The smell of hushpuppies hangs in the air, and Kendrick Lamar is telling the crowd, “We gon’ be all right.” People sign up for updates from the Workers World Party Durham Branch, grab Marxist literature, and donate to the Durham Solidarity Center’s bond fund.

This is a party for the revolution.

The Bull City Block Party, hosted Saturday by the Workers World Party Durham Branch outside of the Hayti Heritage Center, was part celebration, part recruiting for the fight to “topple fight supremacy,” as the event’s flier puts it, and to rally support for a group facing felony charges after pulling down a Confederate monument in Durham on August 14.

That incident marked the beginning of a week that saw protesters’ homes raided, a mass turn-in at the jail by supporters, and a spontaneous gathering of hundreds of people who jumped into action amid sketchy reports of the Ku Klux Klan coming to townand more arrests.

While the dismantling of the monument, erected in front of the old Durham County courthouse in 1924, is just part of this group’s larger mission, the action has had a ripple effect in the Triangle and beyond. Students who staged a sit-in around UNC’s Confederate monument, Silent Sam, drew inspiration from the group. Governor Roy Cooper, who at first condemned the toppling of the statue, has since called for Confederate monuments statewide to come down. Groups in New York and Baltimore are planning solidarity events this week as the demonstrators, united under the name Defend Durham, prepared for court appearances Tuesday. “Do It Like Durham” has become a rallying cry and a hashtag.

The demonstrations in Durham have thrust local activists into the spotlight and animated national debates about Confederate monuments, false equivalencies of right-wing hate groups and antifascist protesters, and a split on the left over what tactics are appropriate. They’ve captured the attention of state and national media, shaped the conversation around upcoming municipal elections, highlighted an ideological divide between the Durham Police Department and the county Sheriff’s Office, and forced conversations in Durham on race, equity, and personal liberty to a more open, informed level.

So who are they?

Twelve people, some affiliated with WWP, have been charged in connection with the August 14 monument toppling. They are students, teachers, workers and parents, their paths as activists informed by their own lived experiences as LGBTQ folks, people of color, and immigrants. Asked what others following their story may not know about them, they reply that they know the law, have jobs, and are by-and-large anticapitalist. They’re also friends outside of their work.

Loan Tran, who spoke at the August 14 demonstration and was one of the first to be arrested, started organizing in high school. Tran is a Vietnamese immigrant whose father had been incarcerated and the family’s home taken through foreclosure. Raul Jimenez, who turned himself in, also got active as a high school student, an immigrant, and a farmworker in eastern North Carolina, where symbols of the Confederacy were commonplace.

Takiyah Thompson, the N.C. Central student who climbed a ladder and looped a rope around the Durham monument, says she has been organizing for about ten years but has been an activist far longer.

“If you understand the history of black women’s activism, it’s not always the activism we think of,” Thompson says. “Black women are activists when they survive and strive and bring their communities with them in a world that has every card stacked up against them.”

While overcoming systems of white supremacy is the ultimate goal, pulling down a symbol of it was an important first step for Defend Durham. It was a morale boost for the group after Charlottesville, tangible proof that it’s making progress. It created “a safer space,” as Jimenez puts it, in place of a statue that represented hatred for so many and showed activists elsewhere that they can do the same. It signaled that the continued existence of white supremacy won’t go unchallenged, at least in Durham.

“When I see black people in Durham who are extremely proud of what we did, that’s the most important thing to me,” Thompson says. “We have to start by creating a culture in which white supremacy and racism and hate are not OK. The next step is to build on the advances of that and pull up these systems by the roots.”

The next front in Durham’s defense against white supremacy? Gentrification, Thompson says.

“I see racism and capitalism as going hand in hand,” she says. “They washed up on America’s shores at the exact same time.”

For this group, the past month has meant going hoarse from chanting, planning support overnight for people due to appear in court, and receiving death threats. It’s also strengthened relationships between Durham’s activists and given way to more meaningful conversations about how people’s lives are affected by white supremacyfrom discriminatory lending practices to the threat of armed white supremacists in our streets.

“The first step to changing anything is to have a really hard conversation about what’s wrong, and those conversations are being had,” Jimenez says.


Simply put, Defend Durham is about community self-defense, whether that’s empowering students at underfunded public schools, advocating against unlawful searches by police, or picking up a weapon to protect your friends and neighbors. Dwayne Dixon has done all three, but you may know him only for the latter.

Dixon is a member of Redneck Revolt, which promotes antiracist organizing among the white working class; the group also encourages armed self-defense. Dixon is a father, a professor at UNC, and a skateboarder. Nine days after hundreds of people gathered in downtown Durham to confront a possible appearance by the KKK, Dixon was arrested and charged with bringing a weapon to the event and going armed to the terror of the public, charges he refutes.

For members of Defend Durham, armed self-defense isn’t antithetical to their mission of securing a safer, more just future. It’s an option long deployed by civil rights advocates whose stories have been sanitized by historya sometimes-necessary tactic in the face of a far-right responsible for more terror attacks in this country than any other group.

