Mayor declares state of emergency, curfew in Birmingham

Mayor declares state of emergency, curfew in Birmingham
A worker cleans up the sidewalk outside California Fashion Mall in downtown Birmingham on Monday after it was set on fire during a protest Sunday evening. (Marvin Gentry/The Birmingham Times)

What began as a peaceful demonstration Sunday afternoon in Birmingham to protest the death of George Floyd, a man killed by a Minneapolis police officer last week, led to a state of emergency for the city and a mandatory curfew beginning tonight.

Mayor Randall Woodfin made the declarations today during a nearly hour-long virtual news conference in the wake of protesters on Sunday night damaging downtown businesses and attacking reporters.

“What started out with the best intentions turned into something that none of us deserve, none of our small business owners, none of our corporate community, the people in the media that were physically hurt, no one deserved what happened last night in this city we call home,” Woodfin said. “I want you to know that I 100 percent support civil disobedience, but that is very different from civil unrest, and I support activism and the right to peacefully assemble, but I don’t support mobs or people destroying things just because.”

The citywide curfew will be implemented until further notice and last from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily, the mayor said.

Travel on city streets will be limited with the exception of medical and essential personnel. Employees will need to provide a form or document to prove they need to work during the curfew hours.

Workers put up plywood at the Wheelhouse and the Shu Shop after windows were broken during a protest Sunday evening. (Marvin Gentry/The Birmingham Times)

On Sunday, 24 people were arrested, 14 businesses were burglarized and 13 other businesses suffered significant damage, city officials said. Birmingham Fire and Rescue responded to 22 fire calls, five of which were commercial, the city said.

Two members of the media were attacked, but no other injuries were reported at this time.

The decision to declare a state of emergency came after city leaders determined lives were potentially at risk. Woodfin said.

“We decided to declare it last night and announce it today. … What we’re seeing across the nation are a lot of people engaging in civil unrest and we need to make sure our citizens know in advance and (that there will be a) curfew,” he said. “The city of Birmingham is open to the additional resources as it relates to squashing civil unrest; we have no problem partnering with Alabama Law Enforcement Agency  or the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office to assist us … to protect our citizens, first responders and to protect people’s property.”

Like other leaders in the state, Gov. Kay Ivey said she was disappointed to see the chaos.

Ivey issued a statement saying, “The Alabama National Guard stands ready to assist when peaceful protests become violent and dangerous to our public safety. I will always support the right of the people of Alabama to peacefully lift your voices in anger and frustration. However, we will not allow our cities to become a target for those, especially from other states, who choose to use violence and destruction to make their point.

“Regretfully, the natural anger and frustration of Mr. Floyd’s death has now spread to our state and what started out as peaceful protests in some of our cities yesterday afternoon turned ugly last night,” she said in the statement.

“What I saw happen last night in Birmingham was unbecoming of all those who have worked to make Birmingham the great city it is. Going forward, this cannot be tolerated. State assets are available to any local government that makes the request. We will show respect to ourselves and to each other through this process.”

Following peaceful gatherings Sunday, protesters gathered in Birmingham’s Linn Park later in the evening and tried to remove Confederate statues. Birmingham police officers moved into the park, asking the crowd to disperse.

Some left, but others began to destroy business property downtown along 19th and 20th Streets and Fifth Avenue North.

Alabama Power was among the businesses damaged.

“There was damage to the Alabama Power headquarters building as the result of recent protests which occurred overnight,” a statement from the company said. “While it’s unfortunate, it pales in comparison to the hurt, pain and concern faced by so many in our community and across the nation. Buildings can be replaced, but lives cannot. We must come together – business, communities and individuals alike – to fight against injustice and encourage and promote unity.”

The mayor said he was disappointed at the way the entire episode transpired.

“This is not who we are,” he said. “Violence, looting and chaos is not the road to reform and anybody that is doing the looting and breaking things and setting fires just because, you are not doing that in the name of George Floyd.”

Birmingham Police Chief Patrick D. Smith said the world is waking up to see a very different Birmingham, “one that is hard to watch or take in,” he said. “What started out as a peaceful protest turned into something different. It is our intent as a police department to follow up on every single crime, we will look for and collect every video … and we need your (the public’s) help. It is our goal to make sure we find those responsible, whether you were a part or incited the riot, and it does not matter who you are or what position you hold, the department will follow up.”

Woodfin said he intends to remove the large Confederate monument in Linn Park even though it will mean a $25,000 fine for the city. The cost of removing it is less than the continual costs of civil unrest if it remains, he said.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said the one-time fine is the only punishment the city faces if it removes the monument.

“The Alabama Monuments Preservation Act provides a singular avenue for enforcement — the filing of a civil complaint in pursuit of a fine, which the Alabama Supreme Court has determined to be a one-time assessment of $25,000. The act authorizes no additional relief,” Marshall said. “Should the city of Birmingham proceed with the removal of the monument in question, based upon multiple conversations I have had today, city leaders understand I will perform the duties assigned to me by the act to pursue a new civil complaint against the city.”

Bessemer has also declared a state of emergency and implemented a curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. for the next five days. Bessemer Mayor Kenneth Gulley cited “credible threats” against the city on social media as the reason for the protective measure.

Anyone with videos or images of those who caused unrest or violence in Birmingham on Sunday is encouraged to call Crimestoppers at 205-254-7777 and share what they have.

This story originally appeared on The Birmingham Times’ website.

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