Angered by the removal of the Silent Sam Confederate monument at UNC Chapel Hill, a small coalition of neo-Confederate activists returned to campus on Saturday intent on raising the Confederate flag.
The Facebook invitation to the “Confederate Flag Raising at UNC Chapel Hill” asked supporters to “protest the anti-Confederate hysteria espoused by authorities, officials, students, faculty, staff and organizations in Chapel Hill/UNC that have succumbed to a state of anarchy and utter disregard for the rule of law!”
The neo-Confederates were further inflamed by a surprise action by the town of Chapel Hill on Friday morning to remove a Jefferson Davis highway marker on Franklin Street. Frankie Harper, a member of the group Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, or ACTBAC, commented on a neo-Confederate Facebook page that “there may be blood” at the event on Saturday.
When the neo-Confederates arrived on campus at noon on Saturday, they were almost immediately surrounded by a much larger group of antiracists who attempted to block the Confederate flags with banners and placards while chanting, “Go home, racists!”
The antiracist counter-event sought to contextualize their opponents’ veneration of the Confederacy by holding up placards with historical facts to undercut the neo-Confederate claim that their cause is about heritage and honoring war dead and not about upholding white supremacy. One quoted Confederate General John Tyler Morgan as saying, “The Ordinance of Secession rests, in great measure, upon our assertion of a right to enslave the African race.”
Tempers flared several times as antiracists stalked the neo-Confederates, from Graham Memorial Building, around McCorkle Place and up and down Franklin Street, maintaining nearly constant chants, interspersing, “Go home, racists!” with “1-2-3, fuck the Confederacy.” Some antiracists got in their opponents’ faces and told them they weren’t welcome in profanity-laced terms.
Members of the two groups showed hostility towards each other by kicking water at each other as they marched around campus in the cold drizzle.
Lindsay Ayling, an antiracist organizer confronted a neo-Confederate activist at Graham Memorial, saying, “This woman has asked you not to touch her. Do not touch her.” At least two neo-Confederate activists demanded that police arrest antiracists for assault, but neither UNC Police of Chapel Hill police made any arrests.
At one point, antiracists momentarily snatched a Confederate flag banner reading, “It’s a Southern thing, you wouldn’t understand,” but its owner retrieved it. At another point, a banner reading “Tar Heels tore it down” carried by antiracists was briefly trampled underfoot; it’s unclear how it ended up on the ground. During one of the brief skirmishes, neo-Confederate Rusty Alphin’s umbrella was torn, leaving the metal spokes dangling as he suspended it over the heads of counter-protesters marching in front of him.
Tensions became particularly high during the march down Franklin Street. Antiracists took advantage of traffic at intersections to attempt to block the neo-Confederates, bringing the march to a standstill with opponents staring each other down and exchanging taunts. At one point, a Chapel Hill police officer waded into the crowd when it appeared that people would start shoving one another. One faction of the antiracist group briefly chanted, “Cops and Klan go hand in hand,” but when others signaled their disapproval, they resumed the less controversial chant, “Go home, racists.”
Both groups claimed victory after the last two neo-Confederates ducked into a car on Franklin Street and departed around 2:30 p.m.
Silent Sam I Am, an antiracist Twitter account, tweeted: “Neo-Confederates surrender to the cold rain, and to the amazing chorus of anti-racist voices that told them #RacistsGoHome.”
Ryan Barnett, one of the organizers of the neo-Confederate rally, posted on Facebook afterwards: “They will try and lie and say they ran us off and shut us down but they could not stop us from walking anywhere we wanted to on campus with confederate flags and then into Chapel Hill as planned.”
Barnett uses the name “David Gregory” on Facebook. “David Gregory” declined to confirm his identity as Barnett in a Facebook message on Saturday, writing, “You gonna try to twist me into being this guy now?” But photos of “David Gregory” at the rally in Chapel Hill on Saturday strongly resemble a neo-Confederate activist named Ryan Barnett whose name and photograph have appeared in news accounts of rallies in Florida and Georgia. Barnett was formerly the boyfriend of Tara Brandau, a neo-Confederate activist who has attracted the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In one Facebook thread, Barnett — posting as “David Gregory” — reminisces with Brandau about a rally at Stone Mountain in Georgia.
