Chatham County residents who showed up for the first day of early voting at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center during the primary in mid-February were greeted by dozens of Confederate flags and Trump banners. One truck displayed the flag of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate group that seeks to establish a white ethno-state, alongside the Confederate flag.
Jessica Reavis, a League of the South organizer based in Virginia, used a homophobic slur against an antiracist counter-protester. Another local neo-Confederate activist hurled an anti-Asian racial epithet and a misogynistic slur. A woman with a Confederate flag draped around her shoulders was seen standing in the middle of a sidewalk leading into the polling place just beyond the no-campaigning buffer zone.
The draw for the pro-Confederacy demonstrators was a seminar hosted by two local organizations, Abundance NC and Chatham for All, that featured academics from UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University providing historical context for a still raw controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments. The Confederate monument supporters hadn’t targeted the polling site; Woody Weaver Jr., a resident of neighboring Wake County, put out the call on his Facebook page, announcing, “We are going to flag this antifa crap.” He invited pro-Confederacy allies to bring whatever banners they wanted, and disclosed that he would be flying the League of the South flag. Supporters obliged, showing up with “Trump 2020” banners and signage calling for the preservation of Confederate monuments. The seminar happened to be scheduled for Feb. 15, the same day as the start of early voting. The seminar took place in the main hall of the conference center, while the polling place was set up in the east wing.
“We had a couple of complaints about it being intimidating, but I don’t think it stopped anyone from voting,” Chatham County Elections Director Pandora Paschal told Triad City Beat. Paschal said she believes some of the Confederate flaggers voted that day, including a woman who was photographed by an antiracist counter-protester standing inside the no-campaigning zone.
While the historical seminar provided an alibi for the flaggers to defend themselves against charges of voter intimidation, the incident demonstrated how easily the volatile passions over removal of the Confederate monument from a station in front of the historic Chatham County Courthouse could spill into the electoral arena. It also provided an early preview of the close intertwining of the white grievance politics driving support for President Trump and the campaign to preserve symbols of the Confederacy.
Anger among Confederate monument supporters in Chatham — a county that straddles North Carolina’s political faultline, with progressive residents in the suburbs of Chapel Hill and Raleigh increasingly outnumbering conservative voters in the more rural, west end — has predictably framed local races. Democratic incumbents Karen Howard and Mike Dasher are running on a slate with Franklin Gomez Flores, a Guatemalan immigrant, who is seeking to unseat Andy Wilkie, the sole Republican on the Chatham County Commission. Wilkie, in turn, is running on a Republican slate with Jay Stobbs and Jimmy Pharr, who pledge to “restore the veterans memorial.” Monument supporters seeking to boost Stobbs and Pharr’s campaigns have sought to build a negative association between their Democratic opponents and antiracist activists who pressured the county commission to act on their pledge to remove the statue. Posts on the Vote out Mike Dasher and Karen Howard in Chatham County NC Facebook page include a photo of Maya Little, a doctoral student at UNC-Chapel Hill, getting arrested in Pittsboro and a video of a group with an antifascist flag scuffling with neo-Confederates last fall that charges, “This is what Dasher and Howard brought to Chatham County.”
Confederate monument supporters, many of whom live outside Chatham County, have maintained a recurring presence in Pittsboro, often taunting opponents with misogynistic and homophobic slurs and crude racist stereotypes. While their presence is nothing new, members of the local antiracist group Chatham Takes Action have felt compelled to take a stand against their racism and hate. And events in the lead-up to the general election have given them cause for uneasiness, if not outright alarm.
Weaver organized a small rally last Saturday to promote state Republican candidates in downtown Pittsboro. A Facebook post promoting the rally conspicuously omitted any call for attendees to bring Confederate flags, instead recommending American, North Carolina, Betsy Ross, Gadsden, Trump and Blue Lives Matter banners.
Local antiracists also took note of a pair of racist fliers enclosed in plastic bags and weighted down with birdseed that started appearing in downtown Pittsboro a couple days ago. The delivery mechanism and old-school race-baiting messaging suggest the Ku Klux Klan, although they included no identifying information. One includes a photo of Joe Biden with a communist flag, reading, “We got rid of your statues & reb flag. Now, it’s time to get rid of the Stars & Stripes.” The flier refashions the acronym “NAACP” as “Negroes Against America for Communist Party.”
On Saturday, about 20 people gathered at the traffic circle around the historic Courthouse to display Black Lives Matter banners while collecting canned goods for a local food pantry, as a group of Trump supporters gathered in equal number across the street.
“We are here to support our community, where Black lives matter, where trans lives matter, where healthcare is a right for all, where immigrant lives matter; that’s the community that we are here to create and support,” Sarah D’Amato, an organizer with Chatham Takes Action, explained. “We are here today to speak up against racism, racial inequality, hate, bigotry, harassment.”
Howard, the Democratic county commissioner seeking re-election, was out of town on Saturday, but told TCB she would have joined the antiracist protest if she were able.
“The people that show up are the best reflection of who we are,” said Howard, a New York native who spent much of her childhood in the Bahamas and who is the only Black member of the county commission. “Kudos to those who are willing to stand in this space and stand in the gap. We are the ones who will show up and stand against hate and venom. I will proudly stand with them.”
Since May 2019, when county commissioners initiated discussions over the fate of the monument, Confederate flaggers and antiracists have squared off repeatedly in Pittsboro, oftentimes with mutual taunts escalating into brawls and assault charges. Other than the shared focus on presidential politics, the standoff on Saturday felt familiar. Early in the day, a fistfight broke out after antiracists wrote “Black Lives Matter” in chalk in the median and in front of the courthouse, and counter-protesters marked out their message and wrote “Trump.”
