Crime and misdemeanors: A crowd tears down a Confederate monument in my home town

August 15, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 15, 2017

It’s not every day that Durham, N.C., gets national attention — and it’s even rarer when the City of Medicine generates widespread news coverage for something other than college basketball. Unfortunately, despite being in town yesterday, I was completely unaware of what might be a seminal moment in an important national news story until a few hours after the event had taken place.

On Monday evening, protesters pulled down a monument to Confederate soldiers that stood in front of the Durham County Administration Building, which served as the county courthouse from 1916 through 1978. The statue in question was erected in 1924; the front of its pedestal reads, “In memory of ‘The Boys who Wore the Gray.’”

I won’t miss the statue; it venerated soldiers who, while they may have fought bravely, did so in service to a disloyal would-be nation that was dedicated to keeping black men, women and children in bondage.

Durham, like many American cities, is full of symbols of disdain for African-Americans, some more explicit than others. One example — subtler than the statue of the rebel soldier, but more prominent in a way — is the Durham Freeway, a.k.a. N.C. 147, an expressway built in the late 1960s that devastated a once-thriving black community named Hayti. These badges of dishonor can never be wholly erased; nor should they, for to plaster over past injustices is to invite their repetition. But neither should such affronts be afforded undeserved esteem.

I do have some reservations, however, about the way in which the monument was removed. Ideally, the board of county commissioners would either have authorized the removal of the statue or sanctioned the placement of another one that acknowledged the cruel segregationist cause defended by “the boys in gray.”

Seeing crowds assert their will often leaves me uneasy, in part because social consensus does not always align with moral good, legal principle or civil rights. After all, as recently as last century in this nation, lynchings were often popular events conducted with the tacit approval of community leaders. As PBS noted in an article about racially motivated American murders:

Like executions by guillotine in medieval times, lynchings were often advertised in newspapers and drew large crowds of white families. They were a kind of vigilantism where Southern white men saw themselves as protectors of their way of life and their white women.


Photos of victims, with exultant white observers posed next to them, were taken for distribution in newspapers or on postcards. Body parts, including genitalia, were sometimes distributed to spectators or put on public display.

But one mustn’t blur the distinctions between murderous mobs and a crowd that inflicted property damage. Homicide is an unforgivable and irrevocable crime; the actions by the Durham protesters constitute a far less serious offense. It would take time, effort and treasure to repair or replace the toppled monument, but if the county government desires to do so, the vandalism could be remedied.

Some critics chided the protesters for their transgression, but there’s a vital bit of context that many out-of-staters — and some residents of the Old Tar Heel State — may not have known. In 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, signed a law forbidding local officials from removing from public property any monument to “an event, a person, or military service that is part of North Carolina’s history” without the approval of the state legislature. Republicans, who are fond of espousing such philosophies as decentralization and local control of government, took control of North Carolina’s General Assembly after the 2010 general election.

In short, Confederate monuments are unlikely to be going anywhere soon, even though some of this state’s Republican officials and operatives are fond of reminding anyone who will listen that the party of the donkey — not the elephant — used to be ardent segregationists.

Today, the Durham County sheriff announced that it would seek to identify, arrest and prosecute people involved in pulling down the monument outside the county administration building. Indeed, Indy Week, a local publication, reported that one of the leaders of Monday’s protest was taken into custody this afternoon.

However, I suspect that most of the protesters won’t be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. If the protesters are represented by effective counsel and manage to get their cases heard by sympathetic jurists, they may only have to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor, and they may not face any jail time.

In fact, protesters might come away with little more than a smudge on their criminal record and the inconvenience of having to spend a few hours meeting with lawyers and going to court. Durham criminal attorney T. Greg Doucette, a socially liberal Republican with nearly 20,000 Twitter followers who ran a spirited campaign against incumbent Democratic state Sen. Mike Woodward last fall, implied Monday evening that he might provide pro bono defense for those who pulled down the statue.

It’s far from ideal that a handful of activists might be convicted in a criminal court for pulling down a monument dedicated to oppressing black Americans. But given the imperfections of the current circumstances of these United States, and of the state of North Carolina, that might be as good as anyone — including this oft-ambivalent observer — could hope for.

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