Amid the Tumult in Durham

Photo by christopdesoto | CC BY 2.0

Ordinarily the Piedmont region of North Carolina is a locale of steamy, shirt-stuck-to-your-back humidity. But on Sunday the skies over Durham were nearly clear, the air, almost crisp, not soggy. Temperatures were in the eighties, ten degrees below what’s to be expected.  People came out on bicycles in the streets, skateboards on the sidewalks.

But a handful of the friends of Peter Gilbert, a lanky civil rights attorney of 39, and his wife, short, blonde non-profit organizer Elena Everett, 37, spent the morning, not enjoying the weather, but helping re-order the couple’s house. As an old friend of the pair, I had flown into Durham just to see if I could be of service in the crisis at hand.

Their couple’s home, a two-bedroom-and-basement bungalow with a picture window in its living room, was a bit of a mess because on Tuesday sheriff’s officers had searched the place. When the posse came, nobody was there. Rather than using their practiced locksmithing skills, the deputies broke down the home’s wooden front door, and in usual law enforcement fashion, emptied cabinets, drawers and bookcases onto the floors.

They had a search warrant that explained why. It had to do with a demonstration of some 200 on Monday, Aug. 14.  The participants toppled a statue of a Confederate infantryman from its granite perch just outside the former Durham courthouse, now a county office building.   The warrant said that:

“Ms. Everett was driving a light in color Cadillac Limousine with a ladder strapped to the top and pulled up alongside of the sidewalk. The ladder was then taken down and placed against the statue. Another member of the group posted at this location climbed the ladder and placed a yellow in color strap around the statue. The subjects then climbed down the ladder and the group pulled the statue down causing over $1500.00 in damage.”

The officers who raided the bungalow were looking for the stretch limousine, a 20-foot ladder, paperwork and emails.  The allegations in the warrant were accurate and true, of course: Ms. Everett does own an old Cadillac stretch limousine.  She uses it to drive public school students to museum exhibitions and organizer schools.  But the search party didn’t find the limousine. It was at Everett’s office, where it has been parked almost every night for at least five years.

The searchers inevitably turned up evidence not specified in their warrant. They apparently compensated for that by photographing the suspect, but unlisted, items. Elena found a copy of the Autobiography of Malcom X “posed” atop a set of Russian language-learning cassettes. “I bought those tapes back when I was in high school,” she told me.  But she never mastered Russian and I suppose that makes her, in the eyes of the lawmen, a novice at crime.

Sheriff’s deputies had been present at the toppling of the statute but they had merely stood aside, filming as the interracial group of demonstrators had its way. On Tuesday, the afternoon of the search, they arrested Takiyah Thompson, 22, a student at North Carolina Central University, for having placed the “yellow in color” tow strap around the bronze infantryman’s torso. They charged Thompson, a member of the Workers World Party, with three riot-related felonies and two misdemeanor offenses. When she was jailed, the other demonstrators began to wonder if they’d be next. They also wondered when or how they had rioted. No cars were burned, no windows were broken and nobody, as the saying goes, was even singing too loud in church. The statue fell on its head and crumbled, but nothing else was destroyed.

On Wednesday, deputies collared and handcuffed Peter Gilbert at his office. Thursday at 8:30 a.m. about a hundred Durhamites presented themselves at the sheriff’s office saying that they were accomplices and wanted to offer themselves for arrest. The sheriff’s office ignored them, though it accepted the surrender of four people, including Everett, who knew that warrants had been issued in their names.

Early Friday, Sheriff Michael Andrews said that he’d been told that Ku Klux Klansmen were on their way to Durham to condemn the downing of the statue. Within two hours about a thousand townsfolk had converged on downtown Durham, blocking some its streets, including Main. The courthouse, banks and other businesses shut their doors, sending their employees home for the day. Even though the Klan didn’t show, the anti-racist protests didn’t die out until sundown.  By then the authorities had resumed their duties, arresting more statue suspects, who now total eight. All have been charged with the same felonies and misdemeanors as Thompson.

None of those accused denies a role in the demonstration.  “We could have brought down that statue almost any time, at night and in secrecy. But we wanted to do it in daylight and in public, to show that we had community support,” Gilbert told me. The North Carolina legislature, best-known for its bathroom bill and voter suppression measures, in 2015 forbid county and municipal jurisdictions from removing Confederate monuments. Martin Luther King had turned to civil disobedience when the usual reform mechanisms were blocked. The monument downers and Main Street marchers believe that they are doing the same.

