A year after Andrew Brown Jr.'s death, Elizabeth City remains divided
A year after Pasquotank Sheriff's Office deputies shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. while trying to arrest him on charges that he was selling illegal drugs, the small, coastal community at the center of it remains divided.
Brown’s death sparked national attention and nightly protests in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. But those have since faded and in their place, two factions have emerged, both demanding change in the community, but disagreeing on what that change should look like.
We cannot go back to the way it was before Andrew Brown, Jr.'s murder. And that is the struggle within this community.Keith Rivers, Pasquotank County NAACP
A billboard on the city’s main street displays a picture of Brown. Flower arrangements decorate the lawn and side of his home, which still has a colorful mural of his face and the words “Say his name” painted on it.
Some residents, backed by the Pasquotank County NAACP, want to see more accountability for law enforcement. They see a power structure aching to return to how things were before April 21, 2021. But they can't go back. To them, going back means being treated as lesser, says Keith Rivers, head of the Pasquotank County NAACP.
“We cannot go back to the way it was before Andrew Brown, Jr.'s murder,” Rivers said. “And that is the struggle within this community.”
Others say there hasn't been enough support for law enforcement. They want to see the city and county work together to establish law and order, and to rally behind Sheriff Tommy Wooten, who they say has been maligned by “woke” politics.
One thing is for certain: Brown's death has sparked an awakening in Pasquotank County. More people are paying attention to local politics and power structures than before, according to interviews with more than a dozen community and political leaders in Elizabeth City.
This year, residents will get their first opportunity since Brown's death to cast ballots, both for city and county government, as well as for sheriff, district attorney and superior court judge, positions that all hold significant power over residents of the county and region.
Progress only with ‘accountability’
Rivers comes from a politically engaged family. In the 1990s, his mother, Myrtle Rivers, was an Elizabeth City councilwoman, and his father, Raymond Boscoe Rivers, led the Pasquotank NAACP. His brother, Kirk Rivers, is running for mayor. Keith Rivers spent 21 years in the U.S. Navy before coming back and assuming a role as a community leader.
"You serve your country. And then you have to come back to a community that you were born and raised in, and continue to watch these atrocities," he said. "And that's what they are. There's no other way to sugarcoat it. And now in the aftermath of Andrew, you want to stick a 10-inch knife in my back and pull it out six inches and say it's progress. It's not progress.”
While Rivers and others want more accountability for the deputies who killed Brown, others see things exactly opposite.
Last May, Christina Williams founded Pasquotank PAC, an organization that promotes Republican and unaffiliated conservatives in northeastern North Carolina. She was appalled at the protests that attacked Sheriff Wooten and disrupted downtown businesses last year.
"And we just knew immediately we have to do something to get law and order back in our community and to change the narrative," said Williams, who is running for mayor.
In her campaigning, Williams has sought to turn the attention to Brown's history, which includes 11 drug-related felony convictions, and another 25 misdemeanor convictions.
"This was not an innocent person that was just minding his own business walking down the street one day," she said, adding that deputies were at his house on the morning of April 21 to arrest him. "And at the time of his arrest, he tried to flee and tried to run over the deputies. And they had to do what they had to do. And it was just a horribly unfortunate situation.”
A community awakens
Deshawn Morris admits he wasn't the most engaged Elizabeth City resident before last year. But seeing a law enforcement officer shoot and kill a Black man jolted him to action. Last year, he and his wife founded Soul Catching News 7, a Facebook page that focuses largely on law enforcement in the county. It has more than 8,600 followers.
He says trying to stay on top of everything is time consuming, even more than he first imagined.
"It's work, man. But it's worth it. Andrew Brown was killed here. He was murdered here," he said. "I watched a man's due process get taken away from him, and then his life. And then on top of that, you just looking at the way that he's being treated now. His family's being treated now. It just isn't right."
Morris, who is Black, says he always felt a certain level of racism in the city, and he saw it firsthand while participating in the protests.
"We were out here being called monkeys, and bowling pins, and speed bumps, while we were out here peacefully protesting, man. And that was eye opening," he said. "I put myself in the situation of Andrew Brown. I realized that that could have easily been me. A non-violent warrant being served somehow turned violent. And he wasn't the aggressor, but somehow he ends up dead. I mean, it's something everybody should wrap their arms around."
I put myself in the situation of Andrew Brown. I realized that that could have easily been me.Deshawn Morris, Elizabeth City resident
Others try to keep attention on Sheriff Wooten through daily protests. Angie Young says she has held a daily protest since Brown’s shooting. She gets honks of support mixed with those who flash her the middle finger as they drive by. She says she hopes to keep public attention on what she called an injustice.
"Unfortunately, things happen all over the world, but when it actually happens in your own backyard, pretty much, and you don't do anything about it, then something's wrong with you. It's not just wrong with the world, it's also wrong with you because you're not standing for what you know is right," she said.
More attention does not mean unanimous support for the protests. Jon Nettesheim is the pastor of Elizabeth City Baptist Church. His first foray into politics was a few years ago when he focused largely on supporting gun rights and the Second Amendment. Seeing protests last year, especially that blocked roads, bothered him.
