Durham, one of North Carolina’s most progressive cities, has experienced a shift in atmosphere after young organizers toppled a Confederate monument Monday in response to the deadly white supremacist gathering held in Charlottesville over the weekend.
Local activists and organizers in the city report being “on the lookout” for strange white men in plainclothes who have been hanging around outside of actions. Some have said these men, believed to be white supremacists, are taking down the license plate numbers and other identifying information of protesters.
“White supremacists appear to have been agitated by the removal of the statue,” said Courtney Sebring, a member of the Durham chapter of Black Youth Project 100, an activist organization of Black 18-to-35-year-olds. “I personally have been targeted through social media by white supremacists, by people who believe the statue represents this country. I think the fear of white supremacists coming into our city is very real, but I also know they’ve been here,” Sebring, who was present when the statue was toppled, told Rewire in a phone interview.
Ngoc Loan Tran, a 24-year-old Durham resident arrested yesterday at Takiyah Thompson’s court hearing, said that the online fundraiser for Thompson’s legal fees had been reported as fraudulent by white supremacists online, resulting in the removal of the campaign by the host site GoFundMe in just three hours. Thompson was the first person arrested and charged for toppling the statue and the funds were intended to be used for her mounting legal fees. (Update: On Friday, local activists noted on Twitter that donations are being collected via Venmo at https://venmo.com/solidarity-takiyah.)
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At a press conference after the monument came down, Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews commented that protesters “went too far” and that it was “not the Durham” that he knew. Sebring told Rewire that both resistance to white supremacy led by Black “freedom fighters,” and the aftermath of resistance, including being targeted by white supremacists, is certainly the Durham that she knows.
Sebring said that it’s her belief people have a moral imperative to break unjust laws—including North Carolina’s law protecting monuments that “celebrate white supremacy.” While other cities are moving to quietly remove Confederate monuments, North Carolina passed a law in 2015 that prevents the removal, relocation, or alteration of memorials, plaques, and other markers on public property without permission from the North Carolina Historical Commission.
This morning, President Trump tweeted that removing Confederate monuments is “foolish” and an attempt to “change history.”
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump tweeted, seeming to suggest that white supremacy is a deeply held value in the United States.
Historically, the Ku Klux Klan has had a stronghold in North Carolina, particularly in Rowan County, where leader Bob Jones was born just an hour and a half away from Durham. “North Carolina, long considered one of the most progressive southern states, saw a boom in Klan membership under the leadership of Jones,” PBS reported. Jones was considered the most influential Grand Dragon in the country. “In just three years, he grew the North Carolina Klan from a handful of friends to some 10,000 members—more than the Klans of all other southern states combined,” according to PBS.
For Sebring, the fact that “hundreds of people” attended the rally that resulted in the removal of the Confederate monument illustrated that the people of Durham are invested in ending white supremacy. City officials who are “targeting freedom fighters” who participated in the action, Sebring said, “are not only complicit in white supremacy but are uplifting white supremacy, and that makes them white supremacists themselves.”
The Durham County Sheriff’s Office has utilized social media to identify protesters who took part in the action. As of Thursday, it has charged eight people, including Thompson, Tran, Dante Strobino, and Peter Gilbert, who was reportedly arrested at their place of employment. They are being charged with two misdemeanors (disorderly conduct by injury to a statue and damage to real property), a class H felony (participation in a riot with property damage in excess of $1,500), and a class F felony (inciting others to riot where there is property damage totaling more than $1,500). Activists in the city are urging people to call Sheriff Andrews, District Attorney Roger Echols, and Gov. Roy Cooper (D) to demand that all charges be dropped against anyone connected to the statue’s removal.
On Thursday morning, hundreds of people showed up at the Durham jail to support Tran and Strobino before their first court hearing related to their arrests. According to Sebring, 55 residents dressed in black attempted to surrender to law enforcement in solidarity with those who have been arrested and charged.
“These people were willing to put their bodies on the line and their hands in cuffs to convey that [the removal of the Confederate statue] was the will of the people, and we took it down. They wanted to make it clear that if tearing down white supremacist monuments is a crime, they were to be arrested too,” Sebring said.
Three others who had warrants for their arrest related to the removal of the statue also turned themselves in. Surrounding the protesters at this morning’s court proceedings were “armed militia,” according to Sebring, who were circling the action and taking photos.
“I don’t know who they are affiliated with, but I do know they are people who are on the wrong side of history; people who believe white supremacist monuments should be upheld; people who feel these statues represent us—and they don’t,” Sebring said.
Advocates told Rewire that what’s happening in Durham also goes “beyond arrests.”
Sebring alleges that members of the Durham branch of Workers World Party have had their homes “raided” by the sheriff’s office, including activist Lamont Lilly. The organizer said sheriffs officers were looking for the ladder Thompson climbed when placing the rope around the monument. While Sebring would not identify other members whose homes were raided, she did say “technology and documents were taken, doors were broken, and homes were torn apart.” The Durham County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to Rewire’s request for comment regarding the allegation of raids.
According to another resident, something far more nefarious may be happening in the city.
A Black Durham resident who prefers not to be named said to Rewire that on Tuesday, just one day after the Confederate monument was toppled, a he was waylaid by two white men wearing what seemed to be police uniforms and using light flares to stop him while driving home late at night. The men never presented ID, offered no reason for stopping the driver, and withdrew to a dark unmarked SUV parked nearby while telling him to wait, he said. They made no comment when three white women approached the car and began cajoling the driver to leave his vehicle. They demanded money, offered to perform sex acts, and hit the car when refused. Alarmed, the driver said he sped away. The “officers” did not pursue him. The resident is unsure if this was a bogus traffic stop with the intent to scam, or more alarming, whether it was the work of white supremacists drawn to Durham and intent on harming Black people. The sheriff’s office did not respond to Rewire’s request for comment regarding the alarming allegation and whether other Durham residents have reported similar incidents.
The white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville that resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer was purportedly organized because of the impending removal of a monument memorializing Confederate general Robert E. Lee. As more white supremacist gatherings are expected in the coming weeks, including one in Boston this weekend, Sebring hopes that what happened in Durham inspires similar actions across the country.
The college student wants people to know that the framing in the media, that the removal of the statue was instigated by “a few outsiders or a handful or radicals,” is not accurate. Sebring said her organization has received hundreds of calls internationally. “The people wanted it, so the people did it,” she said.
“It’s very important these statues are taken down. We completely believe we are on the right side of history and we will win,” Sebring said. “White supremacy will not stand in this country anymore. We will not stop until all white supremacist monuments are removed, all laws upholding white supremacy are overturned, and all politicians supporting white supremacy are unseated.”
Cynthia Greenlee contributed to this report.
UPDATE: Information about Takiyah Thompson’s online fundraiser has been updated.