I am an old man.  I worked for, and with, King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in Alabama in 1965-1966. I can see that in some ways, Dixie is a better place now. During the ‘60s being jailed was an ordeal of a kind, especially for whites like me. We had to put up cash—which we didn’t have—or property to make bond. In the couny where I worked, the clerk’s office kept two sets of property books, one for whites and one for blacks.  It wouldn’t permit a black property owner to bail out a white prisoner.  So I once spent a full week knocking on doors, collecting dimes and pennies for $200 in bond money to free a white organizer we called “Arkansas.”

The Durham defendants face a milder regime, though just how mild, we do not know. Whether or not Durham remains a white-minority city is a matter of speculation until the 2020 census is filed.  But 80% of its electorate voted Democratic in November’s presidential race. Most Durham officials—outside of the sheriff’s office—would sympathize with the chant the demonstrators raised as they brought the bronze Confederate down: “No Trump, No KKK, No Racist USA!”

So it was not entirely surprising that a magistrate released each of the Durham Eight on personal recognizance—on the mere signatures of the defendants.  If any such mercy was ever extended to Dixie protestors of Dr. King’s day, I never heard of it.

But I wouldn’t trade places with them. A Grand Dragon lived in the Alabama county where I worked, and the Ku Kluxers were not a few. Some of them knew where we lived because they were police or sheriff’s men. But they couldn’t torch us where we stayed, on the African-American side of the color line. They, and not we, were exposed to surveillance there.  Our $15 and $20 weekly paychecks came from the SCLC. That meant that we couldn’t be fired for anti-racist actions. For those of us, black and white, who lived in homes that had telephone service, crank calls and threats came with a late-night ring.

But we never faced anything like the Web.

In the week since the statue came down, Craig’s List hosted an offer of $50 for information about the workplace of one of the demonstrators. Notices designed to resemble wanted posters are circulating on several right-wing sites. One of them reads: “DANE EMMANUEL STROBINO. 35 years old … DOMESTIC TERRORIST, Inciting riots, Destruction of American History and Heritage, in order to advance Socialism and or Communism, An enemy to the Republic.”  If television footage doesn’t lie, Strobino was one of two men who put the ladder in place.

Some of the bulletins invite readers to comment, abuse and menace. “Fuck the rope and shoot him dead!” a reader responded beneath Strobino’s wanted-poster picture. Below Thompson’s photo another wrote “Let hope she gets ventilated,” and yet another, “so why don’t we hang her from a statue. [?]” I suppose it’s no surprise to anyone that the spelling in these posts smells to high heaven. How about “a terds is a terds and stinks till it’s flushed down the sewers”?

The Rightists who have ommented have shown special displeasure with demonstrator Ngoc Loan Tran.  Their “contributions” to civic debate include:

“Is Tran a surname or a description?”

“It’s a female. Today anyway.”

“One bullet and the world will be a tiny bit safer!!!!”

“Can’t pronounce the name but I can pronounce 30-06.”

In light of such exposure, the Durham Eight and their closest supporters no longer meet in their usual locales, public libraries, living rooms or offices. Instead they gather at out-of-the-way churches and in boardrooms rented in freeway hotels. A few have simply left town for a while.

Every American today knows that the Right is sprinkled with nut cases, people who don’t distinguish between condemning people and killing them. The World Wide Web, as it used to be called, is a net for bringing them out. Ersatz wanted posters, find-a-person detective services, and encryption software make murder and mayhem easier to instigate.  The expansion of civilian spy and armaments technology does the same. Though in the Alabama of the ‘60s, I was rarely unnerved, when I looked at the Durham scenario, I wanted to flee in fright, and I suppose I did something of the kind.

But after returning to Dallas Sunday night, I telephoned Elena and Peter with some words of advice. “If you are going to live in your old house, drive non-descript automobiles and trade cars with friends as often as you can. Move your bedroom to the basement, lest a bomb come flying through the picture window in front. And buy a short-barrel shotgun. Use it if you must.”

As the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville reminded us ten days ago, anti-racist activism today is perilous, perhaps more so than in the ‘60s. Even those who sacrifice themselves for the best of causes should heed the old adage that says, “Look out for No. 1 first.”

Dick J. Reavis is a Texas journalist and the author of The Ashes of Waco.