Armed “defenders” stand in front of the Confederate monument in Uptown Lexington on June 30. Janet Pate, who told Triad City Beat she was not armed, is standing at left. (photo by Brian Pickett)

Lexington Mayor Newell Clark announced today that the city is filing a nuisance-abatement lawsuit against Davidson County to remove and relocate the 1905 Confederate monument that stands in the county-owned park in the center of the city.

“The display of a Confederate monument at the heart of our city is contrary” to Lexington’s values as a “city of unity” that is “safe, inclusive, welcoming, warm and inviting to all people of all backgrounds,” as reflected in a 2019 resolution, Clark said during a press conference on Thursday morning at Lexington City Hall. The mayor called the monument “a threat to our city’s safety and welfare.”

Clark said “polarizing issues” in the wake of the death of George Floyd “have created dangerous rhetoric, and our public safety concerns began on June 1,” adding that “they continued to escalate and persist for 73 days and counting.”

City officials have become frustrated as their counterparts at the county have refused to relocate the monument, despite a formal request followed by a nuisance-abatement action.

The city said in a press release previewing the lawsuit announcement that the mayor has sought for weeks to work with the county to “find solutions to resolve civil unrest, a public nuisance and potential for threats to public safety relating to the Confederate monument located on Davidson County-owned property in the heart of Lexington.”

On July 13, the city council unanimously passed a resolution requesting that the county relocate the monument.

The Lexington Human Relations Commission brought a recommendation to move the monument. The commission’s resolution referenced “the prominent placement of a Confederate statue within Lexington City Square,” writing, “This display and the symbol of oppression with which it is associated is deemed unacceptable by this commission and should be removed.” The commission said, “Although one must concede the statue commemorates a part of our nation’s history, we, as a community, are confronted with this question: Is it a part of our history that we want to commemorate, namely, an era of hatred, bondage, destruction and national discord?” Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., the commission proclaimed: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

A city council member noted that one petition in favor of removal included more than 2,000 signatures. Another said she had received twice as many calls from people who were in favor of removing the monument as those who supported keeping it.

“Our young folks took up place at the square to have their voices heard,” Clark said before the July 13 vote. He added later: “I want these young people to understand your mayor and your council has your back.

“The voices of our young people are being heard, and I want the county to hear this: I know the citizens of Lexington and they are all county residents,” he said. “Our city residents are asking for this statue to be removed. No one is saying tear it up. No one is saying disregard history. Everyone I have talked to has said we just want this relocated. If it is history, then we have a Civil War battleground here in our community and it is out in the county. But within the city limits, the largest monument in our square does not represent us as a people.”

Clark noted that the keynote speaker when the monument was unveiled was a “white supremacist.” Cyrus B. Watson, a Winston-Salem resident, was the Democratic Party nominee for governor in 1896.

“It was not remembering the Confederate dead,” Clark said. “It was erecting something so large that it was intimidating someone of color to walk into our square. No more. Not today. Not in our community.”

Seven years ago, the city removed the monument from its logo.

“We’ve done the work to remove that, and created a new logo, a new brand, a new direction for Lexington,” Clark said.

‘It’s like it’s 1960’: Peaceful anti-racists confronted by armed monument defenders

Pamela Kelly, who has participated in the protests in support of removing the monument, said the symbol of the Confederacy is perceived as a barrier to the city’s efforts to reinvent itself.

“We’re in a position to bring in a lot of business,” Kelly said. “We’re going to build a Depot District. We have Goose & Monkey Brew House. There’s a renovation of the farmer’s market. They’re building lofts. That’s where Lexington is coming from. We don’t want the monument to be something to make people invest in another community rather than ours.”

Young, Black people and white allies have been protesting night after night in front of the Confederate monument in downtown Lexington calling for the statue’s removal since the death of George Floyd in late May.

Elijah Laws, who was part of the core group that started the protests, recalled that after two or three weeks, counter-protesters started showing up at the monument with Confederate flags. Eventually, the monument supporters claimed the space in front of the monument, and the protesters moved across the street to the sidewalk in front of the old county courthouse.

Laws said the anti-monument protesters have consistently demonstrated peacefully, although at least one altercation has broken out. The Lexington police have made 13 arrests during the protests, Deputy Chief Robby Rummage told Triad City Beat.

