Local Residents Have Roots In North Carolina Community Where Police Shooting Occurred

Former Bridgehampton resident Darnelle Brown, who has lived in Elizabeth City since 2002, has taken part in protests for justice and accountability after the police shooting death of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on April 21. Residents of the city, many of whom have ties to the Bridgehampton and Southampton area, have said the protests have been peaceful. COURTESY DARNELLE BROWN

When Pasquotank County Sheriffs Deputies shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr., 42, on April 21 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, it sent shockwaves through the small town that sits 40 miles west of the Outer Banks.

Mr. Brown was in his car in his driveway when deputies shot him five times in the back, including a fatal wound to his head. The deputies had arrived in the morning to serve felony arrest and search warrants on drug related charges, and shot at Mr. Brown as he attempted to drive away. It was an incident that occurred just one day after the guilty verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd. Mr. Brown’s death sparked protests when local officials only allowed his family to view 20 seconds of police body camera footage of the incident (an additional 20 minutes of footage from a total of two hours of recording was released to Mr. Brown’s family, but not the public, on May 11, three weeks after his death).

Mr. Brown’s death became the latest police killing of a Black man to make national news, but it has had particular resonance for several residents of Bridgehampton and Southampton, who have been closely following the still unfolding story.

Though 500 miles and a nine-hour drive separate the two communities, the bond between them runs deep, forged a century ago when Black families from the South began relocating to northern towns and cities in search of better lives in the earlier part of the 20th century, which came to be known as the Great Migration. While many settled in urban areas, the East End of Long Island became a desirable destination as well, and the influx of African-American workers and families during that time period had a profound impact on the growth and evolution of the local community.

Several people with ties to both areas spoke to The Express News Group last week about what it has been like to follow news coverage of Mr. Brown’s death, the emotional toll it has taken, and the particular pain of seeing a place they call home gain nationwide recognition because of a tragedy.

LaTrish Knowles, 41, was born and raised in Southampton and graduated from high school there in 1998. At the age of 33, she moved to Elizabeth City, the home of her father and stepmother, who she calls her “bonus mom.” She lives on the same street as Mr. Brown, and was working from home when he was killed. She said she did not know him personally beyond the standard “hi” and “bye” most neighbors exchange, but described his killing as “traumatizing.”

“It’s something I never thought I would have to witness,” she said. “You hear about it in other major cities and other states, but Elizabeth City being so small and so hometown-ish, quote unquote, just to think something like this would happen here is unbelievable.”

The idea that a high-profile killing of a Black man by police was unlikely to happen in Elizabeth City was a sentiment shared by several people. Ms. Knowles said Elizabeth City shares some common traits with her original hometown.

“It’s really small and has that everybody knows everybody kind of feeling,” she said. “It’s just comfortable.”

Bridgehampton resident Carl Johnson, an educator who works in the Bridgehampton School and who coached its state championship winning boys basketball team for decades before retiring from that post in 2017, was born in Elizabeth City and lived there until he was 9 years old. He has made the nine-hour drive back home more times than he can count, visiting friends and relatives there, including his father, sometimes as frequently as once a month. He is strongly considering returning there upon fully retiring, or splitting his time living in both areas.

In describing Elizabeth City, Mr. Johnson said it reminded him of Riverhead. In terms of demographics, it is roughly 50 percent Black and 40 percent white, with a small percentage of other races and ethnicities. There is persistent poverty in certain areas, but the downtown of Elizabeth City has undergone a revitalization in recent years, with old and abandoned buildings becoming chic restaurants or pubs. There is a Coast Guard base there, as well as Elizabeth City State University, a historically Black college. Residents may work in the rural environs on farms, or at the university, while some make the 45 minute commute north to work in the Virginia Beach area. It is sometimes referred to as the gateway to the waters, because of the presence of a canal, a river and a sound, all in close proximity. For retirees with a love of boating or fishing, “it’s one of the best places for your money,” Mr. Johnson said.

His love and affection for Elizabeth City comes across clearly, and it’s why processing what happened there hasn’t been easy.

“You hear about [police killings] and always think it’s a tragedy, and you read about it and hear it on TV all the time, but when it hit Elizabeth City, it was different,” he said. “It’s a different feel for me because that’s home. I was in shock for awhile, seeing Elizabeth City on national news. It just hit home that this is the world we’re living in now. It’s really sad.”

