The Friday that white supremacists (never really) came to town: Part 1 of 2

August 22, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 22, 2017

It was around 11 on Friday morning when I noticed a tweet saying that white supremacists were planning to march on downtown Durham at noon. I ate an early lunch and started preparing to go.

However, I dallied. This was partly because I was skeptical that any hate group would actually show up in what might be North Carolina’s most liberal city. Indeed, none of the tweets I saw from people who were downtown indicated that any white supremacists were showing up. But to be completely candid, I also dawdled for the very converse reason: Because I was afraid of the catastrophe that could occur if armed reactionaries did in fact turn out.

Many of the white-supremacist marchers at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month were heavily armed and obviously spoiling for violence. Moreover, on Thursday evening, I’d read a disturbing news story about a gun-toting militia group that had turned up at a San Antonio city council meeting. (The stated rationale was that an official of the This is Texas Freedom Force had received death threats after publicly opposing the council’s intention to move a Confederate monument.) If shooting had started in Charlottesville, or San Antonio, or Durham — or if some whack job decided to drive into a crowd, as happened in the town where Thomas Jefferson lived and founded a university — no one could guarantee the public’s safety.

However, when the Ku Klux Klan might roll into your town, able and available adults can’t just sit on the sidelines. So even though I showed up late, I did show up.

Before leaving the house, I carefully selected clothing that I hoped would decisively show me to be from and of the multiethnic Bull City, rather than a member of the KKK. I donned navy shorts, my dark-blue Duke T-shirt (which I hadn’t worn since the day after the Blue Devils won their last men’s basketball championship) and a baseball hat commemorating the Durham Bulls’ 2009 International League champion.

I made a few decisions meant to make it easier for me to avoid losing important property in case violence did erupt. I set aside the wristwatch that I normally wear and separated my car keys from my house keys, just in case. Before I left my house, I paused to gulp some water — the temperature rose well into the 90s that afternoon, and it was quite steamy — and empty my bladder.

I didn’t want to park anywhere near the Durham County Administration Building. On a normal day, it’s almost impossible to find a free spot during business hours; on this day, things would be even worse, and traffic was probably going to be miserable. Also, if full-scale riot or shoot-out erupted, I didn’t want my car to be in a spot from which it would be difficult to extract.

I parked on a quiet residential street in the Trinity Park neighborhood and took a walking path that dead-ends next to a defunct weight-loss facility on Trinity Avenue. Then I walked over to Washington Avenue and headed south until I hit Main Street; from there, I walked east toward the Durham County Administration Building, where a memorial to Confederate soldiers had stood until being pulled down by a diverse group of protesters on Monday evening.

At least one helicopter was hovering over downtown, presumably on behalf of WRAL’s news channel. This was unusual, but even if I’d been oblivious to the rotors’ dull hum, I would have known something was going on as soon as I came to Main Street.

Eastbound traffic on Main was severely backed up for seemingly all of the long block between West Chapel Hill Street and South Corcoran Street. Police officers had all of those vehicles make a right turn on Corcoran. (It’s a two-way street, but northbound traffic between Main and West Parrish Street has been blocked for months because of the construction of a new skyscraper.)

When I got to North Mangum Street, I found an honest-to-goodness blockade staffed by police; it was matched, I wound find, at the far end of the block. (Technically, this is two blocks if you count South Church Street, which is essentially a narrow access road with a few parking spaces.) The pavement here was teeming with people, and the sound of drums filled the air. It was as if a spontaneous music festival had broken out on a random Friday afternoon. Indeed, WRAL compared the scene to a dance party.

There was some scaffolding in front of the county administration building; a few people were draped over it. I spent a moment or two searching for the missing Confederate statue but then realized that it was on the other side of the building’s entrance. When I came to it, I saw that someone had scrawled “Death to the KKK” on the face of the pedestal that bore metal letters declaring that the statue had been erected “In memory of ‘The Boys who Wore the Gray.’”

A man stood atop the vacant plinth, surveying the throng that filled the street, sidewalk and small lawn. His face was covered with a bandana, in what has become the style of anti-fascist protesters, but I would have sworn that he was smiling contentedly.

There was clearly no need for me here, so I made my way to the far end of the block and turned north on North Roxboro Street. I probably hadn’t been to this part of Durham since March.

Back then, I’d seen the deconstruction of what used to be called the new Durham County Courthouse, which has been stripped to its structural elements and is now being rebuilt. However, I hadn’t noticed the Durham County Main Library, which like the courthouse has also been stripped to its structural elements and is in the midst of a major renovation. I marveled at it for a few seconds as I made my way up Roxboro, schvitzing heavily. If I hadn’t known what was happening, I wouldn’t be able to determine from looking at the construction site whether the old building was being taken down in its entirety or whether an entirely new one was rising.

I returned to my car after a 51-minute walk that covered just over three miles. Like I said: Man, it was hot.

To be continued

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