HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray told City Council Thursday night that their intelligence prior to a June 3 protest pointed toward a group that had intentions of fighting police.
McMurray spent two and a half hours at Thursday’s special council session showing council members some of the intel his team gathered, which included drone video, social media posts and calls made to the department.
“This information we received caused us to make some very hard decisions, some very difficult decisions,” McMurray said. “But they had to be made to protect the citizens of Huntsville and the city.”
McMurray prefaced his presentation by saying he had received mail, emails and phone calls about the law enforcement response during that week particularly to the June 3 protest.
“After hearing these citizens, I believe I have a better understanding of their perspectives, a better understanding of their perception, which is always different depending where you were in the crowd and how you were adjacent to the activities in the time that took place,” McMurray said.
McMurray laid out the intelligence gathering and preparation for four protests that took place after the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police. The protests took place May 30, June 1, June 3 and June 5.
McMurray said HPD’s intel center, the North Alabama Multi-Agency Crime Center, began gathering intelligence May 27, when protests nationwide after Floyd’s death began to become more violent.
The events on May 30 and June 5 were peaceful events, McMurray said, with relatively small crowds.
June 1 was a somewhat different story, according to McMurray, because the NAMCC started getting intelligence indicating people were tempted to act as disruptors.
After the organizers announced the end of the rally and a prayer took place, some people remained, McMurray said, threatening to remove the Confederate monument on the courthouse square. Officers in street clothes took a man with a gun into custody after police spotted him in the crowd, with the assistance of a drone.
About an hour later, as protesting continued, another person with a gun was taken into custody, which McMurray showed more video of to the council.
Eventually, police used smoke and gas to disperse the crowd just before 8 p.m. that night.
“The total for this event was two handheld little cans of gas, CS gas,” McMurray said. “That’s what was used on this event.”
As the June 3 rally approached, McMurray said the city and police department were working with the organizers from the local chapter of the NAACP to plan the event.
“It was very structured,” McMurray said of the rally plans.
But the NAMCC was gathering information that indicated more agitators, McMurray said, including people he said were local Antifa sympathizers and “influencers” online.
After the NAACP rally ended at Big Spring Park East, many continued on to the courthouse square, where they marched and continued their protest.
McMurray said Antifa sympathizers and others on social media had indicated their intent to fight the police and destroy property. During the meeting he showed some social media posts that NAMCC gathered that he said were Antifa sympathizers showing strategies that could be used to defeat police officers.
“Antifa has a way of recruiting through social media to get people to perform certain acts so they can have a group effort at their organization,” he said.
McMurray also addressed criticism he says he received after saying during a news conference that out-of-town agitators came in, stirred up the crowd that night and left before they could be arrested. McMurray said in that news conference that several vehicles with out-of-town plates were parked in the area that night.
McMurray showed images of those vehicles and plates Thursday night and said police were just working on the intelligence they had.
“We didn’t have time to look them all up, do background checks, find out where they live, call their mama and their brother and see if they’re in Huntsville legally,” he said. “But I’m just telling you the intel we had.”
Weapons also were found hidden around the courthouse, including a knife, metal pipes and cinderblocks, McMurray said. There also were signs posted on how to defeat police and neutralize tear gas. Those were the reasons McMurray said he had his Incident Response Teams, SWAT and other officers hidden nearby.
“I got criticized for putting combative officers on the scene,” he told the council. “Ladies and gentlemen, you couldn’t see these officers. They were all in secret. I hid them. You couldn’t tell they were there. The only people you saw in the street when these events started were Huntsville police officers providing extra patrols.”
Those teams came out after the NAACP rally and when protesters began crowding the barriers at the Madison County Courthouse. McMurray said they saw protestors setting up medical areas, putting on eye protection and heavy gloves – actions he said indicated they were preparing to fight police.
McMurray said in questioning from the council that he authorized the use of tear gas to disperse the crowd as a means of getting people to leave without using force. He said HPD officers did not fire rubber bullets into the crowd because they don’t use them. His officers used bean bag rounds shot from 12-gauge shotguns.
“I think we launched a total in the whole week was 30 bean bags and we only hit five people with them,” McMurray said. “It was very low counts because they’re inaccurate, but that’s what they do. They move you on with the least amount of force.”
In the end, McMurray said 24 people were arrested, 20 of them for disorderly conduct after they grouped up in the road at Lowery and Williams Avenue and refused to move.
McMurray said the June 5 rally did not have any indication of a threat.
After McMurray’s presentation, City Council President Devyn Keith told McMurray he believes the Madison County Sheriff’s Office and Alabama Law Enforcement Agency saw the situation differently from the police department. Keith referenced the use of rubber bullets and the perception that was given by snipers on rooftops.
If only HPD were involved, Keith said he believed trust in law enforcement might not have been lost.
“I urge you to be aware not only of your language and your stance, but that they’re not just looking at you. They’re also looking at snipers, they’re also looking at sheriffs and they’re also looking at state troopers,” Keith said. “So in that collective, I thank you for your presentation. And honestly, I wish there was a presentation from all three agencies, because it’s just unfair.”