GASTONIA, N.C. — An arrest at a Gastonia ice cream shop has grown into three days of tense, racially-charged protests and several arrests.
The unrest started after 31-year-old Lydia Maria Sturgues-Robinson said employees at Tony’s Ice Cream treated her badly on Monday because she wore a Black Lives Matter button. Robinson said she was asked to leave and was later arrested by police on the sidewalk in front of the ice cream shop.
According to Robinson, she was handcuffed on public property while walking away and she doesn’t believe that should have happened.
She was charged with trespassing, given an unsecured bond and later released. Robinson said what happened to her is frustrating.
“It’s very heavy. It hurts. I’m getting death threats,” she said.
Managers at Tony’s said the entire situation was a misunderstanding and its workers don’t discriminate. But Robinson said she will not be silenced.
“I will now be stopped. You will not shut me up,” she said.
There have been three days of protests following her arrest.
On Wednesday, protesters began marching near the ice cream shop. They then spread to the Gaston County Courthouse and back to East Franklin Avenue before police issued dispersal orders.
On East Franklin Boulevard, a group who said they were the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense carrying assault-style rifles arrived at Tony’s Ice Cream before 4 p.m. Black Lives Matter was also there, as well as a counter-protesting group carrying Confederate flags.
“They came back,” counter-protester Sean Dennis said. “The Black Lives Matter, the Black Panthers they came back down through here to start doing this now. It’s tense because they came back down here to our counter-protest.”
Channel 9 was there as police blocked drivers on East Franklin Boulevard for the protesters. The demonstrators focused a lot of their attention in front of the ice cream shop.
“You have white supremacists that are attacking black women and children,” protester Walter Sims told Channel 9. “We are men, so if you are going to attack somebody, attack us. Quit running and attacking defenseless women and children.”
At least 200 people were along East Franklin Boulevard and as the sun set, most of them had left the area. By late Wednesday evening, there was still a big police presence blocking the protesters from the ice cream shop and after an intense demonstration, 11 people were arrested.
Of the 11 people arrested, six of them were from Gaston County, four were from other parts of North Carolina and one individual was from Maryland.
On Thursday, many of the protesters returned to the courthouse to attend court hearings of friends who were arrested during protests the night before.
After the hearing, they marched in front of the courthouse, getting into the faces of officers, and two more people were arrested in an effort to try and move them away from an area around a Confederate statue.
Recently, Gaston County leaders voted to remove a Confederate statue in front of the courthouse.
The protests have caught the attention of local ministers. They told Channel 9 they applaud the protests, but don’t agree with the methods.
“Ranting, raving, cursing, hollering and screaming and stuff,” said Franklin Clark with the Gaston Clergy & Citizens Coalition.
The group said they have a standing agreement with police and they are working on change.
“When you have outside disturbance that has no idea what it is you are doing and where you are at we are concerned because that has a way of dismantling everything that we have already put in place,” Clark said.
On Friday, there were no protests, just messages on yellow paper covering the windows of the shop. They are for the owner who said he wished nothing bad for the woman arrested and he tried to treat everyone fairly.
“My husband is a black man and he has never had an issue. I’ll continue to put one up until they open back up,” customer Rachel Clemmer said.
Jay Muhammad is a member of PUSH, one of the groups that organized protests over the confederate statue in Gastonia. He said those protests were focused, leading toward meaningful change. He and other activists said the protests this week have hurt their efforts.
“We don’t want to be known as a fighting city. We want to be known as a city that comes together,” he said.
The woman that was arrested said she wants to talk to the owner of Tony’s. Channel 9 learned Friday that those working with her are still trying to make the meeting happen.
Gastonia police statement on protest at Tony’s Ice Cream:
“Gastonia Police, Gaston County Police, the Gaston County Sheriff’s Office, N.C. Highway Patrol, Belmont Police, Mt. Holly Police, Bessemer City Police and Lowell Police responded to a mass gathering that started at 3:15 p.m. today at 604 E. Franklin Blvd. following some civil disturbances there at Tony’s Ice Cream on Monday and Tuesday. The crowd is being dispersed by police at this time.”
During a protest Tuesday night, a woman could be seen on video pulling out a revolver during the confrontation when someone stepped in to deescalate the situation.
Minutes before that, a man said he shook the hand of a counter-protester, and he believes that act helped defuse the situation at its most tense point.
In the video, there was shouting and screaming and that was when the woman was seen holding a gun. Martino Brice said what happened next was stunning.
"To me, that shows that there is still hope," Brice said about what he witnessed.
He said the woman was holding the gun after the confrontation with one of the protesters, but a man stepped in and took over.
"He took a chance of getting shot," Brice said.
Brice didn’t think the man would have stepped in to do that. Brice said he talked to the man shortly before that and the two did not see eye to eye.
"I thought he was a racist," Brice said.
He said they talked and realized they were two people with different ideas. Brice wanted to prevent the situation from getting out of control. The other man wanted to defend the business that he loves.
They shook hands and agreed that neither of them were bad people.
"It's going to take all of us to make this work," Brice said.
The woman with the gun was not charged and police said she was acting in self-defense.
Two people were arrested after the incident.
Brice said tensions were high, but it could have gotten a lot worse.
“We had too many blacks and whites working together, so it couldn’t even escalate to that level,” Brice said.
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