Ryan Culwell tapped into a sense of national angst on his incisive 2018 album, The Last American, but it was nothing like the fever-pitch emotion he experienced firsthand on Saturday when riots broke out in Nashville following a peaceful protest against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The singer-songwriter attended the I Will Breathe march and rally on Saturday afternoon and witnessed altercations between the police and a crowd of protesters. At least 30 businesses were damaged, including stores and bars in the city’s tourist district, with 28 people arrested. A 25-year-old white man captured on video setting fire to the Metro Nashville courthouse was charged on Sunday with felony arson and vandalism.
Culwell, who as a pedal-tavern driver downtown is acutely aware of the police presence in the city’s tourist district, documented the events in real time via Instagram Live. When he returned safely home to his wife and four daughters, he wrote about what he saw for “Rolling Stone.”
About suppertime, on the steps of the downtown Nashville police station, a black man in a blue shirt emerges from the crowd and screams at the barricade of police, “When are you gonna say you’re fucking sorry? That’s what we want,” loudly, like a woman in labor. “When are you gonna say you’re fucking sorry?” The officers stare a thousand yards beyond the man.
In the 90 minutes we’ve been marching, the tone of the crowd has changed. Different chants, a leader calls and the followers calls back:
“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
“Fuck 12!” [The code for law enforcement.]
“Say his name — George Floyd; his name — George Floyd!”
The air shakes as unified chants bounce off the walls of buildings on Fourth Avenue. One person will yell, and the crowd carries the refrain.
Then someone shouts, “Assassinate the police!” But there’s no refrain, just a single voice. A few fuck yeahs and a hand clap follow. This comes from pairs of white kids, glee evident even behind their masks.
When we encounter our first police blockade, a few bicycle cops on Broadway and 8th, we pass through without incident. There’s a slight pause to weigh if they even have the authority to stop us. But as the crowd moves in and streams through the police, a new chant forms. This one ominously takes hold:
“All cops are bad!”
The chants begin to ask us how far we are willing to go. I walk, I march, as a stench fills the air — a woman burning incense that has a smell of death in it, like rotting flesh. To clear evil spirits, I guess.
As the crowd amasses on the police station steps, the police make a theater of firepower by deploying a couple of flash grenades. This agitates the crowd, and shouts around me call to overtake the police station.
The police stand their ground, and over the next hour the tension boils over into the smashing of cop cars. Small skirmishes between protesters and police break out. One faction of protesters confronts another.
Black men skateboard on cop cars. Another group of protesters who brought bulletproof vests put them on. White kids climb telephone poles. A loud white kid with no shirt who has been stirring things up along the fringes dons a vest.
But just about the time that I think violence is inevitable, the streets get quiet as black leaders take turns speaking impromptu and the crowd mostly listens. There’s a lull, a chance to collect ourselves.
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Nashville. Gathered at the police station downtown. Tense. Maybe tear gas maybe not, but people have fearfully scattered a few times. I don’t see how this ends without escalating. Police cars being smashed now. People rightfully frustrated. Police are in an impossible position, but nothing compared to the position black Americans have faced for centuries. Waiting. Police presence being reinforced. Pray for our country. Stand with your brothers. Now is the time for our tears. Group of black men just put on bullet proof vests. This video doesn’t capture the energy. Police have been patient. White girls climbing telephone poles. One man skateboarding on police cars. Chants getting louder. I want change. I don’t see a way for this event to dissolve without catastrophe. What does justice look like in this moment? Americans cannot stand aside. Police can’t stand down and give them the station. Edit: Riot police and police on horse just showed up. The scene was surprisingly beginning to de-escalate over the last several mins till riot police just stepped in. Water bottles being thrown. Loud banging. Could pop any sec. Finally, police removed the horses. Instantly got less tense.
Then, officers on six horses enter the line. I work downtown, and I’ve seen these horses in action before, nearly trampling drunken tourists after hockey games. But the horses are shaken. They’re meant to intimidate, and anger erupts. Water bottles fly through the air. A dozen glass bottles bounce off the station’s windows.
I can’t imagine a way out that won’t be violent. It is obvious in this moment that a show is being choreographed. After about 10 minutes, the horses file out — and the crowd calms instantly. But the impression is made that the police will employ whatever show of force the moment calls for.
