ELIZABETH CITY — At just three months into his job as the top administrator in Elizabeth City, Montre’ Freeman never expected he’d have to manage a situation like this. And one in the national spotlight, at that.
But that’s what Freeman, the city manager in Elizabeth City, has faced in the past week and a half, with hundreds of protesters taking to the streets nightly after Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr., an unarmed Black man.
“As an African-American male, I’ve seen this enough, right?” Freeman said. “There’s always a possibility that this can happen. You don’t prepare mentally to lead a city through these things.
“And you hope and pray that you never have to.”
Coming from a family that also has marched and protested throughout history, Freeman said his approach in this moment has been to protect protesters and Elizabeth City residents.
Protesters have gathered near the sheriff’s office downtown and marched for several hours around the city each night, chanting “Twenty seconds? Not enough!” That references a video clip of deputy body-cam footage that shows Brown’s death, but has not been released to the public.
Brown, an unarmed Black man, was killed less than 24 hours after Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was convicted of the murder of George Floyd.
Protesters have pledged themselves to be peaceful, not wanting to add to the Brown family’s troubles in a small town where so many people know each other. Though some storefronts are boarded-up along the major roads and downtown businesses are almost all closed, the nightly protests have brought no vandalism or violence.
A curfew that was in place from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. was shortened Friday. It’s now midnight until 6 a.m.
When Freeman took the job as city manager of Elizabeth City earlier this year, it was sort of a homecoming. He played football and ran track at Elizabeth City State University, the historically Black university.
Freeman said to do this job, he combines his appreciation for the city that gave him so much with what he later learned in law school at N.C. Central.
Freeman said he also leans on a lesson his father taught him at age 12. He said that when you have to make a decision, you are either afraid or you think your way through it. Because your mind won’t let you do both.
“I just choose to think my way through it,” Freeman said.
Freeman said he’s on the phone with Police Chief Eddie Buffaloe every day as early as 6 a.m. and as late as midnight talking about the evolving situation.
They’re “watching the temperature” of the protests and assessing the curfew.
Freeman said he welcomes the protests and respects people’s First Amendment rights. And he’s proud of how the protesters and locals have maintained patience and stayed peaceful.
Part of that, he said, is due to the relationships built through years of community policing efforts, led by Buffaloe.
Freeman understands the reason for the protests. He said it “felt like yet another one” when Brown was shot and killed.
“The reality is this is a very emotional situation,” he said. “I feel it.”
The first day of protests cost the city about $5,000, and by last Sunday it was up to $48,000, according to Freeman. Now, it’s around $100,000 for resources on the ground to handle the demonstrations.
“We’re just trying to do the best we can to answer the call for the citizens and for the protesters and for the Brown family,” Freeman said.
The money will come from taxpayer dollars through the city’s reserves and police budget, which will need to be amended, Freeman said. City officials will likely talk through the associated costs at budget and board meetings on Monday.
Freeman said he’s concerned because they’re “stretched” financially, but they will keep officers on the ground as long as necessary.