It started with one of those gaudy memes of Donald Trump—significantly thinner than in real life, riding a tank, and surrounded by blasting guns, dollar bills and fluttering American flags. As the image took over the screen of a virtual town hall hosted by a North Carolina chapter of the NAACP on June 26, attendees realized that their meeting had been “Zoombombed”—hacked by white supremacists spewing MAGA racism.
Next up was a photograph of three Ku Klux Klan members in hoods and robes, flanked by the Blood Drop Cross and the Confederate flag. An administrator managed to regain control, but the interruptions—the sounds of monkeys screeching, repeated use of the “n-word,” and lewd demands that female participants expose themselves—started up again as soon as LaTarndra Strong, the chapter’s vice president, began to speak. Eventually, Strong realized she was being drowned out by the din of misogyny and racism.
“I had been trying to stay cool, so it was really hard for me to make the call that we should not continue,” said Strong, whose 16-year-old daughter was also taking part in the meeting, and was seated right next to her. “I looked over and saw that she was bawling. Mascara’s rolling down her cheeks, she’s visibly shaken. It just got to be too much. And in that moment, it just made it acutely real for me that she, too, will have to be doing this same work. And that, despite all the work that we’ve already done in this country, white nationalists are still finding ways to terrorize our people.”
After the horrific police murder of George Floyd and the uprisings that followed, a deluge of think pieces have noted an emerging willingness among Americans—and, particularly, white Americans—to finally grapple with this country’s toxic legacy of anti-Black racism and white supremacy. But as Confederate monuments around the country are toppled by protesters or removed by legislators, neo-Confederates have responded by increasing racial terror attacks against activists.
The hate-bombing of the Northern Orange County branch of the North Carolina NAACP virtual meeting in June was just one in a series of racist attacks. During multiple protests in Hillsborough during late May and June, as white anti-racist activist Del Ward stood on local sidewalks holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign, he was pelted with plastic bottles, had guns menacingly flashed at him from cars, and was twice followed by the same man who repeatedly shouted, “Die, n— lover!” The Chapel Hill NAACP reports that in July, “in broad daylight, a car with two white male occupants pulled up” to where a local Black protester “was standing and threatened him, pointing two AR-15s.”
At a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the same town on July 3, a Black 19-year-old—the sole African American protester in attendance—was singled out by a white racist named Bart Mathison Moody, who punched the teen in the face while shouting expletives. A Chapel Hill Indian restaurant owned by a well-known local social justice activist noted on its Facebook page that staff had arrived on the morning of July 23 to find “a pile of ashes under the gas meter and a vivid trail of burnt gas or oil out to the street.” And a virtual Board of Commissioners meeting about the removal of a Confederate monument in the town of Sylva had to be canceled “after it was hijacked by other participants who spouted racial slurs and bigoted comments.”
At least 20 Confederate monuments have been removed across North Carolina in the months since Floyd’s killing, but activists told me the precipitous escalation in white supremacist violence of the last few months actually began three years ago with a slow, but persistent drip of racist incidents. Two days after the 2017 killing of Heather Heyer by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, the Orange County School Board voted to ban Confederate flags under the terms of the district’s dress code. The decision was a win for the local chapter of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, founded by NAACP vice president Strong.
Over the next year, inflamed by that vote and the felling of Confederate statues by anti-racist protesters in both Durham and Chapel Hill, the towns were the sites of multiple marches by members of neo-Confederate groups including the Virginia Flaggers, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Heirs To The Confederacy, some of whom have shown up openly carrying guns. “I am willing to die for what I believe,” wrote Lance Spivey, co-founder of Heirs to the Confederacy in a March 2019 blog post, “I am more so ready to kill for it.”
The tipping point seems to have come after the August 2018 vote by the Chatham County Board of Commissioners to remove a courthouse Confederate statue in the town of Pittsboro. In the months that followed, neo-Confederates—including armed members of the Ku Klux Klan—began rallying every Saturday at the monument site. Though the statue came down last November, Confederates have continued to show up in town to protest its removal. A local outlet reported in June that during a confrontation with counterprotesters, neo-Confederates began “using their flags—some of which were attached to hockey sticks—as weapons,” bloodying the face of at least one anti-racist activist.
But some activists question whether police, as well as some elected officials, are taking these threats seriously—and which side they support in the struggle between anti-racists and neo-Confederates.
“I don’t think police really understand that I am targeted and that something could happen to me,” Strong said. “When we hold protests, I feel like the police come to our events [and are] suspicious of us—not wanting to protect us.”
A local newspaper published an editorial that echoed that sentiment in March 2018, after cops seemed to use kid gloves in handling armed defenders of a Confederate statue on UNC-Chapel Hill campus. The article noted that local “law enforcement approaches to policing antiracists seem to assume the worst intentions,” though the same officers “assume good intentions and make wide allowances” for neo-Confederates. No KKK members were arrested in August 2019 when members who openly carried guns protested—without a permit—at the Hillsborough courthouse, despite seemingly violating a North Carolina law prohibiting “going armed to the terror of the public.” Antiracists were moved to put out a message stating that “demonstrations by armed white supremacists… are only possible due to protection offered to these white supremacists by local law,” and suggested that local activists “expose the continued complicity of local law enforcement” with armed hate group members.
After a silent protest against a local Confederate monument in Graham County in June, police chief Jeffrey Prichard "inadvertently"—his words—shared a Facebook post attacking the Black Lives Matter movement. Graham City Council member Jennifer Talley also took to social media to note that while the march had been “peaceful,” the protesters had included “several people from ANTIFA” who “bait people and (are) very well trained in starting a riot.” On July 2, the North Carolina ACLU sued the city of Graham, including Officer Prichard and Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, for violating the first-amendment rights of would-be Confederate monument demonstrators by denying protest permits. A federal judge ruled in the ACLU’s favor earlier in August.
Del Ward, the activist who was repeatedly on the receiving end of threats from racists in recent months, described how, during one protest that took place across the street from the Hillsborough Courthouse, a white man got out of his illegally stopped car at an intersection and threatened to “knock my teeth down my throat.” Ward said an officer who witnessed the entire exchange “just smiled and shrugged” as the man ranted.
“It just proves our point,” he said of the threats. “It’s troubling to me that a man can get out of his car and threaten to beat the shit out of me in front of a cop. And the cop, who’s seen me there for countless days, chooses to do nothing because of who the victim is. They know who I am and they’ve made targeted attacks. They want us to shut up and they want us to stop protesting and get off the street. But I’m not done by any means—this only adds fuel to the fire.”
There is, of course, a kind of grim symmetry between the whitelash to Black civil rights gains—when Confederate monuments were erected during the post-Reconstruction era—and the campaign of terror now being undertaken by North Carolina’s white supremacists to forestall the removal of those same statues. Strong said that the legwork white racists are putting into intimidating activists like her only reinforces how consequential and necessary the work they do is.
“For a very long time there was what I call ‘the arrangement of race,’ which requires that people stay in their place, and cements systemic racism,” Strong said. “And I think that white nationalists are understanding that the reality that they live in is slipping away. So the covers that they hid behind are coming down. But I’m very focused on not allowing my work to shift based on what they do. I probably don’t give as much attention to the risk that I’m taking, doing this work [as I should]. This is terrorism and we do have to take it seriously. But we have our eyes on the prize.”