The convulsion of rage and acrimony in Chapel Hill can seem like a world away even if it’s only 65 minutes down Interstate 40.
The word “war” is not accurate, and it’s important to not blow matters out of proportion; the skirmishes between antifascists and the far-right, and the seemingly intractable conflict over race, culture and power in the United States, might be termed a “shadow civil war.” But the concept of war is helpful to understanding how people live in denial of the forces tearing at the fabric of society and how they imagine that they are insulated from turmoil erupting nearby. Clashes break out in Haffa, and the people of Damascus continue with their shopping as if life remains normal. Then one day, all of a sudden, people in the residential neighborhoods of Damascus find themselves living cowering under heavy shelling.
So it is with the battle over Confederate monuments in North Carolina and across the US South.
It seemed that the tense standoff between antiracist students and neo-Confederate activists, the clashes with police and aggressive use of bicycles as weapons, tear gas and smoke bombs was a UNC-Chapel Hill issue, and the rest of the state could smugly watch from the sidelines.
But Winston-Salem has a Confederate statue, too. And while it may not be located at the gateway of the state’s flagship university, it is in the heart of downtown. And it’s in front of an old courthouse, albeit one that was sold to a private developer and repurposed for high-end apartments.
Then, on Christmas Day, locals discovered that someone had taken a Sharpie and scrawled at the base of statue: “Cowards & Traitors.”
And on New Year’s Day — notably the first day of a new year that marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in North America — Mayor Allen Joines announced during a Kwanzaa celebration that he’s working on a plan to remove the Confederate monument. Specifically, City Attorney Angela Carmon issued a letter on Dec. 31 directing the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who erected the statue in 1905, to remove it by Jan. 31, or face legal action from the city. The rationale for the directive boils down the recognition that the monument has become a magnet for confrontation, and the city lacks the resources to provide constant police security checks and mitigate acts of vandalism.
Some members of city council aren’t putting up any pretense that the statue is an innocuous relic of distant history as opposed to a symbol of bloody conflict, white supremacy and racial oppression.
“We’re trying to be nice, but in the heat of the night people might come through like ninja warriors and take that statue down,” Councilwoman DD Adams said, according to the Journal.
It’s possible that the transfer of the Confederate monument from its downtown perch to the Salem Cemetery will proceed in an orderly fashion, with grudging cooperation from all parties. But based on past history in Chapel Hill and Charlottesville, that doesn’t seem likely.
No sooner had news broke of the vandalism of the Confederate monument in Winston-Salem than an “Heirs to the Confederacy Monument Support Rally” event scheduled for Jan. 13 cropped up on Facebook. The hosts of the event — Nancy Rushton, Lance Spivey and Howard Snow — previously organized a similar “Heirs to the Confederacy Prayer Service” at the base of Silent Sam on Dec. 16. The Jan. 13 event is billed as a multi-location affair in which the neo-Confederates will rally at Silent Sam in Chapel Hill from 9 a.m. to noon, and then ride together to Winston-Salem and rally at the Old Forsyth Courthouse from 2 to 5 p.m.
The most visible and vocal guest at the Dec. 16 “Heirs to the Confederacy” event was a notorious militia activist from Georgia named James Stachowiak, who is best known for harassing the Stacey Abrams campaign and posting a video in which he advocated shooting women and children in the back. During the Chapel Hill event, Stachowiak set up an Facebook Live video with a neo-Confederate from Tennessee named Mark Davis. While the camera in Chapel Hill was trained on anti-racist counter-protesters, Davis could be seen in an inset leveling a high-powered rifle ostensibly at the counter-protesters and addresses Stachowiak: “Tell ’em. This is what their facing. They wanted war. You better not mess with us. You better not mess with the Confederacy.”
Stachowiak, who has indicated he plans to attend the Jan. 13 rally in Chapel Hill and Winston-Salem, posted a video after the Dec. 16 rally in response to a member of his entourage finding his tires slashed: “If someone is a member of antifa, people, it is time to be it lone wolfs and retaliate against this attack. Retaliate as a lone wolf.”
While the Heirs to the Confederacy publicly disassociated themselves with Stachowiak on Dec. 31, citing “unruly, ungentlemanly behavior” (He responded in kind with a YouTube video entitled “Nancy Rushton is a Back Stabbing B****”), but the falling-out shows the kind of unstable and volatile individuals who are attracted to the cause.
Similarly, antiracist activists in Chapel Hill have been experiencing online harassment for months from a white supremacist figure known as “Jack Corbin,” who communicated with Robert Bowers on social media before Bowers allegedly murdered 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018. Corbin, whose actual name is Daniel McMahon, according to a report in Right Wing Watch, also praised Bowers after the deed. McMahon has indicated on Twitter that he’s aware of the Winston-Salem controversy.
These people are a ticking time bomb. When they say they intend to hurt people, we should believe them. It’s not a matter of if, but when.