“My actions weren’t outsized,” Dixon says. “They’re not cartoonish. They may of course seem shocking, but maybe that shock actually should be a rupture to contemplate the world we’re actually living in and hopefully enliven a discussion, a broader historical debate, about the tactics that we’re using and the reality we’re confronting.”

With his experiences in Charlottesville fresh on his mind, Dixon came downtown on August 18 at the urging of friends. He carefully chose the semi-automatic weapon he wore slung over his shoulder, pointed toward the ground.

While, under state law, he could have carried a concealed weapon, he chose that gun because he was comfortable with it, it would be more accurate and secure than a handgun, and it would be visible to law enforcement officials who may want to know his intentions. He says he realized the presence of his weapon would more likely make him the target of a Klan onslaught than a one-man army who would save hundreds.

Dixon says he did not raise the weapon, nor was he part of any parade or rally where openly carrying a gun would be banned by state law. Those in the crowd, with little information from law enforcement, were still trying to decipher what exactly would transpire, in light of the fact that county offices had been closed and bikers with Confederate flags had just zoomed by. As the crowd grew and began to march, Dixon left.

No police officers spoke to him, he says. He waved and smiled to two Durham cops, alerting them to his presence, but they just waved back and moved on.

“This isn’t something I’m afraid of,” he says of his October court date. “I want the state to give account of itself, and far better that confrontation than a shooting war. I’m not saying I stifled that, but it’s clear there was a lot of confusion on the part of law enforcement that day, and I apologize also if my presence there caused some consternation. But I think it’s incumbent on us to recognize the state isn’t going to save us.”

Major Paul Martin, with the Sheriff’s Office, told the Herald-Sun that deputies didn’t engage people with weapons at the time because of the crowd around them. The Sheriff’s Office declined to answer the INDY‘s questions about the arrest.

According to the Herald-Sun story, deputies were responding to a report of shots fired in east Durham when “they checked warrants and arrested Dixon.” But that doesn’t line up with Dixon’s account or calls for service for that day.

According to Dixon, he was shooting on a friend’s undeveloped property outside of city limits on August 27 when two deputies emerged from the woods and said neighbors had complained about gunshots. Dixon handed over his ID and concealed carry permit, and deputies asked to see the serial numbers on the guns to check if they were stolen before heading to a squad car. After a while, the deputies came back, saying they had been delayed by computer issues. They told Dixon they had a warrant for his arrest.

“They seemed confused,” he says. “It really does seem like it was accidental.”

Dixon was in the back of the patrol car when he heard a report of shots fired off Holloway Street come over the radio.

Neither the Sheriff’s Office’s online incident log or an interactive crime map used by both the Sheriff’s Office and the DPD show any noise complaints or shots fired for the area where Dixon was around the time of his arrest. The crime map does list a call for service at Dixon’s friend’s property but contains no details about the call. Although the Sheriff’s Office is listed on that report, it is not reflected in the agency’s online calls for service log. (The owner of the property confirmed to the INDY that Dixon was arrested on his land).

As far as shots being fired in east Durham, a weapons violation was logged near Holloway by the DPD thirty minutes after the call to Dixon’s friend’s property.

While the demonstrators knew there may be consequences for their actions on August 14, they didn’t expect the Sheriff’s Office to go after them with such zeal. But they also say that each felony charge filed has been like kindling for the fire lighting this fledgling revolution.

“I’m excited by the position that we’ve put the sheriff’s department in,” Tran says. “While we cannot expect that the sheriff’s department is able to engage in nuanced discussion, because at its origin it’s a really antipeople institutionthat contradiction is the most fruitful. The aim is to be able to show the most people we’re not going to get the kind of response we want from the sheriff’s department because that’s not their function.”

They see the agency’s response to their actions as a witch hunt motivated by the fact that the Sheriff’s Office has been the focus of protests over conditions at the Durham County jail and its cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, charges the DCSO has denied.

“I think at this point it’s about figuring out, How do we leverage the charges that have been filed to actually turn that around and indict the sheriff’s department and indict the city of Durham for continuing to allow white supremacist ideology to be a thing that guides our city?” Tran says. “Is it actually criminal to pull down a statue that was erected to terrorize black people, or is it criminal to shoot black and brown folks in the street with impunity?”

Scott Holmes, an attorney representing the arrestees, has been representing activists for about twenty years. Typically, protesters are charged on the spot with failing to disperse or some other misdemeanor violation, which is often dismissed, he says. Although the August 14 demonstration was not interrupted, arresting people after a protest and filing felony charges could have a chilling effect on future demonstrations, he says.

Holmes argues that if Durham is going to develop guidelines for protests, as Sheriff Mike Andrews has suggested, it’s better for elected officials to craft them.

“If there are going to be restrictions on speech, it’s good for the people in power to develop those restrictions rather than police who are developing it on the ground,” he says. “They have unfettered discretion, and that has constitutional problems if the people making arrests are deciding what is considered reasonable behavior.”

Demonstrators say the past month has only made them more certain that, while they may be on the wrong side of the law today, they will be on the right side of history.

“Nobody wants to go to jail. Nobody wants to get arrested, but if we need to we will,” says Jimenez. He pauses, and then a smile spreads across his face. “Hashtag Defend Durham.”