The Mayor and City Council of the City of Morganton submit this letter in response to the letter published in the News-Herald on July 9, 2020, signed by 21 local clergy members. Although this statement was specifically addressed to City Council and the City Manager, it was not delivered to us nor did any of its signers contact us with concerns expressed in the letter prior to its publication.
We appreciate the serious expression of concerns by leaders in the local faith community regarding the events that occurred in downtown Morganton on Saturday, June 27, 2020. As always, we are available by telephone, by email or in person to discuss concerns with all residents.
As elected officials of the City, we wish to emphatically express that our Public Safety Department handled this situation in a manner beyond reproach, in a manner that many larger cities would do well to use as an example. The authors of the letter, whether present or not at the event, were not the ones responsible for protecting human life and safety on June 27. No language in a statute or permit can substitute for the judgement of a trained law enforcement officer engaged in a face-to-face confrontation where large crowds, anger, emotions and weapons are present. The tactical decision-making of law enforcement on June 27 resulted in zero deaths, zero injuries and zero arrests.
The situation downtown that day was unprecedented in our community. A large number of people were openly carrying guns in two bitterly opposed groups. Every available Morganton Public Safety officer was mobilized. They were joined by officers from the Burke County Sheriff’s Office, the State Highway Patrol, the Broughton Police and the U.S. Marshal’s Service, whose presence and assistance is gratefully acknowledged. Public Safety leadership on the scene had to make decisions literally from second-to-second. With far more armed civilians than law enforcement officers on the scene, a single misstep, a single false move, could have resulted in a tragedy. Under those conditions, the top priority for Public Safety was to avoid bloodshed. With patience and skill, and without drawing any weapons, law enforcement was able to bring about a peaceful resolution, and everyone on all sides returned safely to their homes.
The City has an ordinance requiring groups to obtain permits from the Department of Public Safety for parades or demonstrations. No permit was issued to any group for a downtown gathering on June 27. During the elevated tensions of the past few months, the Public Safety Department and City leadership have not stopped numerous demonstrations that occurred with no permit. Examples include groups demanding “re-opening” from the COVID-19 shut-down, protesting police misconduct and groups expressing support for keeping the Confederate soldier monument. The City believes that it is important for people to assemble and express their opinions. All of the events prior to June 27 have been peaceful. There are times when professional judgement dictates that strict compliance with permit requirements would do more harm than good.
As noted in the ministers’ letter, there is a North Carolina statute that makes it a misdemeanor to carry a weapon during a parade or demonstration. Because North Carolina is an “open-carry” state, enforcing this law can be a challenge, and successful prosecutions are rare. During the dangerous circumstances on June 27, Public Safety made the tactical decision not to charge anyone for carrying a weapon and no one in fact pointed a gun at anyone. Numerous people in both camps were carrying guns that day. Any arrest or attempted arrest could very well have been a “tipping point” leading to violence. We believe the decision not to make arrests was the right decision.
The signers of the ministerial letter state they are “ready and willing to partner” with the City “in this hard but vital work” of bringing about understanding of our history and our present. The City invites the signers to join in the conversations about such work which the City has already initiated. The City acknowledges that several of the signers have already taken part in these conversations. The City has also requested and held several meetings with Burke County Commissioners regarding racial tensions, the Confederate monument and the Courthouse Square.
We suggest that the clergy members may wish to take their own steps to bring forth the “streams of righteousness” which we all desire. The City Council stands ready to support the local clergy as they organize gatherings of people of different persuasions. We encourage you to not rely solely on the City. We encourage you to include the Burke County Commissioners and capitalize on your wide reach across the County to engage residents, initiate difficult conversations and advance the work of reconciliation throughout our County.
With thanks for your concern for our community,
Ronnie Thompson, Mayor
Wendy Cato, Mayor Pro-Tem
Chris Hawkins, Councilman
Butch McSwain, Councilman