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'They wanted to create a scene': Johnson City leaders react to pawnshop protests

David Floyd • Updated Jul 3, 2020 at 1:10 PM

Responding to fiery protests Monday in front of a local pawn shop, Johnson City leaders commended the city’s police officers while also criticizing the actions of demonstrators and urging unity.

“We are bigger than these problems, but we have to stay connected,” said Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock. “We cannot divide, and that’s what’s happening right now. You’ve got one group on one side and one group on the other, and we’ve got to come together and solve these things.”

The conversation was prompted by Washington County resident Jim Riesz, who spoke during public comment and said there’s a lot of concern in the community about nationwide protests calling for defunding police departments.

Pointing out that he’s not Black and doesn’t have the same lived experiences, Riesz later said through sobs that he and other community members want unity.

“Just like Martin Luther King was bold enough to stand in the middle,” Riesz said, “and what he did was incredible, and I’d like to be a part of that movement.”

The protest Monday started after an employee at Volunteer Pawn refused to sell firearms to a group of people wearing “New Panthers” T-shifts, which the group said was evidence of racial discrimination. Protests continued into the night, and some demonstrators shouted obscenities at police.

Later, one counter-protester was charged with disorderly conduct after a fight broke out with protesters. An employee of the business was issued a criminal summons for simple assault after video showed him taking a woman to the ground.

Vice Mayor Joe Wise, who also had to fight back tears at times, said he wanted to draw a distinction between “demonstrators or protesters” and the events of Monday night.

“They’re not the same,” he said. “Vastly different, and as a community we need to be honest that that’s what happened, and when we confuse and overlap legitimate peaceful protests and conversation with overt provocation and instigation, those are not the same thing.”

Wise said some of the activists involved in marches a few weeks ago in Johnson City were on West Walnut Street Monday pleading with protesters to stop and telling them that their actions weren’t helping.

“It seemed very clear after that conversation that that wasn’t their ultimate aim,” Wise said of the Volunteer Pawn protesters. “They really didn’t want to help. They wanted to create a scene, and they wanted to create 30 seconds of chaos on CNN so that Johnson City’s mark on the international globe could be our worst possible moment.”

Wise said the city didn’t rise to the protesters’ “challenge” because it has outstanding police officers.

Commissioner Todd Fowler said he hopes the city can continue to provide officers with the tools they need to do their jobs.

“We need more, and it’s hard to recruit them, especially in these times when this stuff is going on,” Fowler said. “We may lose some because of this, and then it’s going to be harder to replace, so we need to back the people we’ve got.”

Referencing the Eight Can’t Wait initiative, a list of eight use of force policies that activists have recommend police departments enact, City Manager Pete Peterson said the city has already implemented six of those suggestions.

“We don’t have a law enforcement problem in Johnson City, Tennessee,” Peterson said. “We may have some social issues we need to work through, but showing your hind end in the street isn’t going to fix that.”

Brock said constant access to videos and misinformation on social media also hasn’t been helpful. She said there were many young kids at the protest on Monday night and asked parents to keep their children at home over Fourth of July.

“It’s the safest place for them,” she said. “You can’t expect your city to keep everybody safe when you at home don’t start it.”

Other business

• Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to annex 19.6 acres of a larger 35-acre parcel owned by Roselea Proffitt into city limits and assign the property a B-4, planned arterial business, zoning designation. The land sits at the intersection of Christian Church Road and Boones Station Road in Boones Creek.

Developer Steve Weston has said the land would be part of a 70-acre mixed-use project called the “Promenade at Boone’s Creek.”

Current plans for the development include a winding Main Street of pavilions and pergolas, a 12-screen movie theater, restaurants with open-air and riverfront-style patio dining, a series of street-front stores and shops and an outdoor amphitheater.

A site plan for the project indicates it would also include two hotels, a supermarket and residential buildings.

• Commissioners also decided to sell city-owned property at 202 Highland Ave. to Ernest Campbell Development for $15,001.

City staff said the business plans to build single-family or duplex housing on the land. The city received a total or two offers for the property: One from Ernest Campbell Development and the other from Bulent Yaman, the owner of Red Meze Downtown. Yaman, who offered to buy the property for $25,000, did not indicate a proposed use to the city.

Press Staff Writer Jonathan Roberts contributed to this report.