The nightly presence of monument opponents displaying “Black Lives Matter” flags has drawn armed counter-protesters who consider themselves monument “protectors.” With phones streaming live to thousands of people on Facebook, monument supporters routinely characterize the protesters holding signs with anti-racist messages as “violent,” “antifa” and “terrorists.”

“There are people standing there with assault rifles,” Laws said. “They think we’re going to rip the monument down. We’ve consistently said we’re doing it the legal way. We’re going to our elected representatives. They call us ‘antifa’ and ‘terrorists.’ They wrote out signs that say, ‘Black lies matter.’ There are comments from Davidson County residents [on social media] that are devastating. They’re saying, ‘Burn them all.’ They call the white people ‘n***** lovers.’ It’s like it’s 1960.’”

Rummage confirmed that on at least one occasion people who supported the monument showed up with long guns and handguns visible at their sides. The Lexington police met with the district attorney the next day and confirmed that a state law prohibiting dangerous weapons at a demonstration clearly applies to the nightly gatherings of people expressing views on either side of the monument controversy. Rummage cautioned that the law does not prohibit people from carrying concealed firearms if they hold a permit.

Monument supporters have claimed that their opponents are also armed, but Rummage said the police have yet to see any evidence of that.

Tensions draw neo-Confederates, Proud Boys and far-right extremists

The tension in Lexington has attracted a handful of activists from far-right and neo-Confederate circles, who have previously shown up in other North Carolina communities where conflict has erupted over the fate of Confederate monuments, including Chapel Hill, Pittsboro and Graham. Most prominent among them, Jay Thaxton, a member of the Proud Boys, has made common cause with neo-Confederates in Pittsboro and Graham.

A fraternity known for street brawling that promotes a belief in Western chauvinism, the Proud Boys publicly disavow racism even as individual members maintain ties with organizations that are overtly white supremacist, with some participating in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. Thaxton himself participated in a Proud Boys detachment at the Second Amendment rally in Richmond, Va. in January earlier this year that united with Sidney Horton, a self-described “white identitarian,” over their mutual anger about a more moderate wing of the militia movement inviting a group of antifascists to dinner. And although Thaxton has said that he’s someone who “doesn’t see color,” one of his Facebook livestreams shows him having a cordial chat with Jessica Reavis, a member of the League of the South, during a counter-protest against a July 11 march to remove the Confederate monument in Graham.

The League openly advocates for a white ethno-state based on “blood and soil” and its leaders use vile racial slurs against Black people. In mid-July, Thaxton shared a link to the VirginiaLS public Facebook group — a forum that League members use for recruitment — from his personal page.

As someone who frequently livestreams the Lexington protests on his Facebook page, Thaxton has used racially loaded language to deride antiracists and promoted baseless conspiracy theories to suggest a nefarious motivation for those exercising their First Amendment rights to call for the monument’s removal. In one video shared on July 10, Thaxton told viewers he was in Lexington “keeping the natives at bay,” and in another posted two days later he called them “street rats.”

Jay Thaxton in Graham on July 11 (Facebook Live screenshot)

Thaxton espouses a completely baseless assertion that the Movement for Black Lives is financed by the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that President Trump has unsuccessfully sought to designate as a foreign terrorist organization, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a conventional civil rights advocacy organization.

Training his phone on a group of protesters in Lexington who were standing on the sidewalk and holding signs on July 10, Thaxton told his viewers: “I just think everyone needs to see what the face of tyranny looks like, what the face of a terrorist organization looks like. I mean, how can you accept money by CAIR and the Muslim Brotherhood and not be classified as a terrorist?”

“BLM does equal terrorists,” he continued. “They are domestic terrorists. First, they started with the monuments. Now, they’re after the churches. The next thing on their movement is going into the suburbs, to take whatever they want, by any means necessary.”

Thaxton could not be reached for this story.

Later in July, a group of men in military fatigues joined the monument supporters in Lexington. While it’s not clear whether they were armed, one of them, Jason Passmore, has maintained close ties with white supremacists. Passmore showed up with a group of armed men during the first three nights of protests in Greensboro after the death of George Floyd, including June 2, when a citywide curfew was in effect.

