One far-right protester from Alamance County said he wanted to raise an “army” to march into Chapel Hill and take a stand at the monument where Silent Sam was torn down on Monday, but the “Strength in Numbers” rally drew only a dozen or so supporters, while many more antiracist counter-protesters jeered, chanted and blocked them until they left the campus at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Students and other antifascists surrounded small groups of pro-monument activists over several hours of heated arguments and occasional scuffles, as antifascists chanted, “1-2-3, f*** the Confederacy,” and attempted to block journalists from photographing the flaggers. Throughout the confrontation, antifascists snatched Confederate flags, attempting to set one on fire and stomping another one on the ground. When an antifascist protester grabbed a bouquet honoring the statue, Barry Brown, a member of Alamance County Taking Alamance County Back, or ACTBAC, handed off his flag to a friend and punched the man in the face. Brown was quickly arrested and charged with simple assault.
ACTBAC, a group based in Alamance County that describes itself as a “Southern rights” organization, has been designated as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. ACTBAC said through its Facebook page late Saturday that Brown’s actions were justified and the group supports him “100 percent.” The group is hosting an event billed as a “Silent Sam Twilight Service on Aug. 30.
Police made seven arrests in total, most of whom appeared to be antifascist protesters. John Quick was charged with assault during an altercation with David Curtis, a member of the Carolina Defenders National Nomads, a western North Carolina-based group. Curtis said Quick “chest-bumped” him and refused to let him pass. Alexandra Joustra and Lillian Lauren Price were arrested for injury or damage to property. Danielle Shochet was arrested for simple assault. Kristin Emory was arrested for resisting arrest. Protesters responded with fury when an officer put Thomas Bruefach in a headlock and dragged him away, chanting, “F*** you, pigs.”
Student protesters repeatedly thronged the entrance to Graham Memorial Hall, where police were holding those arrested. “Why is he on your side?” Maya Little, a protest leader, asked police as ACTBAC member Frank Harper stood beside them. “Whose side are you on? Are you on your students’ side or are you on this mother***er’s side? Because he’s not on our side.”
The students’ insistence that pro-Confederate activists leave the campus and their anger at the police has unfolded against a backdrop of escalating assaults and threats of violence.
Joshua Pennington, a pro-monument activist from Alamance County who is linked to ACTBAC, is accused of pulling a knife and threatening to kill a graduate student during the rally that culminated in the statue coming down on Monday. The student, Tim Osborne, said Pennington held a knife up to him and said, “I could kill you right now.”
Osborne recounted, “I’m screaming, ‘He’s got a knife. This guy’s got a knife out. He could stab me.’ I wanted to draw attention to his hand and let people know he’s dangerous.” On Monday, and then again on Saturday, Osborne repeatedly stepped up to pro-Confederate activists and demanded that they leave. He said he got between Pennington and an antifascist protester early in the rally on Monday, and after that Pennington would make comments like, “Take a swing, and I’ll end you,” every time the two encountered each other for the rest of the evening.
Pennington declined to speak with Triad City Beat when approached in person on Saturday.
The day after the toppling of Silent Sam, Pennington wrote on Facebook: “I would like to get an army to march into Chapel Hill.” Referencing Dwayne Dixon, an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who has participated in antifascist community defense in Durham and Charlottesville, Pennington continued, “Let’s organize something. Dixon is the organizer for them. He wants a war. I say we give it to him.” (Dixon was present for the toppling of Silent Sam on Monday, but did not attend the event on Saturday.)
In another thread, Pennington wrote, “Verbal doesn’t work with these people. They want violence and a war. I say we show them how violent we can be. We need doers not talkers!”
But on Saturday, Pennington marched up to the location of the fallen Silent Sam monument, carrying a Confederate flag, and accompanied only by Frank Harper. A handful of other far-right activists joined him, including a man identified only as “Mike” with an SS thunderbolt — a symbol associated with Nazism — tattooed behind his ear.
Guy with a SS tattoo here with a “heritage not hate” sign pic.twitter.com/9Alc5OGyMC
— 𝐿𝒾𝓁𝓎𝒶 (@lo_lifer) August 25, 2018
Later, when Osborne challenged him on the tattoo, the man acknowledged that it represents the Aryan Brotherhood. The Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols associates the SS thunderbolt with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, described as “the largest white supremacist prison gang in Texas and possibly the United States.” The man went on to say he has “changed.”
Pennington himself has used the slogan “It’s okay to be white” — which gained popularity with alt-right and white nationalist groups in late 2017 — as a frame for his Facebook profile.
