ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. – The murder trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was wrapping up when Dakwon Gibbs told a friend that George Floyd’s killing — and others like it — would never happen in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
“I said, 'We live in a city that’s too small; we’re a small community,” said Gibbs, 22. “And two days later it happened. I thought wrong. I thought very wrong.”
The fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. by sheriff’s deputies has sent shock waves through this small, majority Black city in the state's rural northeastern corner. Despite holding an important place in African American history in the 19th and 20th centuries, Elizabeth City seemed too close-knit and too out-of-the-way to become a flashpoint in the 21st, some residents say.
That changed when Brown, 42, was shot by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies serving drug-related search and arrest warrants at his house on April 21. Brown, who was Black, was behind the wheel of his car when he was shot five times, including in the back of the head, according to an independent autopsy commissioned by his family.
Police camera footage has yet to be made public or shown in its entirety to Brown’s family. And the shooting has sparked peaceful protests each night, with marchers demanding release of the video and police reform. Throngs of police and television camera crews have descended onto the city's riverfront downtown.
“We see all this stuff happening all over the world, but we never thought that something like this would happen in our town,” City Council member Gabriel Adkins said during an emergency meeting called after the shooting.
“And people are afraid. ... They are afraid that, you know, the riots are going to start,” Adkins said.
Surrounded by miles of ocean-flat farmland, Elizabeth City is a quaint-looking urban hub for a relatively isolated region. The economy is anchored in large part by a large U.S. Coast Guard base, which often deploys rescue missions into the nearby Atlantic Ocean. It is also home to Elizabeth City State University, a historically Black university founded in 1891. Still, more than one in five people live in poverty in the city.
The city is about an hour drive from Virginia’s Hampton Roads region as well as North Carolina’s touristy Outer Banks. But it's not a place many people drive through — or have heard of.
“I’m sorry that this is the first time many folks are hearing about Elizabeth City,” said Melissa Stuckey, a history professor at the university. “Because it’s a place where Black freedom struggles have happened over many decades.”
The city sits on the Pasquotank River and sprang up in the 19th century because of its proximity to the Great Dismal Swamp. Cypress and cedar trees were logged for their rot-proof lumber and turned into ship masts and fence posts. Enslaved Americans were put to work there. But the swamp was also a place where they sought refuge after escaping bondage.
During the Civil War, Black troops marched to Elizabeth City after President Abraham Lincoln allowed African Americans to enlist. They participated in raids that liberated nearby plantations.
By the 1940s, the city boasted a strong Black business community. And in the 1960s, residents of Elizabeth City — and students at its university — worked to desegregate the region's businesses, with many getting arrested.
“In a lot of ways, I see what is happening on our streets today as a part of a longer history of Black freedom struggles in the region and in the United States,” Stuckey said. “And it’s a difficult moment. But it's a moment that we can draw from the past to kind of take heart in what it is that people are doing right now on the streets.”
Linwood Gallop, 52, an electrician, has marched in many protests since the day Brown was killed. He grew up in the same neighborhood where Brown was shot, catching the school bus on the corner and buying nickel candies from a nearby store.
Although Gallop only knew Brown in passing, he dismisses any suggestion by authorities that the shooting was justified. The city is galvanized, he said, because it's so close knit.
“They’re trying to criminalize us. But we know each other. It’s too personal," Gallop said. "That’s why it’s not working here.”
Gallop also pointed out that it was county sheriff's deputies working as part of a drug task force who shot Brown — not the city's police force.
“I cannot think of a police officer shooting somebody in 30 years here — we're not used to that happening here," Gallop said. “If we don’t know you, we know somebody who knows you. We can literally call someone up and be like, ‘Hey man, the police are looking for you. Go downtown.’"
Ernest Banks, 65, who owns a shoe repair shop downtown, has also participated in many of the protest marches.
“We can still keep this going,” he said. “This is not going to die.”