Politics & Government

‘We cannot live in fear’: Activists condemn racism, gun violence at rally in Hillsborough

About halfway through his three-minute speech at a rally against racism in Hillsborough on Saturday morning, Marco Cervantes of Apoyo-Centro para la Comunidad looked up from his notes and paused.

He glanced out at the crowd of about 50 people in front of him. Many attendees sat in chairs or stood in the shaded courtyard, wearing Black Lives Matter shirts and holding signs that said “Raise Hope, Not Racism” and “Love All Y’all.” A North Carolina flag and American flag sat at half-mast in the still air.

Apoyo is an Orange County-based organization created to assist the area’s immigrant community — and Cervantes, in light of recent events, said he was worried this rally could result in conflict between pro-Confederates and people of color in the community.

“We need to use armor-piercing love and light to penetrate the Teflon, tyrannical talk that has been in this administration and those past,” Cervantes said. “It’s this talk that surrounds us in a septic society where marginalized people live in fear. We cannot do that. We cannot live in fear.”

Saturday’s rally — held by the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, local NAACP chapters, North Carolinians Against Gun Violence and other groups — was a culmination of a week of national mourning, after two mass shootings in the U.S. A local conflict also was on their minds, one that involved Hillsborough business owner Matthew Shepherd and pro-Confederate demonstrators.

Hillsborough has been a target for pro-Confederate protests for the past few years after Orange County officials took steps to limit Confederate flags and symbols in the area. And late last month, after encountering a pro-Confederate demonstration near his chocolate shop, Matthew’s Chocolate’s, Shepherd put out a sign that read: “Burn a Rebel Flag… Get a Free Chocolate!”

The sign went viral after three Confederate flag bearers stood behind it and posted it to social media. Shepherd later received death threats.

Speakers at Saturday’s event addressed both national and local events.

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Renuka Soll of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence speaks to the crowd at Saturday’s rally in Hillsborough. Behind her, volunteers held up signs the entire event, including one that read, “This is Southern Heritage” and had no Confederate signage. Alex Zietlow azietlow@newsobserver.com

‘An addiction to white supremacy’

The rally began with a somber read-and-repeat of the names of all 31 people who died in last weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio. Later, the crowd was led through chants, and speakers called for common sense gun laws and cultural change.

Latandra Strong of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition said the U.S. has historically denied the presence of racism and that it’s affecting the local community of Hillsborough.

“In this country, I believe we have an addiction to white supremacy,” Strong said. “We have that in our state, and we have that right here in our local community. And what I know about an addiction is if you’re not working on a recovery, you’re working on your relapse.”

On Tuesday, four days ahead of the rally, Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens wrote an open letter to the community to clarify the role the town government has played in the permitting of pro-Confederate protests.

At the intersection of North Churchton Street — the street Shepherd’s business is on — and East King Street, rainbow LGBTQ pride flags flew and Black Lives Matter posters were held up.

The protest went largely uninterrupted. A few drivers revved their engines and screeched their tires as they passed. One white truck slowly drove through a street adjacent to the protest with a large Confederate flag lodged in its trunk.

Heather Redding of Hillsborough Progressives Taking Action said people should be willing to have uncomfortable conversations.

“I challenge everyone, especially white people and those afforded white privilege to move out of their comfort zones …,” Redding said.

“We need to fight hate with love, but that also means taking risks.”

Alex Zietlow: 919-829-4802, @alexzietlow05

Alex is an intern at The News and Observer, covering sports and however it intersects with life in the Triangle. Before that, Alex graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May and was a three-year staffer on UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel.