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

August 24, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 24, 2017

Author’s note: This post contains one word that is considered obscene and one usage of a notorious racial slur. The obscene word is part of the title of a famous rap songMEM

After returning to my car last Friday, I decamped for a coffee shop and finished writing about The Big Sick. Then I went back home and changed out of my sweaty clothes. Like I said, man, it was hot that day.

The rumors circulating on social media said that the white supremacists who had failed to show around noon might instead (or also) be planning to come around 4 p.m. A little after the hands on my watch pointed to that hour, I drove to another quiet residential neighborhood. I parked my car and began walking back to the courthouse.

At least one helicopter was still hovering in the air, but I found very little traffic when I arrived downtown. The block of Main between South Corcoran and North Mangum streets had been reopened. In fact, cars were allowed on Main as far east as Church Street, where there was a barricade. At least one police officer must have been standing there, but most of the people clustered around the blockade were regular people demonstrating against white supremacy. Some held banners and signs declaring their enthusiasm for diversity and tolerance.

It was at this point that I witnessed the first — and for me, really, the only — tense encounter of the day.

As I made my way toward the barricade, a Jeep was going in the same way. Apparently, one or more people in the Jeep either shouted something and/or flipped off the demonstrators standing at the barricade, because the folks there began shouting and brandishing signs at the vehicle.

The Jeep turned left on Church and zoomed off. As it receded, I saw a white arm with middle finger extended protruding from one of the passenger-side windows. “Come back here and do that to our faces,” one of the demonstrators taunted.

There was little chance of that happening, and in fact I doubt that the people in the vehicle heard them, but a few wiser heads counseled their comrades to settle down. I heard someone saying something to the effect of, “We don’t want to provoke any confrontations.” The demonstrators settled down.

I made my way past the barricade. The crowd seemed thinner, and some of the energy had gone out of the crowd. The descending sun cast some shadows on the street, thankfully.

I made my way to the side of what used to be the Durham County Social Services Building, which was replaced about five years ago by the Human Services Complex a few blocks further east on Main. (I honestly don’t know what the former Social Services Building is being used for at this point, or if it’s even being used at all.) This old facility was a dismal structure, even more so than the courthouse that used to stand across the street, in my judgment. However, the side and rear of the building have an elevated plaza that at that moment was draped in shadow, and it seemed like a good spot to survey the proceedings.

Durham has a number of quirky intersections, and this building stands adjacent to one of them. A one-way loop surrounds the city’s downtown, made up technically not of a single street but of several: North Roxboro Street, Liberty Street, East and West Morgan streets, North and South Great Jones streets and Ramseur Street. For most of the city’s central core, Ramseur runs roughly parallel to Main and is more or less one block south of it.

Ramseur, which carries only eastbound traffic in this stretch, forks between Mangum and Roxboro. If you stay straight, you’ll continue on Ramseur proper, but if you bear left, a tendril of the road bends around one of the downtown parking decks, the back of the county administration building and the back and side of the old social services building. When this arc reaches Main, it is parallel to Roxboro.

Cars on the Ramseur tendril are controlled by one traffic light; across a traffic island, cars on Roxboro are controlled by another light. If cars proceed north from the intersection of these roads and Main, Roxboro “takes over.” If you’re headed north at this intersection, the red lights tend to last quite a while, which is why I rarely drive along these sections of either of these streets, even though I have a predilection for variety.

At any rate, standing on the plaza on the side of the old social services tower, I could see cars on both Roxboro and Ramseur converge on the traffic light that guards this junction of Main Street. The crowd of demonstrators seemed pretty mellow to me, but some of the people on the sidewalk of Ramseur were a bit rowdy.

A rotating group of people kept going onto the traffic island. Some held up signs that I couldn’t read, but they said something to the effect of “Honk if you hate the KKK,” which is what demonstrators were verbally urging drivers to do. Many motorists honked ardently.

A few people just seemed interested in entertaining themselves. At one point, a car with a sunroof — a not-very-recent-model Honda Civic, I think — was waiting on Ramseur for the light. The car contained two casually dressed young women, from what I could tell. A shirtless man went over and chatted with the woman in the passenger seat.

Soon, the man positioned himself so he was sitting on the roof with his legs dangling through the sunroof. Over the next few minutes, a few other men clambered onto the car’s hood and trunk. All of the men were black; the women in the car seemed to be white.

I was a little concerned about whether the car would be able to move without damaging itself, and (conversely) whether the men might be injured if it could. I was also a little concerned about them being arrested, which I feared might turn the crowd’s mood ugly. I’m not sure, but I think as it approached the intersection, someone persuaded the men to climb down.

A few minutes later, a car that came along on Ramseur was playing “Fuck tha Police,” the 1988 protest song by the rap group N.W.A. A few people in the crowd began cheering and singing along. A few people went onto the street to dance alongside the car from which the music was emanating. It was the rowdiest behavior I saw that afternoon.

Shortly after that, a Durham County sheriff’s cruiser was waiting for the light in the Roxboro lanes. People in the crowd started shouting “Honk the horn! Honk the horn!” at the driver; since my head was bent over my phone, I couldn’t tell whether he eventually complied or simply was able to drive off when the light turned green.

Later, I noticed a guy moving up and down the sidewalk adjacent to Ramseur holding a sign. It declared “Blue lives murder.”

Around that time, a group of four young black men walked in the middle of Ramseur, which at that point was clear of traffic. (It seemed some leaders of the demonstration had gone ahead to ensure the lanes were clear; I’m not sure whether or not they had cooperation from law enforcement.) The men shouted “This our street now, nigger” a few times. As the quartet reached Main, demonstrators asked them to step out of the road. They apparently complied without fuss.

I felt a little uncomfortable with some of the things I saw as I watched, and I certainly didn’t approve of some of it, but I did not feel particularly threatened at any time.

Around this moment — it was coming up on 5 p.m., judging by my phone’s records of my walks, although the time stamp on my tweets appears to be an hour earlier than that — someone issued instructions on a bullhorn, which I couldn’t hear. Soon after, a group of a hundred or so people lined up behind a banner and began marching against the flow of traffic on Ramseur. They chanted “Black lives, they matter here!” as they proceeded. I gathered from news reports that demonstrators were relocating to the county jail and/or new courthouse.

This was pretty much the end of the get-together near the county administration building. Traffic along Main Street reopened, and nearly everyone cleared out. I walked around the old social services building and turned west on Main, which was now almost indistinguishable from how it looked on a regular day.

And that, kids, is the story of how I did… well, very little other than show up late (twice!) to a demonstration against white supremacy.

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