The Cooper administration supports North Carolinians’ right to gather and peacefully protest in the wake of the horrific death of George Floyd, officials say, even as the spread of COVID-19 remains a concern. 

Their messaging has changed. More than a month ago, the administration opposed mass gatherings when activists converged on Raleigh to push Gov. Roy Cooper to reopen North Carolina businesses. Those gatherings, held in April, were raucous, but short and nonviolent. Cooper said the demonstrations qualified as “mass gatherings,” which were illegal under his executive orders to block the spread of coronavirus. But the governor was unclear about the implications of protesting, and faced questions about whether he was infringing on First Amendment rights. Around the same time, Cooper also criticized politicians for supporting in-person church services

Cooper backed away from his criticism of the ReopenNC protests when legislators, lawyers, and activists challenged him on constitutional grounds. Churches, too, filed a lawsuit against the governor. They were granted a temporary restraining order May 16

Now, though Cooper and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen denounce the violence that rioters are inciting in cities across North Carolina, they say peaceful protesters should be able to gather. 

“We have to balance all the things that are happening in our communities right now, COVID-19 and racial inequities,” said N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen to Carolina Journal during a news conference Monday, June 1. 

Over the weekend, protesters gathered to demand justice for Floyd, an African American man killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the hands of a local police officer. The protests were largely peaceful during the day, but violence broke out at nightfall as rioters took to the streets. The crowd smashed windows, set fires, and looted businesses in Raleigh, Fayetteville, and other N.C. cities. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to deter the rioters. 

Republican leaders of the General Assembly criticized the Cooper administration for what they deemed an insufficient response to the riots. 

During a May 31 news conference, the governor said he authorized 450 National Guardsmen to be deployed to cities as requested. Any decisions on curfews would be left up to local officials, Cooper said. 

People are more important than property, Cooper tweeted the same day. 

Signaling to rioters that they have a free pass to destroy property is a failure of leadership, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said during a June 1 news conference.

Moore called on Cooper to fully mobilize the National Guard and use all available resources to quell the unrest. 

“We have to insist we are a nation of laws and those laws must be enforced,” Moore said. 

Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, issued news releases on May 31 and June 1 urging Cooper to do more. 

Raleigh should have prepared for more violence after dealing with chaos the night of May 30, Berger said in a news release. 

“Only a fool would think that permitting lawlessness on night one would result in different behavior on night two,” Berger said. 

Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin issued an 8 p.m. curfew beginning June 1, but Moore said Cooper had the power to issue a curfew earlier in emergency situations. 

Brent Woodcox, an attorney for Republican lawmakers, said in a tweet the governor can take charge of some local government functions if he declares a state of emergency. That includes directing law enforcement, Woodcox said. 

CJ asked Cohen Monday whether protesters should be discouraged from gathering, given social distancing guidelines and the risk of coronavirus spread. She didn’t give a direct answer, but noted that many protesters were wearing masks during the recent demonstrations.

Still, some weren’t.

“We know that we need to be better,” she said.

“Folks need to be able to express that pain,” Cohen said of injustices like Floyd’s death, “but they also need to protect each other.”

Moore agrees.

People came out to lawfully protest, but later in the night those legitimate protests were hijacked by rioters and looters, Moore said. The lawmaker lives in downtown Raleigh, and saw riots erupt from his residence Saturday night.

“I was heartbroken seeing a lot of the damage and destruction,” he said. 

Racial inequality is a serious issue, Moore said.

“But guess what? Because of the rioters and the looters you can’t even have the conversation about the racial inequality that we need to keep working on,” Moore said.