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Unwilling to wait for local officials to act to take down a Civil War monument, a group of protesters took matters into their own hands Monday night.
DURHAM, N.C.—You could argue that the Civil War actually ended in this North Carolina city. Although Robert E. Lee’s more famous surrender took place at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, Confederate General Joseph Johnston’s surrender to William T. Sherman two weeks later at Bennett Place, a farm on the outskirts of town, was larger and ended the war in the east.
You could also argue that, as in many places across the South, the war never totally ended here. Durham was the site of major battles over segregation and the home of Klan leaders, and a statue commemorating “THE BOYS WHO WORE THE GRAY” stood outside the old county courthouse on Main Street.
Until Monday night.
Around 7 p.m. Monday, a group of protesters, inspired by the violent riots over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, decided that if Durham County was in no hurry to take down the rebel soldier, they’d do so themselves. As Durham County commissioners met inside the building, which now houses county offices, a group of protesters wrapped a yellow rope around the statue and pulled. In what might seem a blunt metaphor for the fate of Confederate symbols in progressive Southern cities like Durham, the statue tumbled down with barely any effort, crumpling at the feet of its imposing granite pedestal. (Although the icon was allegedly made of bronze, one doubts.)
The statue had stood on the courthouse’s manicured lawn since 1924, when the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected it. At the time, it had been 59 years since the Civil War ended. The smell of tobacco wafted out of warehouses and factories and across downtown Durham, and a mile and a half down Main Street, tiny Trinity College hadn’t yet changed its name to Duke University. For 93 years, the Confederate picket watched over all who entered the building. And then, in a matter of seconds, he was gone, irreparably destroyed by his fall: his musket mangled, his legs bent forward, and a huge dent in his head from some zealous protester’s boot.
By the time I arrived, less than an hour after the statue had fallen, the street was blocked off by sheriff’s deputies’ cars. The protesters had marched a few blocks down Main Street, toward where the Durham Police Department is building a controversial new headquarters. A mix of young and old, black and white, graying hippies and black-clad anarchists, yelled “Fuck Trump” and held signs saying, “Black Lives Matter” and “The Whole Damn System Is Guilty as Hell.” “Street medics” stood to the side, ready if anyone was hurt. One man toted a guitar, seemingly more as prop than instrument.
There was still an air of euphoria in the crowd. Everyone seemed amazed how easily the statue had come down. For most Americans, the mention of a statue being toppled immediately conjures footage of the Saddam Hussein statue pulled down in Firdos Square in Baghdad in 2003, early in a war that had probably radicalized a few of the demonstrators in Durham. The Confederate soldier hadn’t required a long process or the help of a tank—just a good tug and he’d come right down. Even stranger, no police had intervened, even as the protesters brought out a rope and a ladder. Sheriff’s deputies had just watched.
Having reached the police station, the crowd seemed unsure what to do and went back to the courthouse. One particularly energetic man walked up to the police cars, carrying a “Cops and Klan Go Hand in Hand” placard taunting them. Deputies seemed determined not to so much as make eye contact, much less engage. When another man got too close, a deputy shooed him away. Meanwhile, several other deputies, wearing body armor, were filming everything. (“Get my good side!” the man with the “Cops and Klan” placard demanded.) The rumor in the crowd was that officers had decided it was easier to film the crowd and make arrests later than to try to intervene in the moment.
Finally, at about 8:30 p.m., a deputy demanded that everyone disperse. A few of the more hardened protesters, apparently members of a local anarchist group (they were, unsurprisingly, unwilling to give their names or declare an affiliation) herded the remainder away down the street, warned that people not so much as jaywalk lest they give officers a pretext for arrest, and then made sure that no one was walking back to a car alone, lest police quietly arrest them.
Back at the courthouse, a new crowd had gathered—mostly older and more heavily African American than the initial group. They, too, stood in wonder, taking pictures of the ruined statue.
For some, the meaning of the moment was immediately clear. “All those years, black people had to go to court, walk past this sign, and think you were going to get justice?” Tia Hall said.
