizabeth City to stand with Brown’s family and the community, but also to press for the reform of police policies on moral grounds.
Led by the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, the march began outside of the city’s Boys and Girls Club with several verses of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”
“Inept. Incompetent. Incapable of fixing this,” he said shortly after, as others chanted. “We need independent prosecutors, now. Release the tape, the whole tape, to everybody.”
Over 100 people gathered to march, many of whom were clergy wearing robes and clerical stoles. The marchers moved in pairs and small groups that stretched the length of a city block.
Peaceful protests in Elizabeth City
The protests in Elizabeth city have remained peaceful and Saturday’s march was no different, with marchers being careful to stay on the right side of the street and spaced apart.
Alternating cries of “Release the tape,” “Say his name, Andrew Brown,” and “Truth, transparency, accountability,” echoed through the streets as marchers made their way to the Pasquotank County Public Safety building.
Members from a wide range of denominations attended the Saturday march, with Muslim, Baptist, Presbyterian, Unitarian Universalist, Church of Christ, United Methodist, Episcopalians, A.M.E. Zion and other faith representatives in attendance.
Barber led the group, walking haltingly behind a banner that read “We demand truth, transparency and accountability.”
Other marchers carried signs saying “appoint a special prosecutor,” “truth, transparency and accountability,” and “release the full tapes.”
The Rev. Dr. Jackie McHenry said she came Saturday morning from Burlington to show solidarity with the people of Elizabeth City and Brown’s family.
“We just have to get people to change their hearts and their minds and see that wrong is wrong,” she said.
McHenry, who leads the anti-racism committee for the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, added that as long as police and the courts limit the amount of the video the family and the public are allowed to see, “it will look like they’re hiding something.”
”You’ve got to keep talking about it. You’ve got to keep it in their face. We have to keep having conversations, where we sit down together and I tell you my story and you tell me your story,” McHenry said. “Then you can understand my pain and I can understand yours. We have to be able to talk.”
‘If Andrew Brown ain’t safe, none of us is safe.’
In the parking lot of the county public safety building, where the sheriff’s office is housed, the march halted and a rally began.
“We are here on the Saturday before Mother’s Day as clergy,” Barber said. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until the killing of Black men, of Black mother’s sons, is as important as the killing of white men, of white mother’s sons.”
The lot, which is across the street from the courthouse, is where marches have begun or ended since Brown’s death on April 21.
“Who is the D.A., who went into court and acted like he was the police’s lawyer and not the people’s lawyer?” Barber said.
District Attorney Andrew Womble argued against releasing the footage until after the State Bureau of Investigation completes its investigation of the shooting.
“A warrant is not a license to kill,” Barber added, asking how white perpetrators of mass killings are arrested by law enforcement alive, while Brown was killed for a warrant related to drugs.
Barber outlined the group’s demands, which included the public release of the full body camera footage to the family and community, the appointment of a special prosecutor to begin an independent investigation, the passage of federal and state police reform legislation, and a pattern and practice investigation into the Pasquotank Sheriff’s Office, as well as any other law enforcement agency involved in the Brown’s death.
Barber also called for a “full investigation” of the district attorney’s office.
“All we want is truth, transparency and accountability,” he said. “And we want it now.”
Andrew Brown’s “extended family”
Over the course of the rally, leaders from various congregations around the state spoke to marchers and reiterated calls for justice and accountability. They cited scriptures and quoted hymns and civil rights leaders.
Valerie Melvin, the first woman and first African-American to serve as the regional minister of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ in North Carolina, said the clergy had come as “the extended family of Andrew Brown.”
“When a mother’s child is killed, part of her human essence goes into the grave with her child,” Melvin said, adding that when parents are forced repeatedly to bury their children, it “threatens the fabric of the family.”
“We show united that we are not invisible; that our voices will not be silenced; that our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not a constitutional construct — it is a prophetic utterance,” she said.
Jennifer Copeland, leader of the N.C. Council of Churches, with members from 18 denominations, said the march and rally must be the beginning of activism.
Copeland said policies that cause suffering among the poor — such as low wages and lack of access to health care — are forms of state-sanctioned killing, comparable to police shootings.
As clergy return home, she said, they must work to dismantle racist systems. ”We must stop the killing.”
Barber said the rally would conclude with the group tacking their demands to the doors of the Pasquotank County Public Safety building. Around 12:50 p.m., the clergy took two signed banners bearing their demands and attached them to the doors, as others came forward to add their signatures.
“If Andrew Brown ain’t safe, none of us is safe,” Barber said earlier in the rally.
“We need to see the body cams. 20 seconds, not enough. 20 minutes, not enough. We want to see the whole tape,” said Glenda Brown, an aunt of Andrew Brown Jr. who spoke on behalf of the family. “Stop snipping and showing us what you want to show us.”
The Brown family was able to view 20 seconds of footage last month, and a judge ruled Thursday that the family could view 20 minutes of that footage next week, The News & Observer has reported.
In North Carolina, law enforcement agencies must petition a court and ask a judge to order the release of footage from body-worn or dashboard cameras. The Brown family and protesters have called for the state law to be changed to make it easier for the footage to be released to the public.
Democrats in the N.C. House and Senate have introduced bills this legislative session that would require such footage be released upon request after 48 hours have passed since the incident was recorded.
“Seventeen days and no one has been arrested? Something is wrong,” Glenda Brown said. “Stop acting like you care. Show us you care.”
She said she had sisters and cousins in the crowd, and thanked those who had come to the march.
“We will not stop until we get justice for my nephew,” she said. “Say his name. Andrew Brown.”