Public Safety

UAB, Some Downtown Businesses Close in Response to Rumors of Violence; Woodfin Stresses City Will Enforce Protest Rules

Birmingham placed a fence around Linn Park June 4, 2020, to discourage protests and because of concerns about public safety. (Source: Sam Prickett)

UPDATED — Anxiety grew in downtown Birmingham Thursday afternoon as rumors spread of potentially violent protests. These rumors — which included that a Ku Klux Klan rally would take place in Linn Park — led several businesses, including the University of Alabama at Birmingham, to shut down earlier than usual.

Mayor Randall Woodfin dismissed these rumors as false in a video address Thursday afternoon, but he said his curfew — which includes significant restrictions on public assembly in the city — would continue to be strictly enforced by police.

A group of protestors did gather on the street beside Linn Park in downtown Thursday afternoon, but most of those gathered left after the curfew began. So far, the rumored counter protests have not developed.

Earlier in the day, Woodfin’s office released a statement denying plans to “shut down” the city “due to potential unrest.”

“This is not true,” the statement read. “To be clear, the city has not announced a shut down nor does it plan to announce a shutdown today.”

The statement also announced that fencing had been placed around Birmingham’s Linn Park “to ensure unregistered gatherings do not occur.” Fencing also was erected around Kelly Ingram Park later in the day.

Linn Park, which lies between City Hall and the Jefferson County Courthouse, was the location of violent protests Sunday night over the police killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd, which led to the city taking down a Confederal monument there.

On Thursday afternoon, Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson took to Facebook to debunk reports that the Ku Klux Klan would be holding a rally downtown. Woodfin’s office, she said, is “barricading off the park for other reasons or measures. But this has nothing to do with the KKK coming to downtown. The KKK coming is false. Be safe.”

But some businesses closed their doors anyway. The University of Alabama at Birmingham  notified workers and students the campus would close at 2 p.m. “out of an abundance of caution … due to possible protests downtown.” Several businesses, including the Pizitz Food Hall and Urban Standard, closed early out of fear of protest violence. A Black Lives Matter protest that had been planned for 3 p.m. Thursday was rescheduled for Saturday because of safety concerns, WBHM has reported.

In his video address, Woodfin reiterated his commitment to enforcing the city curfew, which includes a lockdown of public property and roadways from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. and a 24-hour ban on all public gatherings, protests, parades, demonstrations and vigils on public property; but Woodfin amended the order Wednesday to allow for permitted protestors to gather between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. in W.C. Patton Park, in eastern Birmingham.

“The first thing is this,” Woodfin said. “The city of Birmingham as an administration, we 100% support activism (and) the right to protest. We support your First Amendment rights. But we’re also under a state of emergency due to civil unrest.”

Since the removal of the Confederate monument from Linn Park, Woodfin said, demonstrations have been quieter, but threats of violence have remained from three main sources. While looters are likely Birmingham residents taking advantage of peaceful protests “to smash and grab,” Woodfin said, anarchists intended to “smash, destroy and burn.”

“They are walking around with backpacks, spray paint, coolers and pizza boxes with rocks in them or other things such as gasoline.”

But Woodfin dedicated most of his focus to the third group: racists who had threatened the city over the removal of the Linn Park monument. “They’re making threats not only at me, but they’re also making threats at police, at certain artifacts in Kelly Ingram Park, and they’re also making threats at black protestors.” Kelly Ingram Park is home to several Civil Rights monuments.

Because of those three groups, Woodfin said, the city needed to keep close control over public demonstrations. “We are striking the balance between, how do we facilitate the right to peacefully assemble (with) public safety, making sure peaceful protestors are safe and they are not hijacked by people who seek to destroy and to burn.”

Woodfin said that those looking to organize protests would receive full cooperation from his office. “We can help facilitate that,” he said. “We can give you a time, give you a place, give you logistics and operation and make sure there is security and police.”

Those who did not engage with his office, though, would be stopped, he said. “If you don’t do that, you risk allowing these hijackers to overtake your goal of shedding light on the injustices of America and toward George Floyd,” he said. “If that continues, then we will not be in a position to lift the curfew.” Woodfin speculated Wednesday that the curfew could potentially be lifted by June 8.

In the meantime, Woodfin promised “routine updates” to the public about the developing situation and urged residents to “set aside the rumors.”

“If there’s anything that we believe is a breach of safety, you will hear it directly from us,” he said. “But if you do not hear it from us, I encourage you to keep your daily routine. Everything is fine.’

The Alabama Rally Against Injustice did have a rally in Mountain Brook’s Crestline Village Thursday without incident. It has another planned for Friday, 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., in front of the Vestavia Hills City Hall and another Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in front of the Hoover Public Library.