Others were still grappling with disbelief.
“They took old faithful down. I just can’t believe it,” Jackie Wagstaff, a prominent local activist, said, laughing.
Wagstaff had been inside the county commission meeting when the statue came down, but she agreed with the protesters’ rationale that if officials wouldn’t act, they would.
“I love it. It should been done a long time ago,” she said. “I don’t even know why these five so-called progressive county commissioners—they should have had this taken down a long time ago.”
But even if the commissioners had wanted to remove the statue, their hands would have been tied. In 2015, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a preemption law that barred the permanent removal of historical monuments located on public property, except with prior state permission. Early Tuesday morning, the commission released a statement on the protest that read like a tacit endorsement of the toppling: It didn’t mention the statue or condemn the protesters.
I wrote in The Atlantic last year about my discomfort at walking past the statue on a regular basis. Durham, like Charlottesville, is a progressive bastion surrounded by a more conservative state. But unlike Charlottesville, a small town dominated by the University of Virginia, Durham is an old industrial city, dotted with red-brick tobacco buildings. The city has long had a strong black middle class, and just a block over from Main Street is Parrish Street, a center of African American business that earned the nickname “Black Wall Street” in the early 20th century. Yet the town is dotted with things named for Julian Carr, a one-time Confederate grunt who got rich in the tobacco trade, became commander-in-chief of the state’s Confederate veterans organization, and styled himself “general,” including on his tomb.
Today, major racial disparities persist in Durham County and city. Forty percent of the population of both the city and county are black, and inside city limit, black and white populations are about equal. But African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be arrested for marijuana, and more likely to be poor. Gentrification is a growing problem here, as in many other midsize cities. As if it were not ridiculous enough for black taxpayers to be subsidizing the upkeep of a monument to a war fought to keep their ancestors enslaved, a statue celebrating a war fought to maintain white supremacy seemed a contradiction too painful and incongruous to remain in today’s Durham.
Much has been written about the way that social-justice protests and demands to tear down statues, whether of Robert E. Lee or of anonymous soldiers like this one, can inspire a backlash among whites who feel that their country and heritage are being erased. Examples of that backlash include the 500 white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville this weekend, or the South Carolina gubernatorial candidate who says she’s proud of the Confederacy.
Less considered, so far, has been the backlash to the backlash. While the pace of removals of Confederate monuments has quickened over the last few years, the events in Charlottesville should, as my colleague Yoni Appelbaum wrote, make clear the importance of removing them faster, rather than dampening the movement. After the Durham protest, Governor Roy Cooper, a moderate Democrat whose election hinged on a few thousand votes in Durham County, tried to chart a middle path on the monument question:
It’s now clear that there are plenty of people in Durham who have no interest in this kind of gradualism. If white supremacists are being radicalized by the removal of Confederate monuments, there’s a coalition of leftists that is reacting to them with their own radicalization, deciding that if elected leaders—whether Cooper or county commissioners—won’t move fast, they’ll do so themselves.
And it’s hard to imagine that Durham will prove unique in this matter. Video of the statue coming down zoomed around the web, where it will inspire protesters elsewhere. There are plenty of potential targets. Just down the road from Durham is Chapel Hill, a quaint, liberal college town like Charlottesville. On the campus of the University of North Carolina stands a monument to alumni who fought and died for the Confederacy. “Silent Sam” has stood for more than 100 years, but he’s increasingly controversial, and has been repeatedly vandalized recently. If Silent Sam continues to stand watch over campus, will Carolina students and Chapel Hillians wait patiently for his removal through legal processes, or will they, too, turn to extralegal means?
Around 11 p.m., I decided to take one more swing by the courthouse. The police were gone, and so were the gawkers. All that was left were a few local news teams, brightly lit for segments on the evening news. In the darkness behind them loomed the 10-foot pedestal on which the statue had stood. But on the grass in front, there was only a small granite base to which the soldier had been bolted, looking mysteriously out of place. I could almost make myself believe there had never been any statue at all.
David A. Graham is a staff writer for The Atlantic where this article was originally published.