Illustration by Robert Paquette

David Plyler, the most powerful elected official in Forsyth County government, shared social-media posts over the Fourth of July weekend that disparage Indigenous and Black people. He can’t explain how it happened.

The image of three people who appear to be Indigenous giving the middle finger to Mount Rushmore that appeared at 4:26 p.m. on July 4 on Forsyth County Commission Chairman Dave Plyer’s Facebook page appears like a jarring party-crasher in an otherwise soothing stream of content he posted to celebrate the holiday.

Plyler’s July 4 timeline includes videos of patriotic numbers performed by the US Army Band, US Navy Band, and US Air Force Band; 1970s nostalgia trips with the Bee Gees, Abba and Neil Diamond; more recent performances by Whitney Houston and Tina Turner; an inspirational Fourth of July message from Arnold Schwarzenegger; a three-year-old photo of Plyler in a parade; and, somewhat disconcertingly, Christmas music.

The photo of the Indigenous people giving the finger to Mount Rushmore is a re-share of a Facebook post originally made by talk-radio host Steve Sanchez, which includes the caption, “Hate America? GET THE HELL OUT!” The Facebook page for “The Steve Sanchez Show,” based in Arizona, describes Sanchez as a “nationally syndicated radio host, jewel of the American Southwest and unabashed nationalist who puts country and people before politics.”

Facebook screenshot

The outcry in response to Plyler’s post was almost immediate, both on his page and on the Winston-Salem Facebook group page, and within 24 hours it disappeared from Plyler’s Facebook page.

Chad Nance, a local filmmaker who previously operated the Camel City Dispatch news site, called out Plyler on Nance’s Facebook page.

“It’s clearly racist,” Nance told Triad City Beat. “It tells a group of Indigenous people upon whom we committed genocide that the desecration of their holy mountain is something they should get over. Dave Plyler is telling people whose ancestors have been reduced to a handful compared to what they used to be that they need to love it or leave it. It’s unconscionable. If anyone has the right to flip the finger at Mount Rushmore, it’s Native Americans. It was put up there as an F-U to them.”

In his various responses to people questioning the post, Plyler has suggested he’s as mystified as anyone else about how it happened. Plyler has given shifting explanations with confusing wording that makes meaning hard to pin down.

Responding to Nance on the post before he took it down, Plyler replied with a non-sequitur: “You have no idea nor do I have speculation only adds fuel to the fire. The only thing I can think of at this moment is there is an election in four months that plays a role in it or not I don’t know.”

Nance said he thought Plyler was suggesting that his Facebook account had been hacked.

But responding to TCB in a Facebook message on Sunday, Plyler offered a somewhat different although equally opaque explanation.

In a message rife with spelling and punctuation errors, Plyler wrote: “Its abhorrnt to m to me as well.I saw I yesterday paid little or no attached to it at all . I did spend a lot of time yesterday sharing music by: USAF band, Army band, navy band and other patriotic pieces. Since we had no public celebrations of the Fourth of July I wanted to share the Rich material available on the Internet and that included pictorial scenes.”

Further elaborating, he wrote, “I probably shared over two dozens Shared patriotic Most without regard to written content.”

Plyler resisted an overture to clarify the matter. Responding to a characterization by TCB that he “shared the post without paying any attention to the family at bottom of the frame or the commentary below it,” Plyer demurred: “I’m not swearing to your statement I’m just responding… I don’t do things like that on purpose.”

And responding to a message indicating that his statements didn’t clarify much and were contradictory, and that it seemed futile to press further, Plyler wrote, “I agree.”

While the dust was still settling over Plyler’s Mount Rushmore post, he aroused renewed anger by sharing a video headlined “#ALLLIVESMATTER” that shows a Black man punching a white female police officer during a traffic stop.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Plyler said, “I probably made a mistake with that. My purpose is, that is abhorrent. That should never have happened…. It had nothing to do with race.”

“All lives matter” has become an epithet thrown at Black Lives Matter protesters that functions as a negation of any grievance against systemic racism.

When an angry white man confronted a protest against racism in Graham on July 4 by saying, “It’s all lives matter, if you got God,” protest leader Rev. Gregory Drumwright responded, “Somebody tell me one day in American history where a white life didn’t matter. Tell me one day in American history when a blue life didn’t matter. Every day of my life white lives have mattered. Every day of my life, police have demanded respect, and gotten it. This day is about Black lives mattering.”