Brandau is confirmed as having attended a November 2015 rally organized by the Ku Klux Klan in an article published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Brandau reportedly fell out with the League of the South, an organization that advocates for a white ethno-state in the former Confederacy, shortly after the rally.
The Southern Poverty Law Center quotes a Florida League of the South member, Mary Barlow, as saying that Barnett influenced Brandau to distance herself from the group.
“I have removed [Brandau] from our board, my friendly circle, my home and she will no longer be attending events that are associated with SOSH,” Barlow reportedly wrote. “Personally, I believe her ‘city boy soldier,’ Ryan Barnett has had an influential, yet negative impact on her outlook, henceforth her careless public media rants, disrespect towards organizers of events and now her openly [sic] disrespect towards the league.”
Brandau and Barnett both subscribe to a “rainbow Confederate” position, which celebrates the participation of black people — voluntarily or coerced — in the Confederate war effort and holds that the Civil War was not fought over slavery. The explicitly racist League of the South openly disparages the notion that “Southern heritage” includes black people.
Until Saturday, Barnett had been a peripheral player in the neo-Confederate mobilization around Silent Sam. But days after the toppling of Silent Sam in August 2018, Barnett — posting as “David Gregory” — warned, “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.” At the time Barnett declined to explain his statement about violence, deflecting with a conspiratorial assertion about “willful criminal negligence by the cops and campus administration” driven by “international dark money.”
In the days leading up to Saturday’s rally and afterwards, Barnett has used inflammatory language on Facebook to describe his antiracist opponents, including calling them “domestic terrorists.”
Barnett’s entry into neo-Confederate organizing in North Carolina brings together three strands of the fledgling movement. The group Heirs to the Confederacy added its name to the event, and one of its organizers, Nancy Rushton, signed on as a host for the Facebook event.
Rushton, like Barnett, promotes a whitewashed veneration of the Confederation as a matter of heritage, but she has tiptoed even closer to overt white power activism than Barnett. Rushton had planned to attend Rock Stone Mountain, a white power event scheduled for early February that was canceled because of security concerns. Updates to the event page included posts celebrating American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell and ridiculing black Confederate reenactors.
Taunted by Lindsay Ayling about her plans to attend the aborted Stone Mountain rally, Rushton retorted during a recent rally in Raleigh: “I’m standing for my white heritage.”
Although Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, or ACTBAC, didn’t officially host the event on Saturday, at least five members attended. ACTBAC has been lauded in the broader neo-Confederate movement after its members took credit earlier this week for stealing a memorial erected by antiracist students to an unidentified woman represented as being horse-whipped by Julian Carr, the white supremacist industrialist who gave the dedication speech for Silent Sam in 1913, for the offense of disrespecting a white woman.
On Feb. 19, ACTBAC declared on its Facebook page: “Until North Carolina law is upheld, any marker, memorial, or monument that goes up by any involved in the destruction of Silent Sam, let the Lord oh Lord be our witness, we will do as been done to us! We do not extend this promise because of any racial beliefs or meaning. This is simply a eye for an eye. In compromise we suggested markers or memorials. You believe what you believe, but leave the Silent Sam memorial to the dead alumni that fought for the love of state and home alone. Not slavery or war of color of skin. A war that those men seen as correct to as their forefathers before them.”
Notwithstanding ACTBAC’s official disavowal of racism, ACTBAC member Frankie Harper sprinkled gleeful comments about the theft on a recent Facebook Live video posted by the group Confederacy 901. But Harper was silent when the host of the video, Billy Helton, lobbed racially charged insults against Hurricane Katrina survivors as “a bunch of mother***ers coming out of damn stores with TVs on their heads and shit” and characterized indigenous people as “trading your daughters off for trinkets.”