Taryn Fivek and Loan Tran join forces to write this often gut-wrenching two-fold essay dealing with the counter-protests of Charlottesville white supremacist deadly rally, as well as the toppling of a confederate statue two days later in Durham.
TARYN: Doing battle in the United States’ South presupposes a special kind of defensive planning. In the South, the cops are manifestations of the racist history of Jim Crow and slave-catchers. Even if they are personally sympathetic with one’s message, they are drenched in the history of thousands of vindictive lynchings. The cops will beat you or shoot you, sure, but worse is when they step back with a glint in their eye and let the mob, which they allow with impunity to assemble and rage, to lay their hands on you. This is a lesson that every person fighting for justice in the streets of the South learns early on. This is why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy of strategic non-violence was key for success while doing battle in the South. With the public outrage of watching little girls be spit on or pregnant mothers mauled by dogs, the righteous anti-racist fighters in the South could win a battle against state racism.
In the North, people do things differently. After all, the balance of forces there are different. Did those from the North know how things would go down in Charlottesville? As a person born and raised in the South and now living in New York, I can tell you that this was not the case. Driving down I saw them, faces pressed against the car windows, looking in horror at the dealership-sized confederate battle flags lashing out over I-95. One person in our contingent shows up with a fever. I am furious because I feel like none of the out-of-towners are taking this as seriously as they should. They do not know the history of the 1979 Greensboro massacre. They did not grow up hearing about racist pogroms and lynchings. They were never caught on a back road with a cop who drove too close to your bumper. To do battle in this part of the country means that you must be left standing at the end of a long day of abuse, and this necessitates planning a good defense.
The first effort at defensive planning requires a banner, which comrades spent all afternoon painting two days before in New York. It is white with black and red paint. It reads: “Make Racists Afraid Again – Smash White Supremacy!” There is a graphic of a fist smashing a swastika. The banner will stand at the front, demarcating our contingent which has traveled from four separate states to be there under the leadership of Durham-based comrades who had been working there in the last few months. The banner will be our rallying point and shield. When there is madness in the streets, having a banner or flag to lock eyes on is a comfort when all else is uncertain. We are all traveling there to exercise our First Amendment right to protest. We are going up against hundreds of white supremacist militants who take issue with a local movement to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee, a slave-owning general who led the confederate army to preserve the grotesque institution of keeping Black people in chains.
The statue itself is less a monument to the confederacy and more of a spike in the earth to uphold racist lynch culture. It was erected in the aftermath of the White House screening of The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film that signaled the beginning of a new era of racist lynchings across the South. This statue and hundreds like it were not, as many assume, erected to commemorate the Civil War, which the South lost 52 years before the statue was commissioned in 1917. Between that moment and 1924, when the statue was finished and dedicated, at least 380 African Americans were tortured and murdered by racist mobs across the U.S.. This is the horrific heritage that was nailed into the earth with the statue. This was the gruesome glory that a racist mob were trying to protect in Charlottesville, nearly one year after Donald Trump was elected and 152 years after the South lost the war.
When we arrive, the streets of Charlottesville are empty, except for armored vehicles and lines of soldiers — or were they police? One could not tell the difference. Charlottesville is a college town, home to the University of Virginia, and it had already been subjected to two white supremacist rallies in the previous months. Signs are posted up in shuttered storefronts that proclaim: “Hate has no place here.” We consult with each other and make a decision to walk in formation, tight and chanting together. I do not remember what we were chanting, only that the crowd we marched up on became quiet as we did, until we arrived at the foot of the southeast corner of some stairs leading to Market Square Park, where the right currently held the tactical advantage by virtue of altitude.
It is difficult to recall too many details as to what follows. I do remember that people start taking the situation much more seriously. The police are lined up behind barricades on the east side of the park, but have no interest in dispersing either crowd. This was the lynch dynamic I had witnessed as a child, but that seemed to confuse many people from the North. The cops stand back, heavily armed and armored, watching as the racists at the top of the stairs begin to throw bricks at us. We move up to allow the bricks to sail overhead, but with eyes locked on the projectiles it is difficult to see when some helmeted fascist runs over with a hammer or baton and starts beating on people. Clouds of mace waft through our ranks, sending people into coughing fits. At this moment, to be on the defensive just means to stay standing while the people around you start bleeding. Keep chanting. Keep moving around so as not to become a stationary target. Do not run.
