Hundreds of people converged on downtown Durham Friday afternoon, ready to stand up to white supremacists. But as they stood on the street baking in the midday sun, waiting for something to happen, many began to wonder whether the Klan was actually going to show.
Throughout the day, government officials, including the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, stressed that there had been no confirmed reports of the KKK coming to town and launched a social media campaign warning people not to spread “rumors.”
But information about the white supremacists’ potential arrival began with the Sheriff’s Office itself.
Friday morning, reports began circulating that the DCSO had told several community leaders of the possibility of a KKK rally in Durham that day. The city and county appeared to take the threat seriously: four county buildings were closed at ten a.m., and the street in front of the old county courthouse—where the Klan was thought to be convening—was also closed to traffic.
Then, in a statement Sunday, Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews confirmed his agency shared “information with key individuals” about a possible KKK rally in Durham Friday. But Andrews says this “was in no way a signal for them to independently sound the alarm ahead of law enforcement.”
Here’s the full statement Andrews released today:
“We’re aware of the concerns posted on social media; however, our critics were not sitting in the Command Post monitoring and reviewing incoming intel throughout the day, which included rumored Klan sightings with the potential of putting lives at risk. Furthermore, the Sheriff’s Office had a duty and obligation to take precautionary measures, including notifying leaders in the community of the potential of a counter protest to the demonstrators on Monday evening.
Sharing that information with key individuals, including a representative of demonstrators who were staged outside the courthouse Friday morning, was in no way a signal for them to independently sound the alarm ahead of law enforcement, potentially triggering needless panic and anxiety. Our goal was to avoid the possibility of groups with opposing viewpoints violently clashing in the streets of Durham. A tornado watch is not the same as a tornado warning. My Agency was still in the process of verifying the information that was shared as a courtesy and in an abundance of caution with key individuals.
We’re grateful those who gathered in the streets were able to do so safely while law enforcement and other emergency officials worked hard to ensure their safety. Had my Office never said a word and the Klan never arrived, it would’ve been a normal Friday in the Bull City. Had it never given key leaders advanced warning and the Klan arrived, my Agency would’ve been criticized for being silent with prior knowledge, albeit unverified.”
Scott Holmes, an attorney representing protesters charged with dismantling a Confederate monument Monday, says he was notified about the potential threat leaving his clients’ first appearances in Durham County court early Friday morning. Holmes posted on Twitter that “it was Durham Sheriff Major Martin who told me as we were leaving court that the Klan was coming.”
“I am grateful the Durham County Sheriff’s office shared with me the information that white supremacists were coming to Durham,” Holmes wrote on Facebook in response to Andrews’ statement. “My clients are receiving death threats from white supremacist radicals even as they are also being raided by Durham sheriff deputies. So, all information that could help to keep them safe is welcome. It was a very difficult situation for the Sheriff to try to predict the unpredictable in a complicated and potentially volatile situation. As far as I know, it could be that the White supremacists intended to march and decided not to after seeing the people of Durham peacefully take to the street in a remarkable act of anti-racist solidarity.”
Ben Carroll, who was at the courthouse Friday morning in solidarity with those who have been charged in Monday’s protest, said demonstrators “have been receiving threatening messages posted on the Internet, receiving messages in the mail, threatening phone calls from various right-wing forces.”
“It’s pretty widespread. Folks have been receiving all kinds of different messages threatening them personally, their families,” he said.
Threats have been posted on people’s personal social media accounts, as well as pages for organizations supporting Monday’s demonstration and news stories about it, Carroll said.
“Every now and again, when there’s some kind of a demonstration or an action, you hear from these kinds of people,” Carroll said, but there is “a new seriousness” to the threats received this week.
Carroll said he was unsure if the threats had been reported to law enforcement.
“I don’t know the extent of the knowledge that they have, but with the campaign of repression they’ve been waging and trying to target anyone and everyone who participated in the demonstration I don’t think we have much faith that they would do anything substantial about it,” he said. “One of the messages Monday and the ongoing messages is that it wasn’t just about one statue it’s about fighting white supremacy in many different forms that it manifests itself in society and I think you in many ways see that the police uphold the same interests as these white supremacists who are now targeting this demonstration.”
Friday’s protest was by and large peaceful, complete with a dance party, drummers, and volunteers handing out popsicles. There were reports of white supremacists in Durham, but there was no organized KKK march.
“One of the most remarkable things today was watching people take care of each other, people walking around saying, ‘Do you need water? Do you need sunscreen? Do you need food?’” said Pastor Cleve May, of CityWell Methodist church. “Total strangers crossing every divide that we have in our community, whether racial or even generational. It was a really a remarkable cross-section of people that I think were unified in pretty beautiful ways. The folks that were here, I think, were clearly saying we’re willing to put our bodies on the line to prevent these expressions of white supremacists from having a free pass to our city.”
May arrived downtown at about 11:45 a.m.
“I had a mix of thoughts,” he said. “On the one hand it was very beautiful, very compelling. I thought it was also very terrifying, just with images of Charlottesville in mind and knowing that was what we were potentially marching toward.” May said while the crowd seemed unified in opposition to hatred and racism, “there were clearly folks here who were ready to be violent if they needed to be.”
May practices nonviolence. “It’s very clear that that’s not everyone’s stance here, which is understandable, but I felt like folks were either going to die or go to prison for killing someone. Both are tragic,” he said.
An argument did break out Friday afternoon near the dismantled Confederate monument. Lindsey Thompson says two men had confronted protesters, saying such demonstrations were “part of the problem” and that “Democrats” owned slaves. Thompson tried to get one to talk with her away from the crowd. Video footage captured by TheNews & Observer shows one of the men carrying a knife.
Durham City Council member Charlie Reece, who put himself between the knife-carrying man and an antiracist protester, also said he faced threats Friday.
Friday evening, a group of protesters met a line of police in riot gear.
Crowds largely dispersed around five p.m., after deputies announced they were reopening the street in front of the county building where the Confederate monument was torn down Monday. Some demonstrators then joined a weekly protest of conditions at the Durham County jail before marching toward toward the Durham Police Department. One person, Willam Fulton, was charged with failure to disperse.
In a statement, the police department says protesters blocked traffic at major intersections and did not heed “numerous warnings” to clear out. A video taken around this time purporting to show KKK members near DPD headquarters was widely circulated on social media. City Council member Jillian Johnson said Saturday that city officials had confirmed that a video was not of the Klan.
“The Durham Police Department respects our residents’ right to peacefully assemble and exercise their First Amendment right and we appreciate those who adhered to those values today,” police chief C.J. Davis said in a statement.