On a day when North Carolina officials called for strong leadership, it’s unclear who’s actually in charge. 

In a series of meetings and news conferences Tuesday, June 2, the state’s top politicians volleyed questions, spoke in support of protests, and pointed to threats still posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But while some, such as Gov. Roy Cooper and N.C. Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, called on the state to “do better” in its response to racism, Republican leaders questioned the governor’s approach to dealing with rioters and looters that damaged Raleigh, Charlotte, Fayetteville, Greensboro, and other cities across North Carolina. 

Cooper’s response to protests, rioters

Over the weekend, protesters gathered to demand justice for George Floyd, an African American man killed in Minneapolis 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. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to deter the rioters. Raleigh Mayor Mary Ann Baldwin enacted a curfew Monday. A handful of other cities also are enforcing such measures. 

Why didn’t the governor deploy the National Guard on Saturday, May 31? Lt. Gov. Dan Forest asked Cooper on Tuesday during a meeting of the N.C. Council of State. Was Cooper in Raleigh when peaceful protests turned to chaos? 

National Guardsmen were deployed when 20 cities asked for them, Cooper responded. The State Bureau of Investigation, the State Highway Patrol, and N.C. Emergency Management also were deployed, the governor said. 

Resources, including the National Guard, will continue to be available to cities, Cooper said. 

N.C. Chief Justice Beasley calls for equality, justice

During a Tuesday morning news conference, N.C. Chief Justice Beasley called on state residents to heed cries for justice. 

“It is shocking to see our workplaces, businesses, and community spaces damaged,” she said. “But we must recognize the legitimate pain and weight of years of disparate treatment that fuels these demonstrations.” 

“We must be willing to hear that message, even when we are saddened by the way it is delivered. We must decry the failures of justice and equity just as forcefully as we decry violence. It is not enough to say to protesters, ‘Go home and follow the rules.’ It’s just not that simple.” 

Beasley didn’t address vandalism at the N.C. Supreme Court building in downtown Raleigh, where several broken windows are now boarded up. She didn’t openly condemn the violence, either. But that doesn’t mean “in any way, shape or form that people should think she is sanctioning what happened at the Supreme Court,” said former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr. 

North Carolina’s justice system must step up and “be better,” in how it treats African Americans, Beasley said, addressing several efforts to build new partnerships between courts and communities.

Governor unclear on fate of RNC Convention 

During another news conference Tuesday, Cooper was faced with more questions — this time about whether the Republican National Convention will hold its multi-day August gathering in Charlotte.  

The RNC and President Trump want Cooper to guarantee full attendance and that restaurants, hotels, and bars are allowed to operate at full capacity. 

So far, Cooper’s administration is standing firm on the need for precautions against the spread of the coronavirus. 

“As much as we want the conditions surrounding COVID-19 to be favorable enough for you to hold the Convention you describe in late August, it is very unlikely,” Cooper said in a letter to the RNC. 

North Carolina will continue to talk with the RNC on a scaled-down convention, the governor said in Tuesday’s news conference. 

Cooper is dragging his feet on providing guidance on safely moving forward in holding the convention, Ronna McDaniel, the RNC chairwoman, tweeted during the news conference. 

The RNC is looking at other cities to host the convention if Charlotte doesn’t, McDaniel said. Republican officials in Georgia, Florida, and Texas have shown interest. 

Right to protest amid COVID-19

While Cooper made it clear he didn’t think a fully attended convention was possible, he clarified that protests of all kinds are exempted from his executive order banning mass gatherings of more than 25 people. 

The virus is still a danger, he said, but residents have a right to gather for First Amendment activity. 

His messaging has changed. More than a month ago, the administration opposed mass gatherings when activists converged on Raleigh to push 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 he faced questions about whether he was infringing on First Amendment rights. Around the same time, Cooper 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

“Our country and our state need healing,” Cooper said Tuesday. “We have a lot going on. We have a lot of frustration.”

Cooper responded to criticism from Trump that many governors were weak in responding to the violent riots. 

“I think it takes leaders of strength to be peacemakers and, right now, we need leaders who can hear everybody and be peacemakers in this state and this country,” Cooper said.