At this point, the players in the protest are recognizable. If I were able to pluck five or 10 people from the crowd and send them on their way, I am confident the day would have ended differently. Many of those people are white. There are a few black men that seem to want an actual fight, and there are several white men amping up the crowds and encouraging mayhem, steering the energy toward destruction. A black man in his thirties is walking through pockets of the crowd, yelling, “Burn it down or we’re wasting our fucking time!” He assembles a small crowd to march back to Broadway, the city’s tourist epicenter, asking white allies to form at the front.
This is when the man in the blue shirt begins screaming, “When are you gonna say you’re fucking sorry?” I know some of these officers by their faces. Some have helped me personally in altercations downtown. Some have berated me in downtown traffic for God knows what reason. One seems to look me in the eyes and recognize me.
“When are you gonna say you’re fucking sorry?” the man continues, his veins swelling in his temple and his neck. No words. The police seem like robots in this moment, save the fear you can see in some of them. They look nervous.
Suddenly, 90 percent of the crowd disperses and rushes the tunnel of the Music City Center, the massive convention center that anchors downtown Nashville. Loud bangs echo from the tunnel. The crowd surges out and back in and overwhelm the blockade. They take to Broadway. Now, the chants of “Fuck 12!” seem to outnumber those of “Say his name!”
We follow the rush, clearing aside trashcans and benches that have been scattered in the streets. Murmurs circulate of protesters punching tourists. Graffiti is everywhere, with mostly white men in their twenties tagging surfaces with “Fuck 12,” “ACAB,” “Fuck Trump,” and “BLM.”
By the time we get to the courthouse, it too is tagged and the protest is verging on a riot. While the core of the crowd is deeply hurt and angry, the fringes seem to desire actual chaos. There’s a skirmish where I can’t tell who is pushing who, then a burst of pepper spray, and white kids with red eyes run screaming out of the crowd.
There’s finally a clear separation between the cops and the crowd when a white man in his early twenties leaps off a step and kicks a cop in the chest, then disappears behind the black people in the crowd. This is a pattern.
I notice a small crowd gathering back on the courthouse steps and someone banging on the door. I get there to find groups of white kids breaking windows and running away. Cheers erupt. Then small groups of black men follow suit. When they lose interest, the white kids stir it up again. SWAT trucks arrive and teargas fogs the air. The hardliners fall back a bit, and the white kids run like they have all day.
The sun is gone now, and it’s harder and harder to know who is there to protest and who is there to agitate. It’s getting more difficult for the police too. I am staying farther back.
“The men and women who had been asking the hard questions are gone. Those who came for justice went home.”
There’s a moment when the peaceful protest shifts, and I’m no longer a part of it anymore. It was us, and suddenly it’s them. I can’t fall in line with either police brutality or burning down the courthouse, so where do I stand? After 45 minutes of volleying teargas back and forth, there is a consolidation on both sides. The crowd is younger now. They’ve shaken down the lampposts, and the courthouse lawn is lit only by the burning teargas canisters. Some protesters seem prepared for this moment, like maybe they’ve done this before. Gloves on, they launch the teargas back at the cops. Some shirtless young men place traffic cones on top of the canister to contain them, with a Coke bottle plugging the hole on top of the cones.
This isn’t right. But murdering George Floyd isn’t right. There has to be a more peaceful way, but the more peaceful way was mocked. Is it a protest if it’s not disruptive? What is justice and what is terrorism?
I move forward and momentarily stand at the entrance of the courthouse lawn, cops in a solid line on the other side. I make my exit to the side where three heavily armed officers yell confusing orders while clutching their rifles. I finally ask them to point where I should go. We are all enemies now. My eyes burn, my throat burns, my brain feels less clear. The disorienting effects are surprising.
The SWAT truck forces the crowd toward Broadway, and they seem glad to follow. I walk down First Avenue along the Cumberland River. When I catch up with the head of the crowd, they’re shattering the windows of a hat shop and throwing hats into the air like it’s graduation day.
A thirtysomething white male is attempting repeatedly to shatter the window of a boot store. He fails again and again. Just up the street a slew of young people break into another boot store, both white and black. They try to set fire to it, but it doesn’t catch. I run back across the street and see what I think is a young tourist couple arguing about getting involved. The guy drunkenly implores his girlfriend to “go fuck shit up.” She holds him back. There are no officers. None. Not one. The men and women who had been asking the hard questions earlier are also gone. Those who came for justice went home. The people left in the streets are getting the chaos they came for.
I finally make my way home, where my daughters are waiting. They’ve been watching me on Instagram standing between the two enemies and they have been worried. But I’m a 40-year-old white guy — my daughters only had to worry for a single night. I think about all the white protesters I saw running away, while the black people stood to look fear in the eye. They’re accustomed to it.