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Sheriff says dialogue, divine intervention helped keep Sunday protest peaceful

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SMITHFIELD — Sunday’s protest March through Smithfield and Selma took place without the violence that has marred other protests across the country.

Sheriff Steve Bizzell thinks it helped that law enforcement and elected leaders spoke to the protesters, who had gathered on the courthouse steps before starting their march.

Bizzell, Smithfield Police Chief Keith Powell and Smithfield Councilman Marlon Lee as the protesters began arriving at the courthouse. Smithfield Mayor Andy Moore was about 20 minutes behind them.

“The chief went out and addressed the crowd,” Bizzell said. “He then introduced Councilman Lee; he addressed the crowd. I addressed the crowd as sheriff. Later on, we introduced the mayor, and he addressed the crowd.”

“Pretty much what I said to the crowd was: ‘Welcome to Smithfield. Welcome to Johnston County. We understand why you’re here. We agree with why you’re here. We want you to be seen and he heard and be loud, but let’s be peaceful too,’ ” Bizzell said.

The march took the protesters along Market Street to Bright Leaf Boulevard and then to Pollock Street in Smithfield.

“It was peaceful all the way,” Bizzell said.

The sheriff said he became concerned just once: as the march ended in Selma and the protesters were reluctant to leave the street. “We went along with it for a few minutes,” Bizzell said, but then “we announced, ‘Guys, you’ve got to get out of the road. It’s dangerous to you, the motoring public.’”

His department’s armored vehicle had followed marchers along their route, Bizzell said. “We drove it up under the stoplight, and we announced if you don’t get out of the road, we’re going to have to expel some gas here,” he said.

Bizzell described what happened next as divine intervention. “All of a sudden, this guy shows up,” the sheriff said. “He was a young black gentleman, and he shows up in the crowd and pretty much says, ‘Hey, I want to pray for y’all.’ ”

At the young man’s request, law enforcement and protesters joined hands, and he prayed for them, Bizzell said. “Afterward, he asked everybody to get out of the street, and everybody got out,” the sheriff said. “Fifteen minutes later, we cleared the scene.”

Bizzell said he thanked the young man, assuming he was a pastor. “He said, ‘I’m not a pastor,’ ” Bizzell said. “He said, ‘I was a guy who was led here to pray for this group tonight.’ ”

If prayer and words from local leaders had not worked, law enforcement was ready to act to protect life and property, Bizzell said, noting that he deployed 107 deputies for the protest. Many of them were at Carolina

Premium Outlets to protect the outlet stores there.

“We were getting phone calls and emails that there was a group that was coming to damage the outlet center,” Bizzell said.

The shops there closed early to protect shoppers and employees, and law enforcement placed officers at every entrance to the outlet center, Bizzell said. The rumors proved unfounded, “but we prepared for everything,” the sheriff said. “We didn’t take any information for granted.”

Bizzell praised law enforcement for working together on Sunday and protesters for keeping their march peaceful. “It was a successful night,” he said. “Everybody went home safe. It was just a blessing that it ended like it did.”

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