Unrest and Police in Riot Gear in Market Square Saturday Night

May 31, 2020

Damage from Saturday night's riot included this broken window at the Knoxville Chamber office on Market Square.
Credit submitted, Stephen Skinner

A group estimated at 50 to 100 people vandalized shops, knocked over trashcans and damaged a portable toilet as they moved about a small area of downtown Knoxville Saturday night. Two people were arrested.

The incident, classified as a riot by Knoxville police, took place in and near Market Square and Gay Street. Security camera footage from restaurant Ruby Sunshine showed a group of young people tossing traffic safety cones at the eatery’s windows as the group moved through the northern end of Market Square shortly after 11:30 p.m. Police later said that was the beginning of the riot. From there, details about people and events are hard to assemble and contextualize.

KPD said the initial small incident at Market Square was followed by a larger crowd on the Clinch Avenue Bridge above World’s Fair Park around midnight and pushed east toward downtown. The group apparently shrank as it moved east, and around 40 people were left when a dispersal order was given at or after 1:00 a.m., near Krutch Park. Someone threw an object into a police SUV, hitting a KPD officer in the head, the police department said. The officer was uninjured. The riot was over by 2:00 a.m.

Former Knoxville City Council candidate and local political activist David Hayes said police fired pepper-filled balls into the crowd, including some that struck him. KPD’s event summary did not mention Hayes' observation. Hayes asserted police escalated the situation, not the protesters.

It was not immediately clear who was behind the Knoxville riot. A Facebook event page for “I Can’t Breathe Knox” advertised a gathering set for 9:30 p.m. Saturday night, but the page had been taken down by Sunday afternoon. Knoxville’s Black Lives Matter group, which helped organize a peaceful protest Friday, distanced itself from the vandalism. “Last night was not part of the movement,” a video caption on the group’s Facebook page read. “We are here to move forward, make change and end police violence.”

Hayes said the protest he was involved in was not affiliated with the “sketchy” events and social media event posts that cropped up in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Floyd was killed during an arrest May 25 when four Minneapolis police officers knelt on his body, including his throat. All four officers were fired, and one has been charged in Floyd’s death.

Declaring herself “repulsed” by Floyd’s death, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon condemned the vandalism in a video released Sunday evening.

“We can all do better, and that includes those who claim to fight in the name of social justice by destroying property and inciting violence and deepening the divide,” Kincannon said. “Working together for peace and justice is the answer, not violence.”

The damage was minor, especially when compared to the fires and property destruction seen in Minneapolis and other major cities in the past week. An estimated 30 Nashville businesses were damaged in a riot Saturday, along with the city’s Metro Courthouse and some state government buildings. Gov. Bill Lee granted Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s request to active members of the Tennessee National Guard to help restore order. 75 Guard members were activated, reportedly the first time the Guard was deployed for law enforcement in Tennessee since 1968. A curfew was ordered for downtown Nashville from 8:00 p.m. Sunday night to 6:00 a.m. Monday morning.

In Morristown Saturday night, a crowd estimated at more than 100 people gathered outside the city’s municipal building. The police department said some of the protesters shouted derogatory remarks at officers inside the building’s parking garage, and allege some rocks and bottles were thrown at officers. The group was ordered to disperse at 12:40 a.m.

Knoxville restaurateur Yassin Terou visited Market Square shortly after the riot ended and filmed his own observations about the incident and the broader current social situation.

Police force will not fix the anger that is sweeping the country, Terou said. And he urged people to look more closely at who is committing the acts of violence and property damage. “The protester who’s doing this because of what happened in Minnesota…I’m very sure that they are not the people who broke the windows.”

This post was edited at 11:04 a.m. June 1, to correct typographical errors and to clarify a sentence in the fourth paragraph whose meaning was unclear. The headline was updated at 10:06 a.m. June 2 to be more accurate.