On the evening of May 30, the first floor of Nashville City Hall was set on fire following an afternoon rally. Videos taken of City Hall depict a crowd of people lobbing objects into a broken window. In additional videos, orange flames emanate from other shattered windows. The videos also depict extensive vandalism on City Hall and protesters announcing that police were on the scene. According to News 5, the Nashville Fire Department has begun an investigation into who started the fire.
According to the Tennessean, the fire started around 8:15 p.m. Around 8:45 p.m., Mayor John Cooper declared a state of civil emergency, and shortly after 9 p.m., Governor Bill Lee deployed the Tennessee National Guard at the request of Mayor Cooper. Cooper also imposed a 10 p.m. curfew and Metro Nashville Police made arrests to enforce the curfew, according to the Tennessean.
According to News 5, protesters also set fire to several businesses on Broadway including Boot Barn, Margaritaville, and the Stage.
The Protest Began Earlier That Afternoon as a ‘Peaceful’ Demonstration
On Saturday afternoon, organizers held an “I Will Breathe” rally in downtown Nashville. According to Equity Alliance, one of the organizers of the rally, the event drew roughly 4,000 protesters. Mayor Cooper attended the rally and encouraged the Metro Council to attend as well.
“This is an especially critical time for all of us, as Metro’s leaders, to show up and listen to Black voices from across Davidson County as they speak out against the senseless killing of George Floyd and the deep-seated issues of racial injustice in our country,” Cooper said in a tweeted statement.
At 4:40 p.m., the Vanderbilt Hustler reported that the protest “has thus far been peaceful” and that organizers continued to remind attendees to remain peaceful. At 5:30 p.m., Natalie Allison of the Tennessean reported early signs of violence during the march. Videos of the march depict vandalism and physical altercations between protesters and police. In one altercation, protesters smashed the windows of a police cruiser with the officer inside. Tensions continued to escalate as the evening wore on. Live updates from the Vanderbilt Hustler reported that protesters vandalized statues, broke windows, and attempted to push the police line back. At 8:23 p.m., police deployed tear gas and flashbang grenades outside City Hall, according to Allison’s videos.
At 9:22 p.m., Cooper tweeted that the afternoon rally for George Floyd was “peaceful,” saying, “We cannot let today’s message of reform descend into further violence. If you mean our city harm, go home.” Metro Nashville Police reiterated Cooper’s sentiment, tweeting, “A 10 p.m. curfew is in effect. Those harming our city should leave.”
The city of Nashville is currently operating under a four-stage reopening plan. On May 25, the city entered Phase 2, which allows for gatherings of up to fifty people, according to WKRN. The plan does not allow gatherings of over one hundred people until Phase 4. Photos of the rally indicate that protesters did not adhere to strict social distancing guidelines.
Organizers Condemned the Riots, Claiming That Those Who Attempted to Commit Arson Were Not Affiliated With The Rally
Around 9:30 p.m., the Equity Alliance tweeted, “We witnessed white people defacing public property while marching and told them to stop. The people now attempting to set fire to the Metro Courthouse right now are NOT associated with today’s peaceful protest rally. It ain’t us.”
Around 1 a.m., a statement from the Equity Alliance circulated on Twitter. The statement reads:
Our organization, in cooperation with other activists, held a peaceful rally today to protest the murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd by police as well as to deliver a clear message to Metro and state government leaders that Tennesseans deeply oppose racism and police brutality…
It is our firm belief that those individuals defacing and destroying public property after the rally were not part of the original event. The actions by this small group reflect neither the beliefs of the groups that led today’s peaceful assembly nor those of the majority of the attendees. This behavior dishonors the memory of George Floyd and other black Americans that have died unjustly at the hands of police.
The Equity Alliance condemns and disavows tonight’s violent rioting. We urge anyone feeling heartfelt, honest anger over the murder of George Floyd to direct that energy toward November’s election. The only true way to change our nation for the better is by taking up our civic duty as Americans and making it clear with our vote that we reject racism in all its forms.