Evan Pye has become a notable name for Wilmingtonians who have followed his protest streams on Facebook Live over the last 12 days. Every night (and sometimes during the day, when protests are scheduled), his on-the-ground raw footage provides an intimate look at the crowds who convene on City Hall and then march through downtown. What has been most apparent from June 1 onward: They all have been peaceful.
It almost didn’t start that way. On Sunday, May 31, Pye, a resident of Carolina Beach, zoomed in on the tense action when 100 or 200 protesters communed on 3rd Street without a permit. “That’s when the problems began,” he remembers. The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) called in riot police. Pye admits tensions were building from a few folks riling up the group verbally. He isn’t certain whether they were local or from out of town. “But they weren’t busting windows or throwing fireworks,” he clarifies. From his camera angle, the cops threw tear gas and firebangs first, which incited a standoff with protesters throughout downtown until roughly midnight.
“I did see people go down alleyways and come back with big rocks,” Pye says. “I also saw someone throw a Molotov cocktail, but [he] lit himself on fire and dropped it.”
The two-hour footage from Sunday (available on encore’s Facebook page, along with all footage from the daily protests) now has over 200,000 views. It shows Pye forewarning protesters when tear gas is coming or talking people down as to not be affected by police force. Commenters questioned if he was an instigator or merely a protester caught up in the heat of it all. Pye is a 25-year-old with a passion for videography, cameras, drones and photojournalism. He didn’t go to school for any of those things (he’s an electrician by day), and his only claim to fame is a video and interview he did on Hurricane Florence that aired on CBS in 2018. Most importantly, he is not affiliated with any organization or movement, especially ones that incite violence, a la Boogaloo Bois, Proud Boys or loose groups associated with the anti-fascists (Antifa) movement.
“I’m trying to be as unbiased and transparent as I can,” he tells. “I would really like to be a bridge between citizens/protesters and police.”
Everyday he has captured the permitted gatherings from beginning to end. He even recorded the march held by Wilmington Police Department last week, in between youth citizen protests. The latter have largely been made up of high school and college students, plus families and seasoned activists. Viewers can see Pye interacting with them all, from organizers like Lily Nicole, to police officers, the crowd (many of whom often come up and thank him for the livestreams), to his viewers.
Live chats take place frequently, with viewers becoming watchdogs, even from their couches. Sometimes, Pye will ask them to screenshot certain frames for him. One day he got word to be on the lookout for folks wearing “crisp” (new) T-shirts from local businesses, as that is often a sign of out-of-town agitators trying to blend in. He also has been asked a lot, “Do you see random stacks of bricks anywhere downtown?” Unsubstantiated rumors have run rampant through mainstream media about bricks suspiciously showing up in protest cities to become weapons against police—some even suggesting police have put them there. Pye has not spotted any downtown.
“A truck drove by with bricks a few days ago, and I got excited and asked the viewers, ‘Oh, my god! Did you see that? The truck with bricks?’ Folks had to calm me down, like, ‘Evan, it was just a construction crew.’ Everything I do comes from the heart; I’m not a professional.”
His earnestness is palpable, endearing him to others. He often passes out water to protesters and lends a helping hand to set up or break down the events. His viewers even have dropped off cases of water, while others have donated battery packs to help keep Pye’s equipment charged through long rallies (a few times at the beginning of the week, he lost power on his phone, which left vocal viewers in the lurch). Some even contributed via Venmo to pay for his drink of choice, Red Bull, or to fill his gas tank when they saw it running on “E” during Pye’s after-hours downtown drive-throughs. Each night after the 9 p.m. curfew, Pye drives up and down side streets, with the camera rolling, to see if rogue protesters have ended up neck to neck against WPD or NHCSO.
When he awoke one morning last week, Pye was stunned to find more than $300 in his Venmo account. “I immediately donated it all to the cause,” he says. He contacted organizers Lily Nicole and Josh Zieseniss to ensure the money went to the jail bond fund they’d set up for protesters who get arrested locally (only nine have been arrested so far, all on Sunday, May 31). Money from the fund also helps with protest supplies, like water, food, First Aid, etc., with leftovers going to local civic and/or nonprofit organizations in ILM.
Pye says Thursday night’s protest was the largest yet, bringing in around 700 people, and remained peaceful. He has seen many of the same faces come out daily since May 31. Rumors have at times circulated that out-of-town agitators could show up, but Pye has seen little to confirm those suspicions.
“I did see people on Thursday who were wearing all black and had full-blown equipment, like Ziploc bags of wet rags to go over their eyes in case tear gas was thrown,” he admits. “Field medics and other folks who have helped organize protests keep their eyes peeled for anything that looks off, especially to help calm the group. Sometimes they ask me to catch things on video that are suspicious, just in case, but it’s really not to offend anyone; it’s mainly so we can be mindful to keep the peace, in order to keep the protests going.”
The unity and solidarity coming out of these events have been eye-opening for Pye. He has listened to speakers share personal stories about firsthand effects of racism and has heard more names than he would like of lives lost to police brutality. He, too, has played witness to police discrimination.
“One time I was in the car with two of my black friends when we got pulled over for something minor, like a California stop at a sign,” he remembers. “The cop asked for everyone’s IDs in the car. I refused to give them mine—I was in the passenger seat—and asked why my other friend in the backseat had to since he wasn’t driving. Then three more cops showed up and told us to get out of the car. I told them we hadn’t done anything wrong and questioned them; my friends didn’t say anything. Of course, we got searched and had to sit on the curb for no reason. My friends kept saying, ‘Evan, shut up, you’re gonna make it worse.’ At the time, I wasn’t really focused on it being worse for my black friends, but more on how all of our rights were being infringed upon. When they were going through the car, my black friends were shaking, and I was like, ‘Dude, what’s going on? Is there something in the car that shouldn’t be?’ He was like, ‘No, dude, I just don’t like cops.’ They eventually let us go, but looking back, I’m pretty sure we got searched for probable cause because of my friends’ skin color. We likely also got off because of mine.”
Pye interviewed local lawyer Lawrence Shotwell last week about some of the ways in which police make arrests based on probable cause. He took questions from viewers in an effort to educate folks from the inside out. Pye also interviewed County Commission Chair Julia Boseman with questions from protest organizers and viewers. Many centered around NHCSO tactics and reformation, to which Boseman denied knowing answers. The difference in watching a very green Pye interview someone like Boseman versus a seasoned journalist is his willingness to accept questions from the constituents live in real-time, without a filter. This also means accepting answers at face value. Clearly, his learning curve is still steep. Yet, when he asks for feedback from viewers after the experience, it bolsters accountability and opens dialogue between citizens on how their officials are serving them.
The irony: Pye isn’t political. According to the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, Pye is among an estimated 50% of US citizens aged 18-29 that did not vote in the 2016 election. In fact, Pye has never voted, but he says that’s changing in 2020.
“Second-class citizenry has to stop,” he states. “People have a voice, and if you believe in something, and want to fight for it, then stand up for it . . . I never thought a lot about policy before because I don’t trust politics. But I’m making a concerted effort to change that; [the protests have] really opened my eyes to voting—at least in local government.”