Saturday’s rally also attracted Casey Becknell, a Civil War reenactor, James Campbell, a self-styled patriot militia activist, and Manuel Luxton, a white nationalist with violent antisemitic views. All three attended the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year, carrying shields and sticks, while confronting antifascists alongside the white nationalist groups League of the South and Vanguard America. Campbell pledged on Pennington’s Facebook page on Friday evening: “We gonna be there. Time to make communists afraid again!” But Campbell and Becknell left early, before the most intense confrontations of the day.
Threats of violence have escalated since late April, when Maya Little, a graduate student, poured red liquid on Silent Sam.
“At this statue I have felt degraded, and I have also been harassed,” Little said at the rally on Monday before Silent Sam was toppled. “I watched one of my friends have her life threatened by a neo-Confederate football fan. I have been surveilled by police. I have been called a ‘n***er.’ I have been told that I will be hung from the tree above Silent Sam.”
On Wednesday, an individual identified as David Gregory posted on Facebook: “UNC better handle this storm correctly or there will be dead bodies on the streets up there. This has the potential to become very bloody.”
Reached by Facebook by City Beat, Gregory declined to provide details about where he lives or any organizational affiliations he holds, but said cryptically: “It’s more complex than Chapel Hill. This includes the entire state and international dark money ties.”
An individual identified as Justin Allman posted on the ACTBAC Facebook page on Aug. 22: “Done talking. Done fighting. Time to drop them where they stand. Let us treat them the same way they have treated our statues. Let the streets flow with the blood of the ignorant.”
Antifascists have also cited a comment attributed to Al Hartkopf, also on the ACTBAC page, that reads: “We missed our chance to stand for our state and our country and carpet the lawn with the bodies of these bastards.”
Hartkopf, a former member of the Orange County School Board who is a registered Republican, told City Beat that he did not make the comment and that his Facebook account was hacked. “I assure you,” he said, “I am anything but a fascist.”
While threats have proliferated on social media, they have also materialized in real life, with students protesting Silent Sam experiencing counter-protesters thrusting cell phones recording live video in their faces and even assaults.
Margaret Maurer, a graduate student, was holding a banner in front of Silent Sam during the rally on Monday, when she was accosted by two men.
“There was an older man who ran at me, and he forcefully put his hand on my right chest, and he tried to knock me over — I think in an effort to knock the banner down with me, although I cannot say for sure what his intent was,” Maurer told City Beat. “It happened very quickly. He was accompanied by another man wearing a red polo shirt. He pushed past me.”
Maurer said three days later that she still bore a small cut on her leg, a bruise on her chest and pain in her shoulder from the alleged assault.
At the time, Maurer said she attempted to report the incident to university police officers who were on the scene.
“I said, ‘This man wearing a red polo shirt and baseball cap and this other man, they just attacked me. They put their hand on me,’” Maurer said. “The police refused to take my statement. They also did not do anything in any way to investigate or question these men. I identified myself as a student and I was told I could file a report in the morning.”
Stephen Pedroza, a graduate student and leader with the UE 150 union, said he witnessed the assault, although he didn’t know Maurer at the time. Pedroza said he attempted to report the assault to the police, and they also refused to take his statement.
A video provided by another graduate student, Aubrey Lauersdorf, documents a conversation with a police officer wearing a university police shoulder patch. Although the officer’s statements are difficult to hear, Pedroza can be heard saying, “Oh, it’s chaos, I understand. Can you take a statement at least?… To walk 10 feet over?… There’s work to be done, man. I witnessed a crime.”
Subsequent video taken by Lauersdorf shows an older white man with a beard wearing an aqua-blue shirt. He identifies himself as “Oscar Levine.” “Are you proud of what you did?” Lauersdorf asks.
“No, they were going after my friend with the red shirt,” Levine responds. “He’s a lawyer here in Chapel Hill.” Lauersdorf’s video also shows a man with a red shirt walking quickly away from the statue. When Levine was confronted again by Lauersdorf and Pedroza in the presence of a reporter, he left abruptly.
Maurer said in response to Levine’s statement that it doesn’t match her conduct. “I was holding a banner,” she said. “I was not going after anyone.”
The day after the toppling of Silent Sam, Chancellor Carol Folt, UNC System President Margaret Spellings and UNC Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith issued a statement expressing gratitude “that no one, including our police officers, was injured,” while condemning “mob actions.”
Maurer said she finds it ironic that the university claimed that there were no injuries, considering that the police declined to take reports.