In an interview with TCB, Plyler indicated he has no interest in hearing why the slogan “All lives matter” is offensive.

“If you take offense at it, fine,” he said.

Adding further intrigue around the “All Lives Matter” video, Plyler commented in his post: “Thanks qqqqqqq.”

The comment caused Nance and others to question whether Plyler was making a nod to QAnon, an internet subculture organized around a far-right conspiracy theory about a supposed secret plot by the “deep state” against President Trump.

Plyler did not offer any explanation beyond downplaying its significance in a voicemail to TCB.

“There is actually nothing to say about the Q,” he said. “I didn’t even know it was in there. There is no meaning. It has no meaning at all.”

Nance said the juxtaposition of the words “all lives matter” with video of a Black person assaulting a white female police officer is particularly harmful.

“That is 100 percent propaganda because, show me the statistics of white female officers being attacked by African-American suspects compared to police brutalizing African-Americans,” he said. “What he’s doing there is using our natural empathy towards women to justify police brutality, because this one single incident of an African-American suspect attacking a white police officer does not warrant what we see every day with the fishing expedition that police officers subject Black and Brown people to during traffic stops. It’s disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. It’s gaslighting Black and Brown people.”

Plyler, a Republican who lives in Kernersville, was first elected to the Forsyth County Commission in 1994 and consistently draws the highest number of votes among candidates for the four seats in District B, which forms a suburban-rural doughnut around Winston-Salem.

Commissioner Ted Kaplan, a Lewisville Democrat who holds the one at-large seat on the board, defended Plyler.

“I have never known Dave to be anything other than honorable, nice and warm to just about anyone who comes up,” Kaplan said. “I’ve never known him to be a racist.”

Commissioner Don Martin, the position of vice chair and like Plyler part of the moderate Republican faction on the board, declined to comment on his colleague’s social-media posts.

Kaplan said he didn’t see the “All lives matter” post, but he chalks the Mount Rushmore post as an honest mistake.

“As honest as I can be, his eyesight isn’t what it used to be,” Kaplan said. “When I saw it on my phone, it looked like three people pointing at the Black Hills. The Dave I know, I’m certain he never meant to cause harm.”

Commissioner Tonya McDaniel, one of two Democrats who represent District A in Winston-Salem, told TCB she is “very disheartened about the social media post, if true and factual.

“I am awaiting a response from Commissioner Plyler about this matter,” she said. “I pray he has some reasonable explanation, if any. I will also share [that] I have never witnessed any racist behaviors from him in my presence. He actually supported the Black and Brown communities when I’ve asked. I was most excited when he disclosed his membership in the National Alumni of [Winston-Salem State University]. I am baffled and hopeful for a response.”

During a 50-minute phone interview on Tuesday, Plyler did not apologize or express any regret for the two social-media posts.

“I’m being tried and treated like a criminal; that’s unfortunate,” he said. “The problem with this society is all you have to do is look the wrong way, and it becomes suspicious.”

During the interview, Plyer warmed to the topics of his career as a broadcast journalist and signal moments in the history race relations during the 20th Century. The wide-ranging discussion touched upon personalities and events in the Triad that would be familiar to anyone who has heard a campaign speech from the county commissioner.

Among his notable achievements as a budding journalist was recognizing the significance of the 1960 Woolworth’s lunch-counter sit-in. Then in his early twenties, Plyler said he went to see what was going on after his father warned him to stay away because Black men were sitting at the lunch counter and demanding to be served. When a reporter for the United Press International news agency told him he was going to send the story out to markets across the Southeast, Plyler said he got the idea to call CBS, NBC, ABC Radio Network and the Mutual Radio Network and pitch the story.

Dave Plyler (file photo)

“And I fed them stories, and they would call me back and get updates,” Plyler recalled. “I started getting calls from as far away as Michigan and Florida.”

That same year, Plyler joined WSJS, which became WXII 12 News, where he served as a reporter, assignment editor and eventually news director. He recalled the segregated programming, with a program called “Shades of Ebony” that focused on issues in the Black community and how the station hired its first Black reporter, John Blunt, in 1968.