It’s one of many emotions that Black residents of the city and those with close ties to it must work through while still going about their daily lives. For Darnelle Brown, a 1980 graduate of Bridgehampton High School and Air Force veteran who moved to Elizabeth City in 2002, the predominant feelings right now are anger, and distrust in local institutions.

“What has happened here has taken a toll on not only my life but the whole town,” he said. “I put my trust in the police department and sheriff’s department and I was let down.”

Mr. Brown has been actively involved in the protests that have been ongoing for several weeks, and have been peaceful. He has three sons, and so he’s a veteran of having the kinds of conversations Black parents feel they must have with their children to help keep them safe, constantly reminding them and cautioning them to be careful when they are out in public. Those discussions within Black households are not a recent phenomenon either.

Ms. Knowles, the mother to a 24-year-old daughter, said she had one reporter ask her what type of conversations she’s having in her home in the wake of Mr. Brown’s death.

“Those conversations began when you were born,” Ms. Knowles said. “These are constant conversation in every African American household.”

Mr. Brown’s shooting death by police could have been even more tragic if not for random luck. Bullets from the shooting went through a neighboring house, hitting siding next to the front door and going through the living room before landing on the kitchen counter. The residents of that house were, fortunately, not home at the time, but that fact landed with Ms. Knowles, who also lives just a few houses down. She has pondered not only how easily the violence could have reached her doorstep, but that of her neighbor, who has six children.

“Literally that could have been our homes,” she said.

Sadness, anger, fear, and deep frustration have been dominant emotions for Black residents of Elizabeth City for the past few weeks, but there have been moments of hope, determination, and pride as well. Ms. Knowles, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Brown and others have pointed out that the ongoing protests have been peaceful and have not resulted in any looting or rioting, which they said has been good to see. Southampton resident Tramar Pettaway, 32, a graduate of Southampton High School, is a student at Elizabeth City State University and, along with the rest of the students at the school, was told he needed to pack up and move out shortly after the shooting occurred, because school officials were worried about the potential for impending unrest.

He attended the first two days of the protests, and described them as very peaceful, saying he and others marched to City Hall and the Sheriff’s office before crossing a bridge and heading to the site of the shooting on another day. Like others, he expressed shock that the killing happened in a town like Elizabeth City, and said even though school was only supposed to be in session for another week when the students were sent home, it was frustrating, and felt like a repeat of the quick pack-up-and-go directive they were given last year when COVID hit. Mr. Pettaway, who is studying elementary education, said he hopes and expects there will one day be a full accounting of what the country is facing right now in the history books.

Until then, people say they will continue to speak out against racism and will take comfort in the shows of unity and determination they are seeing in the streets. The protests have included many members of the community and some from abroad, including clergy members and faith leaders from different denominations.

“The protests are amazing,” Ms. Knowles said. “They are peaceful and they are mixed; it’s not just Black people protesting. It’s breathtaking to see all the people who are coming together.”

Ms. Knowles said she was particularly struck by one man attending the protests, a military veteran who had lost both of his legs, but was participating.

“He was a white guy and he told one of my neighbor’s kids, ‘I fought for you, too,’” Ms. Knowles said.

Seeing people from a wide range of backgrounds come together is important, Ms. Knowles added, saying it provides a sense of unity, comfort, and protection to know that people from all walks of life want the same result.

“We are all human and this has got to stop and we have to start to intervene,” she said.

Whether or not there will be some form of justice or accountability for Andrew Brown Jr.’s family remains to be seen. What enduring impact his shooting death has on the larger Elizabeth City community won’t be known for some time either. Dealing with the pain of his tragic loss will be a long process for Mr. Brown’s family, of course, but Mr. Johnson also wondered aloud about a different kind of loss it could potentially represent for the community he loves.

“They had really been making that turnaround with the downtown, and all of a sudden this is the news the city gets, which is all negative,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s going to do as far as people wanting to go there or invest in property down there.”

While those questions remain unanswered for now, people like Darnelle Brown say they will continue doing what they’ve always done—stay dedicated to fighting for racial justice.

“Success is measured not so much by the position one has reached in life, but by the obstacles he’s overcome while trying to succeed,” he said. “We can accept failure; everyone fails at something. But can you accept not trying?”