Every so often, a group of armed white supremacists and neonazis parade through, joining their comrades in the park. While it’s fair to say they receive a few licks getting in, the math is made crystal clear at each of these interactions. Even if, at the bottom of the stairs, we outnumber the fascists at the top of them, the cops must be included in our final accounting. By virtue of them standing by while we are bloodied and maimed, our forces understand which side the cops are on. We are there to take punches and still be left standing at the end of everything. The fascist rally is scheduled to start at noon. By our very presence, by still being there, we will see it cancelled. This is announced by the police only a few minutes before the sun reached its zenith. The right begins to disperse. Our forces decide to regroup and find shade.
Somehow word gets to us that the klan is about to march on a Black neighborhood a few blocks south of the park, and that our forces are gathering to counter them. My comrade and I decide that it is too dangerous to take our contingent back into the fray without better understanding the situation on the ground. It is a rule of ours to try and never lead people into conditions we ourselves do not know about. That can be how folks get hurt or arrested, as they did during the
counter-inaugural of Donald Trump earlier that year — more than 200 people from other contingents had received felony riot charges from that. So, after drinking some water and checking in, we head out together to scout the situation.
Immediately, we see that it is not a safe place to be. While the klan march has turned out to be a rumor, the crowd has now become a march, seemingly led by out-of-towners with no clear plan or route. The group stalls out at the intersection of Water and 4th streets and the atmosphere becomes almost relaxed, triumphant even. People are standing around and chatting. I spot a friend of mine, a journalist with a video camera strapped to his head. As soon as we greet one another with a hug, I hear what sounds like an explosion. I whip around and am confused — while bloodied bodies are on the ground and the screams are beginning, there is no smoke. An elderly Black woman is in the front seat of a car that has been smashed from behind, clutching her chest. Behind her, a grey Dodge Challenger dislodges itself from the wreckage and reverses at speed, bumper scraping the asphalt. Now, we all understand what has happened.
Without thinking, I am running to the broken bodies left behind by a monster. I look at each body and try to decide what to do with the basic combat injury training I picked up at my last job as an aid worker in Iraq. Now, I am kneeling next to a woman who I have never met but who later I will learn is called Heather. Her leg and back are torn open. I think she is going to die, so I try and tell her comforting things. Her beautiful, honey-colored eyes are open and their movement is erratic. I do not think she is aware of what is going on. I am barely aware, myself. I decide that I can’t do anything helpful. The medical examiner later says that the force of the monster slamming his car into her body severed her aorta, and this is what killed Heather Heyer. I stand up as more medics arrive. Defensive planning has gone out the window.
The intersection is full of broken people. They are sobbing and holding each other, covered in blood. I see the people I know and I check in with them, hugging onto an organizer from New York as she sobs. I check in with a local organizer, who is in shock and hugging her knees in a doorway. Through it all, time seems to slow down as a young white man strolls through this scene of battlefield carnage. He is wearing a yellow shirt that has a coiled snake on it and reads “Don’t Tread on Me.” He is wearing a red baseball cap that reads “Make America Great Again.” He is smiling, walking through bodies and screams as if in a video game. I am in awe of his sociopathy and how young he looks. As I consider the situation, someone from the crowd steps forward and clocks him in the jaw. Time speeds up back to normal. Defensive planning is out the window. We were content to just be left standing by the end of the day. Now that this has been denied to us, the tenor of the crowd shifts to anguish and rage. Unpredictable and raw.
I find my comrade and tell him it is time for us to leave. We walk some way before I discover I have someone else’s blood on my bare legs. We stop on some stairs to wash it off and see an organizer we know from New York. He is a tall Black man, broad-shouldered and strong. We tell him what happened. He disappears behind a building and returns with a baseball bat. The air is now different, hot and heavy with something. It seems that the right is scared of us. The cops have taken up defensive positions near the parking garage where a few hours earlier, a gang of Proud Boys tried to lynch DeAndre Harris within view of the Charlottesville Police Station. An armored vehicle ambles down Market Street. A group of five or so racists walk by us and I let them have it while under the watchful eye of my compatriot from New York with the baseball bat. One chides me for not being ladylike, but none of them try to defend themselves.
We make some calls and our comrades come in a car to pick us up. We head back to where everyone else has gathered and are unable to say goodbye in an uplifting way. We were still standing by the end of the day, and had won the international moral high ground. The racists had left us broken and bleeding in front of hundreds of millions. Even if Donald Trump said that we were also the bad ones, that we should be blamed for what happened to us, we had won the outrage and momentum needed to keep fighting to wage battles for change in the South. The victory, if you could call it that, was decisive — but came at a cost few knew we would pay. Leaving town, we see the Dodge Challenger again, surrounded by police tape. We hear on the radio that a police helicopter has crashed, killing two cops. We drive all the way back to New York that night, and I do not remember how I got home.
