A protest in downtown Durham on Monday night left a statue of a Confederate soldier erected nearly a century ago crumpled on the ground.
Sheriff’s deputies recorded the event but did not intervene as a protester climbed a ladder and slipped a yellow, bungie-like cord around the soldier’s head and arm and a group pulled the cord.
The statue did a somersault, collapsing against the stone pedestal in front of the old county courthouse on East Main Street.
Protesters cheered and started to kick the crumpled mass.
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Gov. Roy Cooper criticized the action, tweeting that “the racism and deadly violence in Charlottesville is unacceptable but there is a better way to remove these monuments.”
Monday’s rally, the second in Durham in two days, began around 6 p.m. as more than 50 people gathered in front of the now county administration building chanting, sharing their experiences in Charlottesville, Virginia, and demanding that people fight racism in their communities and across the South.
“Tactics are changing, which means that our strategies need to change, our unity needs to escalate and our demands to fight back and resist domestic terror needs to escalate,” said Eva Panjwani with the Workers World Party Durham.
As the crowd swelled to more than 100 people, the protesters circled the statue of the soldier holding a muzzle-loading rifle and chanted “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!”
Groups at the rally included members of the Triangle People’s Assembly, Workers World Party, Industrial Workers of the World, Democratic Socialists of America and the antifa movement.
“This is a really an opportunity, this moment of Charlottesville to see what side of history we are choosing to side with,” Panjwani said. “This is not a call to make someone to feel guilty or ashamed. This is a call to say this is an ask from people of color to say which side are you on.”
Conversations about loving your neighbor have not worked, she said.
Alissa Ellis, of the Workers World Party Durham branch that was a participant in the Charlottesville protest, said people need to embrace multiple tactics because that is what kept her safe.
“We need to shun passive, white liberalism” that elevates whites voices over black and brown voices, she said.
Others called for all Confederate statues across the South to come down, including Silent Sam on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.
Durham County sent out a statement at 12:23 a.m. that said local elected officials and senior staff understand the unrest in the nation and community, particularly following the senseless acts that took place in Charlottesville.
“We share the sentiments of many communities around the nation that admonish hate and acts of violence as we believe civility is necessary in our every action and response,” the statement said. “Governmental agencies dedicated to public safety will continue to work collectively to ensure Durham remains a community of excellence where all of our residents can live peacefully, grow and thrive.”
After the Durham statue was pulled down, protesters walked down East Main Street and blocked the intersection at South Roxboro Street, some holding hands in the middle of the broad intersection.
After about five minutes, the group left the intersection and continued to walk down Main Street on the sidewalk. They stopped at the construction site of the new Durham Police Department headquarters.
Police blocked traffic and accompanied the group as members walked down the streets. No arrests were made, the department said Monday night. Durham County Sheriff’s Office has jurisdiction over all county buildings and landmarks, it said.
The line of protesters walked back to the old courthouse. Some took photographs with the fallen statue. Sheriff’s officials continued to take video.
Isaiah Wallace, 26, of Durham, accompanied the protesters carrying and playing a guitar.
Watching the statue fall “was awesome,” he said.
“It’s going to send shock waves through the country, all the rest of the racist monuments and symbols can get town down also,” he said.
Some of the protesters started to yell at sheriff’s officials standing on the steps of the old courthouse recording, and then Durham police officers blocking the street.
Pierre Faulkner waved a sign in front of them that said “cops and clan go hand in hand” on one side and “Black Lives Matter smash white supremacy” on the other.
“If y’all aren’t going to help us, we are going to help each other,” said Faulkner, 27, a student at Durham Technical Community College. “You understand that. Do you understand that? You look like you voted for Donald Trump.”
At 8:26 p.m., a law enforcement official told protesters to disperse. “Leave the street. Leave the area right now. Leave the property of the county right now,” he said.
A small group continued to follow Faulkner down Main Street. He stopped on the corner of Corcoran and Main streets, and people then started to go their separate ways around 8:34 p.m.
Faulkner said all he wants is for their voice to be heard.
“The message that they are trying to explain to these police is it doesn’t matter about your skin color. Everybody is one person. Everybody should be treated equally,” he said. “They’re standing out here with guns and bullet proof vests. We have no weapons. This is a peaceful protest. All we want is our voice to be heard.”
More information sought
Earlier Monday County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs said she had asked county staff to start researching the history of the Main Street monument and state legislation regarding Cconfederate monuments.
“We don’t even have basic information about the history of the statue,” she said. “We don’t know anything about what the current laws are.”
“The first step of any conversation is understanding what the facts are,” she said.
In 2015, the General Assembly passed a law preventing state agencies and local governments from taking down any “object of remembrance” on public property that “commemorates an event, a person, or military service that is part of North Carolina’s history.”
A state law would be needed to remove a monument or relocate one to a site that’s not of “similar prominence.”
A person who damages or destroys public property can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor under state law, and if convicted, can receive a fine of $500 and 24 hours of community service.
The granite base on the Main Street soldier, which was dedicated in 1924, says, “In memory of ‘the boys who wore the gray.”
There are about 120 Civil War memorials across the state, according to the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties.
About a dozen are dedicated to Union soldiers, and others honor soldiers in a number of wars. About 100 are clearly monuments related to the Confederacy. The monuments are in cemeteries and on public and private properties.
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Also Monday, across town at N.C. Central University, law school dean Phyllis Craig-Taylor opened a “peace rally” by noting she’d lost a cousin, Margaret Ann Knott, in 1971 to a similar incident in Alabama of a man driving into a crowd of protesters.
She urged the 100 or so in attendance to stand up and speak out against “the chaotic tone, the cynical message, the slights that are being delivered in this country today, trying to send us back to a time where certain people are considered inferior and less than, and others are considered privileged and more than” over factors that include skin color.
Law professor Irving Joyner added that he’d watched television coverage of what happened in Charlottesville with the eye of someone who’d organized hundreds of protests in this state and elsewhere.
He questioned the degree of police protection, and said in his opinion “that this was a set-up, that it was intended that there would be this confrontation in Charlottesville and authorities, had they wanted to, could have prevented it.”
Similar things can happen here, so people at NCCU “need to engage our administration and police department to tell us what they are doing to do” to prevent them, Joyner said.
Staff writer Ray Gronberg