The conservative people in this county that do support law enforcement and that do support conservative values and principles, they are going to be more awake now than ever because they've seen what can happen to our little city.Jon Nettesheim, pastor of Elizabeth City Baptist Church
"If you live in Elizabeth City, that shooting affected you. You couldn't drive anywhere in the city without seeing signs of it," he said. "And what really bothered us was the lack of support for our sheriff."
His church held a rally to support Sheriff Wooten, and the pastor is helping Williams with her campaign for mayor.
"The conservative people in this county that do support law enforcement and that do support conservative values and principles, they are going to be more awake now than ever because they've seen what can happen to our little city," he said. "We're not a big city, we're not famous, but we were put on the national stage because of this."
From protest to ballot box
Normally, Elizabeth City holds council elections in odd-numbered years and Pasquotank County holds commissioner elections in even-numbered years. But the delayed Census results didn't allow the city to draw district maps in time for November of last year. So the board of elections moved the city elections to May 17, the same day as the primary election for the normally scheduled races this year.
There's a Republican running for every seat on the Elizabeth City council. With high-profile names like Pat McCrory, Ted Budd, and Mark Walker running in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, Williams thinks there's a good chance that Republican voters will turn out in higher numbers than Democratic voters in the primary, where Cheri Beasley is seen as having a big lead on her side of the ticket. Because it's the general election for the city, Williams hopes that boost in turnout can carry Republicans to victory on the city council.
If Elizabeth City does see a red wave, it would in some ways be only the culmination of a years-long trend. In 2020, President Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump by a mere 62 votes in the county. Voter registration numbers show the same trend. There are 4,700 fewer registered Democrats today than after the 2008 election, a 30% drop. Meanwhile, registered Republicans have increased in the county by 15%.
The racial makeup of the county follows a similar pattern. At 40%, Blacks account for a larger share of the total population in Pasquotank County than in the state as a whole. But that share has been declining. From 2000 to 2020, the white population increased by 11%, while the Black population increased by less than 4%.
"Pasquotank County did have a Democratic majority for years, but that's changing," said Julian Eure, managing editor at The Daily Advance newspaper. "For the first time, we may see a Republican majority."
Andrew Womble, the Pasquotank County district attorney who did not press charges against sheriff's deputies, is now running for superior court judge in the seven-county judicial district that includes Elizabeth City. North Carolina judicial races now carry party affiliation, and Womble is running as a Republican. His Democratic opponent is Eula Reid, who was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2021 to fill the seat vacated by retired Superior Court Judge J.C. Cole. Reid is a former prosecutor who was a District Court judge for 14 years.
Despite the shifting demographics, registered Democrats still outnumber registered Republicans in Pasquotank County. But that's not true of the judicial district as a whole, where Republicans make up 32% of registered voters and Democrats represent 29%. Voters registered unaffiliated outnumber both parties, a trend that's true statewide as well, and make up 37% of registered voters. In the district, white voters outnumber Black voters by a more than 4-to-1 ratio.
Protesters see small signs of progress
More than focusing singularly on Andrew Brown Jr., people like the NAACP’s Rivers want this renewed attention to spark long-lasting change.
In Pasquotank County, Black drivers were 50% more likely to be pulled over by law enforcement than white drivers, according to a WUNC analysis of 10 years of traffic stop statistics pulled from N.C. State Bureau of Investigation. When factoring out moving violations, like speed limit or stop sign violations, Black drivers were twice as likely to be pulled over than white drivers.
On April 4, county commissioners finalized the Pasquotank County Citizens' Advisory Council, a 13-member group that will review complaints against deputies and other employees of the Sheriff's Office, hear appeals from sheriff's employees about disciplinary actions, participate in the hiring process, and generally serve as citizen's oversight for the sheriff.
We tend to put the same or similar people on boards and committees. This group of citizens represents new faces and is more of a grass roots approach to move the County forward in addressing any law enforcement concerns.Keith Rivers
"We tend to put the same or similar people on boards and committees," said Rivers, the local NAACP president who helped select the members of the advisory committee. "This group of citizens represents new faces and is more of a grass roots approach to move the County forward in addressing any law enforcement concerns."
The council includes faith leaders, a mental health provider, former law enforcement and a representative from the LGBTQ community. It will not have disciplinary authority, but can make recommendations about disciplinary action.
County Commissioner Sean Lavin says he wants to do everything he can to restore and maintain a good relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and the community. That can include new funding for everything from mental health and de-escalation training for deputies.
"There's got to be the tools in the deputies' belts, literally and figuratively, to let them deal with situations non-violently," he said.
At that April 4 meeting, commissioners also received a Peace Initiative final report which was completed by Police2Peace, a nonprofit that seeks to help law enforcement become "peace officers." The final report was built from listening sessions around the county in which "participants expressed frustration at what they described as a lack of compassion, primarily on the part of the Sheriff's Office," according to the report.
It makes recommendations for how to improve the relationship between the sheriff's office and the community, some of which the county has already implemented. For example, the Sheriff's Office completed training in the C.A.L.M Approach, which aims to help law enforcement de-escalate tense situations to reduce negative outcomes. The four principles of the approach are Communication, Active physical control maneuvers, Lateral recovery restraint, and Monitor.
The county also approved new body camera software for deputies, and Hammett said the CAC will address other recommendations.
Rivers said he has high hopes for the oversight that the CAC can bring.
"This will not be a token committee," Rivers said. "It will be a working committee.”