Sometimes for battles, you split your forces. Some advance while others retreat and you always try your best in the heat of the moment to remember there was a reason for doing this. More and more I was finding it hard to remember the reason for not deploying all of who we are — activists, organizers, anti-racists, and revolutionaries — and what we had to Charlottesville.
Charlottesville requires some historical context, that necessarily spans several centuries but we see some of the clear connections going back as recent as the racist slayings of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL by a rogue white supremacist and the police shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO. The period of time from the killing of Trayvon Martin to Mike Brown, from the occupation of the Florida State Capitol building demanding accountability and gun control that followed suit, to the Ferguson rebellions demanding release of police footage, began laying the groundwork for a new period of resistance to white supremacy. Organizers and communities across the U.S. began clarifying in the popular imagination just how entrenched racism still is; from local police departments to state governments, and of course, every space in between. What followed was the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Standing Rock, the Baltimore rebellions, the Charlotte Uprising: all flash points, major clashes between the interests of a violent police state and the people it represses and murders. So at this point, a few years into this period of the movement against white supremacy and police brutality, in some ways, this felt like any other counter-demonstration. Our folks have been getting in formation for a long time now. We know the slogans to raise, the maneuvers to call, the power of a chant to pierce through the threat of policemen and fascists alike.
We watched our comrades as closely as we could, cradled inside the Appalachian mountains. I held close the photo of the banner they had painted: Make Racists Afraid Again – Smash White Supremacy! Through photographs and videos, we saw that it was the only banner that stood off the ground, out above the crowd. It served as a shield as much as it did the center of gravity for bricks and taunts. It waved fiercely with hands white-knuckling through what would be one of the most defining moments of anti-KKK and anti-fascist mobilizations in recent history.
By the time news of Heather’s death broke, that some monster had driven his car into the crowd of righteous activists at full speed, I knew we needed to re-orient. That our comrades who were there have been exhausted and it was time to organize and get in the fight.
LOAN: Any organizer will tell you that when there’s a crisis, you call for a solidarity demo. Of course because they are symbolic and political. But they are also tactical measures for when the fascists show you what they are capable of, you have to show them that we are capable of so much more. I assembled the outreach flyers for a Durham solidarity demonstration from the back of a van weaving down the highway towards the Piedmont. The hotspot on my phone was just strong enough to let our comrades know we were heading back and ready for whatever might be next.
Durham is not unlike most small towns across the South. The city center is only a few blocks of buildings. Once you drive down Highway 147, in either direction, you end up in the woods and the houses are spaced out, where time seems to slow down. The confederate flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” snakes pick up.
Durham’s downtown streets split right at Main and W. Chapel Hill streets. If you take Main, you’re led right to Duke’s East Campus. If you take W. Chapel Hill Street, head under the train tracks, you end up at the building which had historically housed the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance company, the first Black-owned company of its kind in the U.S.. The lines of battle have been drawn in Durham for decades, even centuries. Starting first with the train depot donated by Dr. Bartlett S. Durham in 1849 that was rapidly expanded by the tobacco industry and made Durham rich by the end of the century. Durham’s cityscape is decorated with the hospital and college buildings named after and for the tobacco rich Duke family. The Lucky Strike smoke stack still stands tall. The NC Mutual Life Insurance building too, is still erect. There is another line, running parallel to Main Street where Durham’s Black Wall Street once thrived, on Parrish Street. There are markers today and some exhibits in the windows tending to some of this history. And right down the road, in front of the Old Courthouse is a confederate monument erected in 1924, at the height of Durham’s Black Wall Street.
We called for the solidarity demonstration two days after Charlottesville in front of this monument; a copper soldier holding a gun to his chest standing about eight feet off the ground on a concrete base. Our demo was a call to tear down white supremacy. The flyers were explicit and we weren’t shy about our plans. If there were ever a time to be discrete, it wouldn’t be now, especially when the white supremacist opposition has made it so abundantly clear: murders are not off the table in defense of their world order.
Preparation for this demonstration was like most others, too. A checklist of materials we would need, a roster of speakers who would deliver riveting messages of solidarity and sharp political lines. And a ladder strapped atop a limousine. And some bright yellow towing rope.