Later, an antiracist named David Freeman said the Trump supporters surrounded him in his truck and three or four of them were beating on his vehicle. He texted one of the other antiracists, and they came down the street to rescue him.
“We have a saying in the antiracist community: ‘We keep us safe,’” Freeman said. “There was a policeman across the street, and he didn’t do anything while they were banging on my truck. He said he didn’t see anything, but I find that hard to believe.”
Freeman, a Chatham County resident who has COPD, equipped his truck with large signs hung from a frame built out of the bed in support of Black Lives Matter in May. He developed multiple sets that also address healthcare and immigration that he said he can switch out in 10 minutes. For the two weeks leading into the election, he said he’s only displaying anti-Trump signs.
The messages are strategic, based on polling where Trump is most vulnerable with Republican voters. One reads, “Embarrassed by Trump? Restore dignity. Elect Biden-Harris.”
For the most part, the counter-protesters in downtown Pittsboro on Saturday displayed Trump flags, along with a couple Gadsden and a Blue Lives Matter flag. But when Kerwin Pittman, a Raleigh resident and field organizer for Emancipate NC, took the microphone, a man across the street began vigorously shaking a Confederate flag. Pittman has become a target of particular hatred for neo-Confederates in the region. His organization was the fiscal sponsor for a group of local residents who raised money to buy space on a billboard on US 64 Business outside of Pittsboro to display a Black Lives Matter flag. The billboard was leased from property owned by Sam White, a local man who hosted Confederate flaggers in front of an old garage nearby. Pittman said his organization has sponsored three Black Lives Matter billboards in Harnett County, and is currently looking at locations in Graham.
In early June, Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Pittman to the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. Neo-Confederates and conservatives of various stripes repeatedly bring up Pittman’s criminal record as a way to try to discredit him: He began serving a sentence for murder in 2007, and was released in January 2018.
“Go back to prison, you murderer,” a counter-protester shouted from across the street as Pittman spoke on Saturday.
“My past is what qualifies me to do what I’m doing now,” Pittman responded. “I rebuild what I once destroyed, but all they do is continue to destroy. It is a difference. When all they continue to do is destroy, they are not righting their wrongs. And this is why they do the intimidation tactics that they’re doing. It worked for their forefathers. But guess what? It don’t work for y’all.”
During the protest, one of the Trump-Confederacy supporters called a Black man “boy.” Another man hurled the misogynist terms “bitch,” “slut” and “cunt” at a female antiracist.
During a brief standoff in the median, an unidentified white man wearing a Trump hat and a Confederate flag bandanna wrapped around his neck, said, “I ain’t racist. I just love the red, white and blue. I love America.”
Then he asked, “Why is Black lives more important than our life? Tell me that. Why don’t y’all go save the Black children in Chicago and the Bronx? I’d support that.”
Thomas May, an Alamance County resident who shouted “white power” during a Trump parade five weeks ago, was also part of the standoff. May held a banner — the same one he waved during the parade — reading, “Trump 2020: The Sequel — Make the Liberals Cry Again” in Pittsboro on Saturday. Responding to a fellow neo-Confederate who asked what Trump has done to hurt anyone, May said, “He took ’em offa welfare. That what they done.”
Many of the people who showed up for the protest in downtown Pittsboro on Saturday — both neo-Confederates and antiracists — were also present for the flagging event at the Ag Center during early voting for the primary in February.
Howard, the Democratic commissioner, said county leaders have tried to engage Confederate supporters on next steps, whether it’s to put up new monuments that provide a more contextualized reflection of Chatham County’s history or leave the space empty where the monument once stood. But they haven’t gotten much buy-in from monument supporters and, in any case, many of them don’t live in Chatham County.
“For all the volume of this group, their loudness, they haven’t brought more people to their side,” Howard said. “It has been an angry flash mob, for lack of a better term. It’s not the sort of thing that’s going to survive; it will die.”
Howard said she worries about voter intimidation in this election, but she hasn’t seen it yet.
If turnout is any indication, far from suppressing the vote the polarized atmosphere has super-charged participation. Chatham County leads North Carolina in turnout, according to data from the US Elections Project at the University of Florida. Combining in-person early voting and absentee ballots, 54 percent of registered voters — or 31,168 out of 57,125 — have already voted in Chatham County.
Election tensions spilled over into an argument between a Republican volunteer and a woman who wanted to hold an anti-Trump sign outside just outside the no-campaigning zone at the Ag Center on Saturday morning.
“The sidewalk is neutral, and people need to move through,” said Susan Sigmon, the site supervisor. “They were having a discussion about how to make that happen, and they had a difference of opinion. They resolved it themselves.”
Sigmon said the incident took place while the polling place was opening up, and no voters were present.
There’s evidence to suggest electoral appeals to white supremacy might have run up against their limits in Chatham County.
Woody Weaver Jr., the man who called the protest against the seminar during the primary and who organized the GOP rally in Pittsboro last weekend, didn’t show on Saturday. But he made a Facebook post expressing his displeasure with the Chatham County Republican Party. He said he wants to elect Republicans to state government who will “correct the local governments” in Chatham, Durham and Orange counties.
“I have asked key GOP politicians in those counties that are running for office: ‘Point blank, do you support the BLMs in your county? Yes or no?’” he wrote in the post. Their resounding silence on the issue has made Weaver feel discouraged and he pointedly wrote in another post that he decided to spend money on GOP swag with the local party in Wake County instead of in Chatham County.
Karen Howard said she thinks if there’s voter intimidation happens in Chatham County, it will most likely take place on Nov. 3 — Election Day.
“Our sheriff’s department and our board of elections is aware of it,” she said. “I feel comfortable with their plan.”
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