Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Durham Sunday night for a vigil in response to deadly violence that broke out at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville the day before.
Organizers said the goal of the event was to take a public stand against racism and white supremacy, but also to mourn following a day that saw one anti-racist protester killed and dozens injured.
“We are here to recommit to those most endangered by white supremacy,” said speaker Heather Hazelwood. “Tonight is a night for mourning and reflection, but tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that, until white supremacy has ended, we will march.”
But for some, Sunday’s vigil didn’t line up with the severity of what happened in Charlottesville or the response needed to combat white supremacy writ large.
A group including members of Industrial Workers of the World, Workers World Party, Redneck Revolt, and Democrats Socialists of America—many of whom went to Charlottesville and saw Heather Heyer murdered when a white supremacist allegedly plowed a Dodge Charger into a crowd of protesters—interrupted the rally after being denied a spot in the speakers list.
Attendees at the vigil at first sang over the group’s chants, and arguments broke out on the edge of the crowd. Ultimately, organizers handed over the mic to a member of the Workers World Party, who invited “everyone who believes that the KKK and the Nazis do not deserve free speech, do not deserve a second chance, do not deserve kindness” to join them in a march to a Confederate monument on Main Street.
“People are losing their lives,” the speaker said. “This is a war. It is time to actually stand up to these people.”
Eleanor Wertman, with Indivisibles NC, which helped organize the event, said the group had reached out Sunday afternoon asking to be added to the speaker’s list, but that it was full.
“We completely respect and value the contribution they made in Charlottesville and the risk they took,” said Wertman. “Unfortunately we were not able to include them because we are not, as an organization, allowed to endorse any acts of violence for political gain.”
Wertman also said organizers didn’t know the person who tried to speak Sunday night.
“I think if we had another day, we could have accommodated them in a way that respects both of our political approaches,” she said.
Gregory Williams, with IWW, said members of the group had agreed they “wouldn’t advocate hurting people” if given the chance to speak. “For them, nonviolence means tolerance of the status quo,” Williams said. “The demand tonight was essentially don’t rock the boat.”
Williams said that while self-care and emotional support following the events in Charlottesville are important, “I don’t know a single person for whom a rally helps them do that.” He stressed that the “struggle against fascism” isn’t about Democrats and Republicans, and the Democratic Party is “just as complicit in the rise of fascism that we are experiencing in America right now,” even if it isn’t perpetrating outright violence.
“Tonight was not about comforting the afflicted. It was about comforting the comfortable. It was about comforting people who weren’t in Charlottesville who have been tweeting and posting Facebook statuses all day. I’m not saying that’s everybody in the crowd, I’m saying that’s the target audience,” Williams said. “I don’t want people who are standing passively by and allowing fascist violence to come down on us to feel comfortable. I want those people to feel enraged. I want those people to feel disturbed. I want those people to lose their confidence in America as we know it, and I want them to get active.”
Sunday’s event in Durham was one of several throughout the Triangle and across the nation held in response to Saturday’s Unite the Right demonstration. Neo-Nazis, KKK members, and other white supremacists, some dressed in military garb and openly carrying weapons, converged on Charlottesville following plans by the city to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. They were outnumbered by counterprotesters, and the demonstration was declared an unlawful assembly before the official event began.
In bumbling remarks, President Donald Trump avoided calling out the perpetrators of Saturday’s violence, instead “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country.”
Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke spoke at Saturday’s rally in Charlottesville, saying, “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” He rebuked Trump’s statements, reminding him, via Twitter, “it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.”
On Sunday, the White House said “of course” Trump’s condemnation “includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazis and all extremist groups,” but not before white supremacists took a victory lap.
“No condemnation at all,” reads a post on The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi site to which we will not link. “When asked to condemn, [Trump] just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
Stewart Ravitz, a programmer who lives in Wake Forest, was in Charlottesville and at the vigil in Durham. He says he sees a place for both the vigil and the kind of direct action for which protesters advocated on Sunday. Ravitz, who is Jewish and wore a yellow Star of David to the rally, says he was pepper-sprayed, spat on, and hit by white supremacists, and had “raw sewage” thrown on him.
“I wanted to piss them off, that’s why I wore the Star of David,” he said. “I wanted them to know I was there and not afraid of them.”
Ravitz said he used to think it was best to ignore the “alt-right” and not give its members the attention they want. But recently he has been disturbed by how many politicians have failed to stand up to Trump’s divisive rhetoric.
“I don’t think that anymore because they’re not going to go away,” he said. “The longer you turn away, the stronger they get.”
Wertman said the next step will be to “engage as many people as possible” and ultimately have legislative districts fairly redrawn in North Carolina.
“As white people in particular, we have a responsibility to educate folks about why what happened in Charlottesville matters,” she said.
The local chapter of the World Workers Party, among others, will hold a protest on Main Street in Durham Monday night.