Even as one of the emcees of that evening’s demonstration, I can barely recall what transpired, except in the very last moments when a crowd of over 200 militants had quite literally torn down a relic to white supremacy: a 15 foot, bronze statue erected in 1924 dedicated to Confederate soldiers; or as inscribed in its granite base, “The Boys Who Wore Gray.” What had begun as a rightfully somber gathering where medics and organizers in Charlottesville spoke about the horror of the day had transformed into a righteous celebration.
This was one of the quickest defensive moments I have seen completely shift the terrains of battle and put our people on the offensive. I could only see red: the blood of fallen and brutalized comrades, the rage of Black, Brown, migrant, and working class people in this country and around the world, and the rightful vengeance of many and all who will not let our people suffer in vain. The fascists don’t just get to win. Sometimes when you yell into a crowd, “PULL!”, the crowd will actually pull and you feel history bustling right under your feet. A flimsy statue crumbling into itself. A wonder and an homage to the countless Black people who had to walk past this proxy lynching threat day in and day out. The KKK members in blue assembled themselves on the steps of the Old Courthouse Building with camcorders in their hands; eyeing each other with confusion and anxiety. This moment was now completely beyond their control. It was as if we really meant it when we chanted, “You can’t stop the revolution!”. We did this in broad daylight, and we really meant it.
Celebration in front of the fallen statue ensued late into the night, before the city called in its workers to haul the statue away to some unnamed location. This street battle was a token of appreciation; conducted in defense of our comrades who took on the fascists and white supremacists head-on in Charlottesville.
Over the next few days and weeks, this would become a battle with the courts, the cops, and the klan. By the end of the week, there was rumored to be another klan demonstration in downtown Durham as a result of the statue toppling. In only a few hours, thousands of people flooded the streets, occupying the space where the statue had once stood. The most important troops of all had taken up this fight as their own: the masses of working class Black and Brown people in Durham. Rivaling gang members called for a truce, built tactical teams and patrolled the parameters between our forces and those of the cops who were prepared in their riot gear to defend a broken statue. Anti-racists of all stripes armed themselves in a vow that we would not lose another one of our own. No klan members were to be found in this sea of fight-back. Rumor has it that they had been sheltered by the sheriffs in the courthouse just half a mile down the road.
Arrests began happening, organizers followed by undercover police, and homes raided. All swift plays by the state to condemn the toppling as criminal. And in response, nearly 100 people showed up at the county jail demanding a warrant for their participation; a protest to say that tearing down white supremacy is not a crime. This particular slogan would be raised again and again as the battle dragged on into the courtrooms. A dozen community activists being put on trial for doing what it is we do best: fighting for the lives of our people, who so desperately refuse to live in the shadow of fear; who completely reject that public space belongs to those who propped up a confederate monument to terrorize Black people.
By mid-February of the new year, we had won the legal battle. The felony charges for “inciting a riot” and “property destruction” had been dropped despite the state’s insistence we had disturbed the peace. What mattered more to us was that we had made it clear: battles between our people and the cops, the courts, and the klan are inherently lawless. Any law belonging to a system of capitalist, white supremacist exploitation are only playgrounds used to punish, intimidate, and repress popular resistance.
It has to make you wonder why tearing down a confederate monument calls for more retaliation from the state than a Unite the Right rally called by openly white supremacists, fascists, and neo-Nazis? Why is it that when Palestinians stake claim to their own homes and olive trees, it calls for more condemnation than Zionist bombings and attacks? Why do Black Lives Matter street actions end up with more arrests than the open season by police on Black people? Why do Iran’s military acts of self-defense receive more scrutiny than the unprovoked imperialist aggression of the U.S. in the Middle East and around the world?
There is something fundamental about the structuring of this world that produces the kinds of battles and wars we are a part of; that people like Heather Heyer have died in, that Civil Rights activists, women, and so many others have been trapped and dehumanized by. And so long as this structuring of the world exists, so long as the geography of oppressed peoples’ lives are saturated with landmines — ranging from outright war to sanctions, resource extraction to apartheid — we are all duty bound to carry out as many battles as possible to disarm the stranglehold of white supremacy and capitalism.
I will never forget looking upon Durham as we marched away from the confederate monument that evening. I remember especially seeing down Mangum Street how the jail stood tall, eating up the lives of people inside; how it sits right across from the Durham Performing Arts Center where presumably regular, good-hearted people enjoyed the show put on a stage in front of them. So insidious the twisted reality from which some derive their pleasure and oblivion. So clear where we must provoke discomfort to fulfill our mandate: wage struggle everywhere, for freedom for everyone. ■