Passmore also wielded a rifle at a gate outside of 311 Speedway in Stokes County on June 27, when Black Lives Matter activists protested the owner’s social-media posts. The militia group that showed up in Lexington on July also included Clyde Bone, who was part of a North Carolina group equipped with homemade shields and flagpoles that clashed with antiracists at Unite the Right in Charlottesville in 2017.

Deputy Chief Rummage said those who want to keep the monument in Lexington have attracted more support from people outside of Davidson County, while the movement to relocate the monument is almost completely comprised of local residents.

“Somehow, there’s this notion that those that want the monument to come down are going to tear it down,” Rummage said. “We have communicated regularly with those on both sides, and I can tell you there’s no indication that there’s any concerted effort to damage property in Uptown Lexington or to forcibly take down the statute. Many of those who want the monument removed have told us that they will stop anyone who tries to damage it. Some of these out-of-towners have told us they’re here to protect the town from destruction. That is not true that the other group intends to do that.”

During a second phone call with TCB, Rummage went to extra pains to emphasize the point, making sure it wasn’t overlooked.

“If you can get that out,” he said, “there’s no intelligence that people are trying to tear up our town.”

On Tuesday, monument supporters circulated a call on Facebook for people to gather with flags in the parking lot of the Davidson County Governmental Building to display Confederate flags and “show the commissioners they have our support.”

Antiracists in turn issued an alert calling on supporters to “help stand against racists and racism and show the county commissioners we’re done being played with.” The post asked supporters “to take a stand against the ‘defenders of their heritage’” while warning “we don’t know if the white militia will be there carrying their weapons.”

About 25 antiracists with Black Lives Matter and Black Liberation flags faced off against an equal number of monument supporters displaying Confederate, Gadsden and Trump flags. Jay Thaxton stood towards the back of the monument support group, along with Janet Pate, a neo-Confederate activist who was fired from her job at Koury Corp. in Greensboro for referring to Black students at UNC-Chapel Hill and Washington and Lee University in Virginia as “n*****s.” Steve Marley, an Alamance County resident who has been active in monument rallies across the state, was also there.

During the dueling protests on Tuesday, Melisia Prout, a monument supporter, echoed some of Thaxton’s rhetoric. As she filmed antiracists on her phone, she addressed Elijah Laws. “Still antifa, still terrorists, still the same,” she said. “Yesterday, today and tomorrow. It never changes.”

Prout could not be reached for this story.

Contrary to Deputy Chief Rummage’s assessment, Pate commented on a Facebook thread: “Lexington is on hardcore antifa’s list now.” She offered to locals that she would bring her camera to help identify protesters on the opposing side. Prout responded in the thread: “There’s been a couple questionable people walking around Uptown today.”

Cynthia Adams, a Black grandmother, sat in her car during the protest on Tuesday, taking shelter from a light drizzle. She said she wished the protesters and counter-protesters could have a dialogue, while also saying she felt moving the monument somewhere out in the county would be a reasonable compromise.

“It’s a symbol of hate,” she said. “Their great-grandfathers fought for it. But they killed a lot of ours. So, there’s not a wrong or right.

“They took our great-grandmothers and raped them,” she continued, reflecting on the institution of slavery that was upheld by the Confederacy. “They would kill your babies and throw them in a hole. They would whip the babies. That hurts. When I watch movies about slavery, I think that could have been my great-grandmother.”

Within 15 feet of Adams’ car, two white men earnestly commiserated.

“They’re trying to round up all the history books — I mean, basically the government — before 1980 and burn them. They’re trying to change history.

“They talk about how bad they have it here, but if they didn’t come to the United States they would be in a Third World country,” he continued.

“They’re welcome to go back,” the other man replied. “If I didn’t like it here, that’s what I’d do.”

A couple times over the course of the three-hour standoff, the tension escalated to yelling and profanity, and six Davidson County sheriff deputies arrived on the scene to separate the two groups when they got too close to each other. Antiracists accused Prout of following them home; Prout denied it. An antiracist white woman threatened a woman on the other side: “I’ll fuck you up, bitch.” A man commented on Prout’s livestream: “I am on my way. Motherfuckers gonna hear from me. I am on the way. Let’s have a big brawl.”

Rummage told TCB that the tension between the two groups has progressively increased.

“The tension is palpable,” he said. “I’ve been up there [at the monument] quite a bit, as has the chief. It’s very tense. It’s a highly emotional issue. That’s why we have the presence we do.”

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