A reporter for the Fayetteville Observer said he was hit, knocked unconscious and kicked while he and a colleague livestreamed the looting of stores in a North Carolina shopping mall on the night of May 30, 2020.
A group of people broke into the Cross Creek Mall about six miles west of downtown Fayetteville following protests earlier that day against police violence in the city’s downtown. Demonstrations had erupted nationwide days before, following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, while he was in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.
Paul Woolverton, a senior state reporter for the Observer, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker he headed downtown to start reporting on the protests at around 7 p.m. This was shortly after people had set fire to the Market House, a historic downtown Fayetteville building that was once the site of a market for enslaved people.
Woolverton said the Market House was still burning when he arrived downtown, where he saw people acting aggressively toward TV camera people nearby. He said he wore press credentials in full view on a lanyard around his neck, and that he was carrying a notebook, pens, cellphone and selfie stick. While downtown, he ran into colleague Melody Brown-Peyton, and the two decided to stick together. Downtown Fayetteville would later be closed to all traffic, so the pair drove in Brown-Peyton’s car to the Cross Creek Mall, where they heard that looting was taking place. They stopped at Woolverton’s home on the way to get his camera.
Woolverton and Brown-Peyton parked across the street from the mall and walked over to it. They saw a group of white men with pickup trucks and long guns, and saw people running out of a J.C. Penney store with dresses and other merchandise.
“It was kind of ‘Mad Max’-looking,” Woolverton said.
Woolverton was struck and knocked unconscious just after 11 p.m.. by an unknown male assailant, Brown-Peyton told the Fayetteville Observer. He was livestreaming on Facebook at the time and video from the scene cuts off a few seconds before he was hit. Woolverton said he was trying to be careful about raising the phone because he was aware that it would attract attention. He remembers hearing the man who attacked him say “Don’t be taking no pictures,” before he grabbed Woolverton’s selfie stick and phone.
“My memory is him grabbing at my cellphone, me yelling at him, struggling with him upright,” Woolverton said. “My next memory is waking up and a police officer next to me.”
Brown-Peyton told him the attacker got into a pickup truck and drove away. She also told Woolverton that he was lying down with his eyes rolling back.
“I have no memory of the conversation,” Woolverton said. “I didn’t know my phone number, I didn't know why I was at the mall or how I got there.”
Brown-Peyton contacted Woolverton’s editor and his girlfriend, and they went to the hospital. Brown-Peyton told Woolverton the assailant was struggling to get hold of Woolverton’s camera, but he couldn’t because of the strap. The attacker also kicked Woolverton when he was unconscious on the ground. Woolverton’s camera bag was ripped and his camera was slightly scuffed.
On the morning of May 31, 2020, Woolverton tweeted: “Got a knot on my head, scrapes, bruises from head to foot and a concussion. The looters at Cross Creek Mall didn’t like that I was shooting video (see their activities on the @fayobserver Facebook page). I am told I was kicked and punched but don’t remember that.”
Woolverton filed a police report after the incident, but police didn’t identify the suspect. The Fayetteville Police Department didn’t respond to a request for updates on the case.
Woolverton said he didn’t know whether he had been targeted for being a journalist. “I think he just saw a guy with a camera.”
He told the Observer that this was the first time anyone had attacked him while he was doing his job in 30 years as a journalist, and that he felt lucky his colleague was by his side.
“I was trying to be situationally aware, but it came really fast out of the blue. A big lesson is don't go alone,” Woolverton said. “Thank God Melody was there.”
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists being assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas, or having their equipment damaged while covering these protests across the country. Find these incidents here.