Maya Little knows what clear and present danger looks like.
Little, a former UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral student, started protesting Silent Sam in 2017, after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville revealed just how strong the modern white supremacist movement is. In April 2018, they gained local notoriety for painting UNC-CH’s Confederate monument with red paint and their own blood.
The next years were full of clear, present danger.
Their name, alongside the name of Lyndsay Ayling, a prominent anti-racist on campus, was included in racist graffiti on the Unsung Founders Memorial in 2019. They received death threats online. At one point, they say, Confederate sympathizers showed up at an apartment where Little was presumed to live, threatening to shoot.
Little’s experience with threats are what made a recent appeal in Chatham County hard to swallow. Little, the defendant, was found guilty of using “fighting words” to provoke white supremacists.
“They’re threatening to kill me online, and the police don’t care,” they told the INDY. “I get in trouble for saying a mean word to them.”
In 2019, racists from hate groups like League of the South and Heirs to the Confederacy were showing up for weeks to rally around the Confederate monument in Pittsboro as Chatham commissioners decided its fate. On November 16, anti-racists, including Little, came to counterprotest.
The old monument and courthouse are at the center of a roundabout in downtown Pittsboro. Down East Street, there’s a county government parking lot where the neo-Confederates set up shop. Across the street, there’s a small patch of grass and flowers at the Presbyterian Church called Nooe Park. That’s where the anti-racists stood.
Little recalls being called the n-word that day. They also recall right-wingers blowing train whistles to mock Ayling, whose brother was killed by a train.
“These are things that, to me, are ridiculous, but I still put up with it,” Little says. “I never at any point expected those people to be arrested for that, even though it was vile and cruel.”
After hours of back and forth, Little crossed the street toward Neal’s Gas and Convenience. The neo-Confederates walked up to them. Some anti-racists crossed the street to support Little. Geraldine Hall, a neo-Confederate and one of Little’s accusers, walked up to them.
Little was holding a bullhorn. They yelled at Hall, and told her to go for it.
“Do something, bitch!” they shouted.
Allan Hall, Geraldine’s husband, also walked over to get involved. Little had words for him, too.
“You only got one eye, bitch,” they yelled at Allan. Neither of the Halls reacted at first.
Then, Geraldine hit a different anti-racist.
People start shoving. Rusty Alphin, another local white supremacist, punched Little. Their lip split open a little later, during their arrest. They had to spit to keep the blood out of their mouth. Some of that blood got on an officer’s uniform, which led to a felony charge.
Eleven people were arrested that day, including Alphin and both of the Halls. Alphin and Geraldine were charged with simple affray. Allan’s charges included inciting a riot. All three were released from jail on written promises to return for their court dates. Meanwhile, Little was held on a $10,000 bond.
In the end, Little was convicted of “disorderly conduct by abusive language,” based on the words they yelled through the bullhorn. They were convicted of using “fighting words,” a class of speech that applies only if there is a “clear and present danger” of someone’s being punched.
Fighting words were established in a 1942 Supreme Court case where a Jehovah’s Witness called a New Hampshire town marshal “a God-damned racketeer” and “a damned Fascist.” The court ruled that these words were a breach of the peace.
The Durham-based attorney T. Greg Doucette (an occasional INDY columnist) defended Little in the case. He says that since that case, the Supreme Court has continuously limited what “fighting words” actually are.
“There are several cases that reference fighting words, and I mentioned those in my closing,” Doucette says. “None of them say what fighting words are.”
The same day Little’s case was decided in Chatham, a settlement in Alamance County between the NAACP and the sheriff’s department found that swear words at protests don’t warrant arrest. Doucette mentioned this in his closing remarks, but the conviction was upheld.
Little’s case was heard by Chatham County Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour, the same judge who settled the now-defunct Silent Sam agreement between the Sons of Confederate Veterans and UNC-CH. In Baddour’s closing remarks, he acknowledged that he could see why Little’s actions felt appropriate.
“While I feel like it violated the law and I feel like it is deserving of a conviction and punishment, I guess it feels to me that you took actions that you felt appropriate,” Baddour said. “It also feels to me like that you understand that they risk consequences, and this is simply that.”
For Little, the time, money, and trauma of court wasn’t worth an appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court. They hadn’t been arrested at protests in more than a year, and no longer lived in the state.
That same day Little appeared in court, a member of League of the South was on trial for, and found guilty of, carrying a glock and multiple rounds of ammunition at the Chatham County protests. She approached Little and Ayling and Little says she started threatening the duo.
“If you really want to divide the sides, you have one side that literally works on intimidation,” Little says. “Someone who brings a gun to a protest and brings four different clips with them. I don’t think that they’re there just to have a good time, I think that they’re probably there to cause some violence. This person is literally talking shit to me after their trial in the courthouse. But I’m, like, the outside agitator who’s causing all this upset. It just becomes surreal.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.