A consortium of far-left groups gathered in Raleigh on Wednesday to protest police violence in smaller communities across North Carolina and President Trump’s deployment of federal forces to Portland and other cities.
Many of the speakers at the protest billed as “Smash the Police State: Portland, Gastonia, Roxboro” linked abolition of the police with revolutionary aims to uproot systemic racism and overthrow capitalism. Hosted by Smash Racism Raleigh, several groups that have been active in protests for racial justice in the Triangle and beyond signed on, including three chapters of Democratic Socialists of America, Central NC Party for Socialism and Liberation, Wake County Black Student Coalition, Mapinduzi, Wake County Black Student Coalition, and the Working-class & Houseless Organizing Alliance of Greensboro.
“What we’re witnessing all across the world is what Black, Brown and other colonized people have been saying for so long that now white people and other people that’s not colonized are starting to understand that there has always been a war in this country when it comes to Black, Brown and other colonized people,” said Dedan Waciuri of Mapinduzi — a group that opposes capitalism and US imperialism — who was one of the speakers at Nash Square at the beginning of the event. He added that “what’s happening in Gastonia and other places like that is a rise in the level of fascism” in which the police respond with aggression to Black people resisting racism even when there is a sizable number of white allies protesting in solidarity.
Last week, a white counter-protester punched Jayla Gordon, a Black woman protesting an ice cream parlor in Gastonia because of the perceived mistreatment of a woman wearing a Black Lives Matter button, and the man’s wife pulled a gun on protesters. Gordon was initially charged based on the statement of the assailant, but after reviewing surveillance video a police sergeant dismissed the charge against Gordon and instead charged the white man with assault on a female and making a false report to police.
Anger over the criminal charge against Gordon prompted residents to invite members of the New Black Panther Party to come the next day to provide armed community defense, in turn resulting in heightened police repression. Members of the Gastonia Police Department tactical unit in military gear who were carrying M-16 rifles ran through a group of protesters and surrounded two vehicles, where they arrested Black Panthers on weapons charges. Lydia Sturgues, whose arrest for second-degree trespassing outside of Tony’s Ice Cream on July 21 set off the week of protests (her charge was also dropped), told the group in Raleigh that in contrast to the Black Panthers, white counter-protesters were not charged for carrying firearms because they were on private property.
“They pulled the Black people who were sent to protect the Black community out of their cars, and they held them in jail until the next day,” Sturgues said.
“I literally do not know what to do,” Sturgues continued. “But I know if it does not get done, a race war will be started in Gastonia, North Carolina. It is that serious.”
Speakers also talked about the death of David Brooks Jr., a Black man who was fatally shot by Roxboro police on July 25. People who have been involved in protests for Black lives in Raleigh for the past two months went to Roxboro the day after Brooks was killed.
“He was open carrying in an open-carry state, and the cops got called,” said a speaker identified as Sanga with the Wake County Black Students Coalition. “Less than three seconds was given, and he was shot by Roxboro police. I’m way too mad to be talking in beautiful ways, to be so poetic on this mic and give y’all hope. Because right now, there is no hope unless we fight. There’s so much anger in me right now I cannot give you all that love. Because love has been taken away from us.
“I’ve seen their community; I see where they live,” Sanga continued. That is the most racist town I’ve ever seen…. We are not allowed to protest [in Roxboro]. We are not even allowed to come and support the family of David Brooks Jr.”
On Tuesday, the city declared a state of emergency imposing a curfew, citing that “whereas, Roxboro experienced a tragedy on Friday, July 24, 2020 that resulted in the loss of life, while loved ones grieved and showed their sorrow in a peaceful manner, it has come to the city’s attention that an outside presence may attempt to disrupt the safety and well-being of the citizens of Roxboro.” The curfew was imposed from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Tuesday overnight, and from 7 p.m. on Wednesday, and rescinded at 6 a.m. on Thursday.
Although Greensboro was not on the flier for the event, Cameron Crowder from the Working-class & Houseless Organizing Alliance, or WHOA, spoke about the death of Marcus Smith, who died from positional asphyxiation after Greensboro police hogtied him while he was experiencing a mental-health emergency during the North Carolina Folk Festival in September 2018.
“A Black man was lynched,” Crowder said. “The pigs who did the lynching still walk the beat with a badge and a gun, and the chief pig himself got to retire with dignity in a pension paid for by the community.
“What does peace look like in a society maintained by genocide and apartheid?” he asked. “How can we peacefully protest an occupying force that takes any expression of defiance as an act of aggression?”
Although the event was billed as a “solidarity rally and march with Portland, Oregon, Gastonia and Roxboro,” police abuses in the two small cities in North Carolina, along with Raleigh, commanded most of the speakers’ attention. The deployment of federal forces to Portland, where they have used tear gas and baton strikes against peaceful protesters and snatched up protesters in unmarked vans without documentation, has drawn widespread condemnation, from Black Lives Matter protesters to center-left Democratic officials.
About 250 marchers in Raleigh took to the streets in defiance of the police, holding intersections on four occasions, but when they marched around the federal building that houses the offices of the US Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, President Trump and the deployment of federal forces went unmentioned in their chants.
Instead, they chanted, “Fire, fire, gentrifier,” and, “Black people used to live here,” as they marched past a row of new luxury apartments east of the federal building. And south of the federal building, they briefly surrounded a police unit, dancing as they chanted, “Police in my hood, ain’t no good/ Police in your hood, ain’t no good/ Don’t arrest me; arrest the police.”
James Moore of the Durham chapter of Democratic Socialists of America described the deployment of federal agents as only one of a host of oppressive forces in his remarks at Nash Square.
“As members of the human species, we must condemn all of these borders and all borders that only serve to separate us from each other and to conceal our common humanity,” he said. “We must recognize the role of US imperialism in erecting these borders, not just across continents, but across our minds and hearts. There may be truth in the notion that the motivation behind Trump’s deployment is to invigorate his base for the 2020 election.
“However, as we have seen with precedents in the past, their individual motivations and justifications pale in comparison to the scale of the precedents that they set,” Moore continued. “What we are seeing in Portland, in Roxboro, in Gastonia is a glimpse into the future as the borders around who deserves to be an American citizen, who deserves to be fed, who deserves to be sheltered and who deserves human rights as those borders begin to contract and become smaller and smaller amidst deepening civil unrest and global pandemic and a deteriorating global climate.”
Raleigh police issued two orders for protesters to move out of the street, the second as they were returning to Nash Square. When the police detained one person, protesters formed a line and linked arms across the intersection, while protesters on bikes formed an outside buffer. A couple protesters had come armed with homemade shields, but after a quiet discussion among themselves they decided to take the protest back into the legally sanctioned space of the park..
Retreating, they chanted, “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe.”