Plyler was born in southern California and said he recalled attending first and second grades there with Black, Asian and Latinx children. That changed when the family moved to North Carolina where Plyler’s father had grown up. He said his first friend was a Black child, who eventually told him his mother said they couldn’t play together anymore because Plyler was white. Plyler described the experience as his “first lesson in segregation.”

He would observe segregation in Greensboro when he sold popcorn at Greensboro Patriots baseball games and saw that Black patrons were consigned to a particular section of the stands.

As a student at Greensboro Senior High School in the 1950s, Plyler also landed a job at WGBG, where he hosted a program called “Music for Lovers Only.” There, he struck up a friendship with Cirt Gill, a popular Black DJ who spun records by R&B acts like Clyde McPhatter, Brook Benton and LaVern Baker under the on-air moniker “Jam-A-Ditty.” Plyler said after finishing his program, he would often stop at the Gill house on Ross Avenue, where Gill’s wife, Margaret, would serve him refreshments while her pinochle club was meeting.

“The bottom line is Margaret Gill did that for years, and her family kind of looked after me,” Plyler said.

In other ways, Plyler’s life continued to intersect with eminent Black institutions and figures through the 1970s. He studied political science at Winston-Salem State University, a historical Black institution. Around that time, Plyler developed an admiration for George Black, a son of former enslaved persons who came to Winston-Salem and became a brickmaker, eventually receiving an appointment by President Nixon as an emissary to Guyana to teach brickmaking.

“I always thought: Here’s a guy who is somebody you should look up to,” Plyler said. “He’s a perfect example of achieving the American Dream when everything is stacked against you.”

Plyler would go on to raise money for a statue of George Black, who is the grandfather of state Rep. Evelyn Terry, that stands outside the Forsyth County Government Center. Plyler said it’s the first life-size statue of a Black man in Forsyth County, the second being the statue of Simon G. Atkins on the Winston-Salem State campus.

While Plyler has spent his entire life in proximity to Black culture, he expressed a sense of antipathy towards the current uprising against systemic racism sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“They’re tearing down pieces of property that they have no right to,” Plyler said. “If you’re having protests, that’s not a problem, but it is a problem when you’re going to pillage and loot. I remember when Martin Luther King Jr. was around. One of the things he said is, ‘You don’t break the law.’ That’s the bottom line. I don’t know who the leaders are today.”

Later, in the interview, Plyler conceded that in fact King and the Black students he covered during the Woolworth sit-in modeled civil disobedience against unjust laws.

“Sometimes you’ve got to do that to get what you want,” he said. “And that’s what they did.”

But asked to consider the parallels between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement today, Plyler articulated a kind of “all lives matter” philosophy that frames race relations as a matter of equivalency and denies the existence of systemic racism and white supremacy as driving forces in American life.

“The basic premise is transparency and the feeling of Blacks versus whites,” Plyler said. “That’s historic. It goes back before you and I were born…. Racism is not just a white problem; it is a Black problem, as well. If you’re honest with yourself, you know what I’m talking about.”

He went on to discuss his experience as a “minority” at Winston-Salem State University. But his reflections undercut rather than supported the discredited notion that Black people can practice racism towards whites: “And Winston-Salem State loved me. I was on the GI Bill using federal money to pay my way through.”

And revisiting his childhood experience, Plyler said, “When a little Black guy told me he couldn’t play with me because I was white, I was the guy who was being discriminated against.”

Nance said he has admired Plyler both as an elected official and veteran journalist, but that’s all the more reason to hold him accountable.

“Dave Plyler has always been kind and courteous to me,” Nance said, “but in this year of reckoning, which is what I believe Black Lives Matter and this moment is, if you want to be a white ally, one of the most uncomfortable yet important parts of that is calling out overt racism and white racism when you see it in other people, whether it’s your uncle or your mom, or your grandma, or someone professionally like Dave Plyler who you’ve admired.

“I did it almost as an object lesson for other white people because we’re having a conversation about how to be allies,” Nance continued. “To be kind of Stan Lee about it, with great power comes great responsibility. We have a responsibility to stand up against white supremacy, no matter what. It’s part of good citizenship. This isn’t cancel culture; this is good citizenship.”

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