Looking back: Why Huntsville Police Chief said use of force was justified during June 2020 protests

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala – In June of 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, two protests in Huntsville ended with a clash between the crowd and police. When Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray briefed the city council a few weeks after the events, he said law enforcement actions the nights of June 1st and June 3rd were justified. 

“But blocking the roads past dark, shutting businesses in downtown, just not something we need to continue to tolerate in the atmosphere, the Alabama atmosphere, the national atmosphere.”

Chief Mark McMurray

McMurray offered a long, complicated defense of the law enforcement actions in the meeting that lasted more than three hours. During the protests, CS gas, pepper spray, and bean bag rounds were shot at the crowd gathered downtown.

Before the protests, he says law enforcement monitored conversations on social media and weighed unfounded threats called into police.

He also cited two dozen cars parked downtown with out-of-state license plates, many from Tennessee and Georgia.

The chief called the clash between police and protesters ‘secondary events’ after the planned protests.

“Spinoff group that looks to take advantage of the gathering of people who were emotional for a purpose,” said Chief Mark McMurray.

While he says the Antifa group, Antifa is short for anti-fascist, is not present in Huntsville, the chief sought to explain how Antifa could have been involved in what happened.

He outlined social media conversations ahead of the protests between Huntsville residents police identified as Antifa sympathizers. 

“Oh, and the next guy says ‘throw glue also, and then throw glitter, and tons of glitter,'” the chief said.

One of the people the chief highlighted in his report was a Huntsville man who was interviewed by AL.com after the briefing. The stay-at-home dad and writer denies the claim he is an Antifa sympathizer and says he had not attended local protests.

The chief explained 13 different roles Antifa members play during protests, saying people could be helping Antifa during protests without their knowledge, explaining terms like ‘range solider’ and ‘medics’.

“These people who were throwing bottles at us, they’re going to get offended I call them a ‘range solider’, but to Antifa, because that’s what they were because that’s how they organize these events. They didn’t mean to be part of Antifa, they don’t want to be part of Antifa. They were simple bystanders, they got wrapped up in the minute, become a protester and now they’re assaulting Huntsville police officers,” he explained. “Everything about Antifa was here on the backside.”

Police said they recovered a total of seven firearms over the course of the four protests. They also removed two people with firearms during protests. They reportedly found a man walking around downtown with a rifle after protests the night of June 3rd. 24 people were arrested that night and one store window was damaged.

Questions from the public were read by council president Devyn Keith at the end of the presentation.

“If there were violent, outside agitators at the event, why were all the arrests Madison County citizens? Do the mayor and chief of police seriously think we believe out-of-state anarchists came in and caused this violence and then magically escaped?”

Chief McMurray answered, “These are not violent agitators we put in jail that night, okay? They were young people, disorderly conduct, blocking the road two hours into the event.” 

Councilmember Frances Akridge brought up the idea of unlawful assembly. She asked how police could know if there was an intent to riot. McMurray pointed to protests in Birmingham that he said included millions of dollars in property damage and city-wide curfews.

“But blocking the roads past dark, shutting businesses in downtown, just not something we need to continue to tolerate in the atmosphere, the Alabama atmosphere, the national atmosphere,” McMurray said.

In Chief McMurray’s concluding remarks he said the police department wants to improve its complex relationship with the community.  He also denounced the death of George Floyd. He said the video of Floyd’s death was hard to watch and he reminded the public that type of restraint is not used by Huntsville police.

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