“This past year I have seen police — when students report to them — their response becomes, ‘We have no way of finding these people,’” Maurer said. “We have people who come and harass protesters. Maya referenced people who use racially charged language and threats. The response by the police is, ‘We have no way of finding these people.’ It was frustrating and disheartening. This is an opportunity for them to take action that wasn’t taken.”
While the students’ faith in law enforcement’s commitment to protect them has increasingly eroded, Republican state lawmakers — most notably Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger — who control the university’s purse strings have characterized the students themselves as “violent.” Berger’s office did not respond to an inquiry about whether he’s also condemned the continuous threats against the students.
Adding to the students’ concerns about police protection, a Chapel Hill police officer on duty during the rally on Monday displayed a Three Percenter tattoo on his arm as he stood guard around Silent Sam. Although the far-right movement outwardly emphasizes protection of gun-owner rights and free speech, it has a long history of infiltration and alliances with white power groups. Police Chief Chris Blue responded that the officer “expressed regret that his tattoo has been associated with groups that perpetuate hatred and violence,” adding that it would not be displayed again. “We also want to emphasize that the negative interpretation of that tattoo is inconsistent with the values and mission of our department,” he said.
A police officer standing guard at Silent Sam sports a tattoo with the three percenter symbol. These “patriot” groups have been known to openly protect racists, fascists and neo-Nazis including on A12 2017 in Charlottesville and in Portland for the Patri… https://t.co/TEACCPatKx pic.twitter.com/vDfjwE7oQl
— Daniel Hosterman (@dhosterman) August 21, 2018
The university finally acknowledged the threats against students on Friday, when media reports began to circulate about extremist groups coming to campus the next day to support the monument.
“We’ve recently learned that some students and others in our community are receiving threats as a result of Monday’s events,” the statement said, “and we want you to know that we take all threats seriously.” The university urged students who feel threatened, including on social media, to call 911, and also noted the availability of counseling services for students, faculty and staff.
Saturday’s rally originated with a rambling Facebook Live video by an eastern Tennessee far-right activist named Jamie Wilson on Monday evening. “Going to Chapel Hill, North Carolina this weekend,” Wilson said in the video. “Roll with us.” He added, “We’re gonna need the numbers, guys. When they see that we’re coming Saturday, they’re gonna be there.”
Wilson recently attended the Patriot Prayer rally in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 4. As the coalition of white nationalist groups that drove Unite the Right has fractured, groups like the Proud Boys and American Guard that cloak their racism in patriotic rhetoric while bragging about their street-fighting prowess have come to the fore, with the largest and most violent rallies taking place in the Pacific Northwest. During the Patriot Prayer rally, Wilson connected with Billy Helton, aka Billy Sessions, an Arkansas-based activist whose group the Hiwaymen hybridizes neo-Confederate and patriot militia styles of activism. In statements made on Facebook Live videos, Helton often endorses violence and has made disparaging remarks about African Americans and Mexicans.
Wilson described his recent experience in Portland in his Facebook Live video on Monday.
“The Oregon PD better be giving me my flag back,” he said. “That’s the thing: I heard Billy talking about that. Guys, we had drones over us all day. Us. Just the guys from the South. Police drones. And then when they found out that we had flags, they come took it. They took our knives, our flags, they took all that away from us.”
The publicity surrounding Wilson’s plans to come to Chapel Hill set off an organizational schism, with the national Oath Keepers organization issuing a stern request for Wilson’s group to stop using the name. Between Friday night and Saturday morning, Wilson’s group changed from Appalachian Oath Keepers to Appalachian Sons of the South.
The schism doesn’t necessarily mean the national Oath Keepers are more moderate than the newly named Appalachian Sons of the South. The Oath Keepers announced the launch of something called the Spartan Training Network on Aug. 20.
“So we want to see a militia, basically, reestablished in this country and trained up,” Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes told InfoWars host Owen Shroyer on Monday, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“You’ve got Patriot Prayer, you’ve got the Proud Boys, a lot of groups are doing excellent work already,” Rhodes said. “We just want to raise the bar of professionalism and skill because our concern is that antifa will go kinetic, whether it’s through bombs or firearms, and we want to make sure the patriot population of this country is prepared to handle it.”
When Wilson arrived — late — for the Confederate flag rally in Chapel Hill on Saturday, he had his cell phone up to stream the event live. He offered a vague explanation for his motivation for organizing the event that downplayed the historical content represented by the Confederate flag and monuments.
“When a natural disaster happens, people come to help,” he said. “It’s the way people come together.”