Cases were dismissed Monday against two people charged with toppling a Confederate monument in downtown Durham last summer, and a third was found not guilty.
Dante Strobino, Peter Gilbert and Raul Jimenez were the first of eight people to be tried in connection with the August 14 incident. After eight hours in court, Judge Fred Battaglia decided to call it a day and hear the remaining five cases on April 2.
All three faced charges of injury to real property, defacing public property (in this case the monument) and conspiracy to deface public property, all misdemeanors.
“This is a case about organized destruction,” assistant district attorney Ameshia Cooper said while introducing Strobino’s case.
“We’re not here about a monument. We’re here about government hate-speech,” said defense attorney Scott Holmes.
The monument was pulled down August 14 during a rally in response to a violent white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville the weekend before. Initially twelve people had been charged in connection with the incident but charges against three people were dropped in November and a fourth person received a deferred dismissal deal.
The state called five witnesses, two of whom had taken video when the monument was torn down. Those videos were played repeatedly as each defendant was tried individually. Heads bobbed in the crowd as protesters on the tape chanted “the people united will never be defeated” and “black lives matter here.”
Ultimately, though, the prosecution was not able to prove that the videoes showed the defendants in the courtroom committing the crimes they were charged with. The prosecution attempted to link Strobino and Gilbert to a limousine with a ladder strapped to it that deputies followed after the statue came down, but were unable to establish a tie to the action that had taken place.
“Alls I have is a ladder,” Battaglia said.
Holmes argued that the statue’s presence in front of what had once been the county courthouse violated the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery except as a form of punishment, and the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. Further, Holmes said the monument violated a state law prohibiting public buildings from being used to advocate for the overthrow of the government.
But Battaglia said his rulings were based on the lack of evidence, not whether protesters would have been justified in tearing down the statue.
“Where does one draw the line?” Battaglia said before finding Jimenez not guilty. “Is it a subjective line in the sand? Is it based on emotion? Those are the issues of our day. The issue in this case is whether or not this defendant is guilty or not of this charge.”
After leaving court, the defendants (who along with their supporters have become known as Defend Durham) were met by a crowd of dozens of people who marched from the site of the monument to the courthouse.
“This is a reminder that tearing down monuments for white supremacy is not a crime,” Jimenez said. Speakers reiterated that their real fight is against systems – and not just symbols – of white supremacy.
“We have to keep showing up for folks,” said Loan Tran, who received the deferred dismissal. “We have to continue the battles in our classrooms and in our neighborhoods, in the courts and in the streets.”
Three Durham members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans came to see the outcome of the trial, but didn’t engage with the protesters. One referred to the group as “Communists” who are too “brainwashed” to have a dialogue about what the statue really stood for (some of the people charged are affiliated with the leftist Workers World Party.)
“Everybody in Durham does not condone the action that happened,” said William O’Quinn, commander of the Capitol Brigade. Protesters’ rhetoric and media coverage make it seem like all of Durham supports the toppling if the statue, he said.
The statue isn’t a symbol of hate “and we’re not racist, either,” O’Quinn said.
“It’s to the men. It’s to the boys who served,” he said, referring to an inscription on the monument dedicating it to “the boys who wore the gray.”
O’Quinn said the statue should be restored and put back atop the stone base still standing outside of the county building. He also disagrees with how deputies handled the incident — some filmed the action but did not intervene at the time.
“Why didn’t they stop them?” he asked.
Defend Durham has gotten statements of support from the Durham Human Relations Commission, the People’s Alliance and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. Some elected officials called for the felony charges to be dropped. The city and county are working to form a joint committee that would take public input and recommend what should be done with the monument.
After court, speakers said call-ins and public pressure had weighed on the proceedings, claiming a victory for “people power.”
“They are putting our entire movement on trial,” said Tran, “so they will feel the wrath and power of our entire movement.”