ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. – The murder trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was wrapping up when Dakwon Gibbs told a friend that George Floyd’s killing — and others like it — would never happen in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
“I said, 'We live in a city that’s too small; we’re a small community,” said Gibbs, 22. “And two days later it happened. I thought wrong. I thought very wrong.”
The fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. by sheriff’s deputies has sent shock waves through this small, majority Black city in the state's rural northeastern corner. Despite holding an important place in African American history in the 19th and 20th centuries, Elizabeth City seemed too close-knit and too out-of-the-way to become a flashpoint in the 21st, some residents say.
That changed when Brown, 42, was shot by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies serving drug-related search and arrest warrants at his house on April 21. Brown, who was Black, was behind the wheel of his car when he was shot five times, including in the back of the head, according to an independent autopsy commissioned by his family.
Police camera footage has yet to be made public or shown in its entirety to Brown’s family. And the shooting has sparked peaceful protests each night, with marchers demanding release of the video and police reform. Throngs of police and television camera crews have descended onto the city's riverfront downtown.
“We see all this stuff happening all over the world, but we never thought that something like this would happen in our town,” City Council member Gabriel Adkins said during an emergency meeting called after the shooting.
“And people are afraid. ... They are afraid that, you know, the riots are going to start,” Adkins said.
Surrounded by miles of ocean-flat farmland, Elizabeth City is a quaint-looking urban hub for a relatively isolated region. The economy is anchored in large part by a large U.S. Coast Guard base, which often deploys rescue missions into the nearby Atlantic Ocean. It is also home to Elizabeth City State University, a historically Black university founded in 1891. Still, more than one in five people live in poverty in the city.