Hundreds descended on downtown Durham on Friday to oppose a rumored KKK march. When the white supremacists didn’t show up, a smaller group wound through the streets headed for a tense standoff with police wearing helmets and holding batons.
The Sheriff’s Office says it warned community leaders that a white supremacist group might march downtown Friday based on information it had received throughout the week.
“Similar to a tornado watch that indicates conditions are favorable for a weather event, the highest levels of Sheriff’s Office notified the appropriate leaders of the community of the potential for a critical incident as it continued to verify information,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs said Friday afternoon. “This was done proactively to allow for planning in the event the Agency received verified information.”
As of Friday evening, there was no white supremacist march.
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But tensions flared late in the day as a group of 50 to 75 people engaged police in a standoff in the street outside the Durham Police Department headquarters.
The group, some carrying anti-KKK and anti-racism signs, was heading up South Duke Street toward the busy West Chapel Hill Street thoroughfare when police wearing all black came out from behind the headquarters building.
The police formed a phalanx across the street, blocking the protesters, who stood in the middle of the street shouting at them from about 50 feet away.
Police warned they would arrest those who would not leave the street
Most of the protesters moved to the sidewalks. Then police started slowly marching forward chanting, “Move back. Move back.” Police pushed the protesters back two blocks.
Protest organizers shouted for the crowd to start walking toward the site of the future police headquarters on the other side of downtown.
The police officers started to walk back toward the headquarters. The protesters decided to hang around the area and eventually dispersed around 7 p.m.
Police made one arrest. William D. Fulton, 23, of Durham, was arrested during the demonstration at police headquarters and charged with failure to disperse.
It was unclear how many of the protesters had been among the much larger group downtown earlier in the day preparing to protest the KKK.
On Friday morning Andrews and others said they could not confirm social media posts warning of a possible KKK march, including one by Scott Holmes, the attorney for the eight protesters arrested in the toppling of a Confederate statue on Main Street Monday night.
“First appearances are done,” Holmes, who is also an N.C. Central University law professor, tweeted at around 10 a.m. “White supremacists arrive at noon.”
At 12:05 p.m. City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson, who said she was not downtown but that she was in touch with others who were, tweeted:
“Have received information that there are armed white supremacists in downtown now. Several trucks have been seen as well. #DefendDurham”
By mid-day, hundreds of people ready to counterprotest had gathered on Main Street.
“No KKK!” they shouted. “No Fascist USA!”
The Sheriff’s Office shut down East Main Street. Duke University advised its downtown workers to leave early. Many businesses, county and other offices closed.
Attorney T. Greg Doucette was at the Durham County Courthouse at 9:30 a.m. when he said deputies informed the judge that the courthouse was closing.
“The judge pulled us aside and recalendared our case for another day,” Doucette said.
Scratch Bakery Manager Thurmond Buckelew said they decided to close because of “growing anxieties.” A representative of the nearby Suntrust Bank had come in to the restaurant and said the bank also would be closing early, he said.
“We just wanted to be home and not be in the middle of it,” Buckelew said.
The Downtown Durham YMCA and the YMCA at American Tobacco closed and canceled all programs at both locations.
Several hundred protesters march in downtown Durham, N.C. Friday afternoon, Aug. 18, 2017 after word circulated of a possible KKK rally at noon. The KKK rally did not happen.Julia Wall, Travis Long, Casey Toth, Chuck Liddy newsobserver.com
Tension on street
There was tension early on, as the would-be counterprotesters gathered.
Before police and sheriff’s deputies arrived, some activists started controlling traffic at the intersection of Main and Corcoran streets. At least one carried what appeared to be a military-style carbine.
Once they assembled, many of the protesters marched around the short loop formed by South Mangum, West Pettigrew, North Roxboro and East Main Streets. The main group, includng a man carrying an axe, soon arrived at the old courthouse, and remained there for the next few hours.
There were a handful of confrontations at the old courthouse, including one between counterprotesters and a group of four white men making jokes about black people.
City Councilman Charlie Reece, who was there, said two of the men were “spirited away” from the old courthouse – closed with armed deputies out front – and afterward lingered on North Church Street. One had been doused with water.
By Reece’s account, two men had joined the first two “out of nowhere.” One member of the group had a knife in a hip holster.
“They were talking on their cell phones the whole time,” Reece said, crediting a couple of bystanders for walking up and talking to the men for a while, keeping them distracted.
Meanwhile, activists wearing orange vests defused other situations getting between would-be counterprotesters and individuals who criticized their cause.
Mary Crain, who came downtown, criticized the protesters.
“Everybody here needs a history lesson,” she said. “The war was not fought over slavery.”
She pointed to the pedestal that held the bronze Confederate soldier pulled down by activists Monday. On Friday, people added graffiti to the stone base. “Death to the Klan,” one person wrote.
“That shows hate,” she said. “That’s not love.”
After a while, the would-be counterprotest took on a carnival air.
There was drumming and chanting. Someone burned a Confederate flag. Protesters passed out bottled water and gave away snacks.
Huncho Kyng, 23, a Durham native, said as soon as he heard about the march he dropped a friend off at the airport, ran home and made a black T-shirt with the words “(expletive) TRUMP.”
“If they don’t come we know y’all (KKK) are scared,” he said.
Courtney Woods, 38, a professor of environmental health at UNC, said it wouldn’t matter if the white supremacists did not show.
“I think this is a real concrete example of people ready to tear down racism and white supremacy,” she said. “This people showing up in body. I don’t think it matters if the KKK doesn’t come.”
Rumors persisted for much of the early afternoon that the KKK had secured a permit to march in downtown at 4 p.m.
Reece worked to counter that, telling both reporters and march organizers the city had issued no permit and the application process for one would take three weeks.
By mid-afternoon the protesters announced that the white supremacists had turned back.
“This is a victory that we will claim today,” said Serena Sebring, of Southerners on New Ground.
Eva Panjwani agreed, calling the local show of opposition a “people’s victory.”
“This is all part of a KKK strategy: a strategy to divide us like ants, scurrying away in fear,” Panjwani said.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation today, but there’s one thing that’s become even more clear than it ever has been before, that the community and the people of Durham must stand together,” she said.
But the day’s protest continued.
‘We see you’
Around 5 p.m. a smaller group marched to the Durham County jail, blocking Mangum Street as they chanted to inmates.
“We see you. We love you.”
After about an hour, the protesters marched through downtown toward police headquarters.
Mia Philips, who had been downtown since noon, joined them to stand up against the struggle she said she faces as an African American.
Charline Mangum, 33, of Creedmor said she was marching for equality.
“I have children,” she said. “I don’t want them to go through this.”
When the protesters met police, most quickly followed the orders to get out of the street. Some yelled in the officers’ faces and took their photographs.
By 7:15 p.m., only a few people remained, sitting on sidewalks and the grass by the nearby bus hub.
“Regardless of what they try to do to stop us, unity is our greatest power,” said Damorius Fuller-Ali, 26, who drove to Durham from High Point after hearing about the rally. “We came in peace. We left in peace. It was just a statement.”
Friday’s events followed eight people being charged in Durham this week after a Monday protest tore down a a statue of a Confederate soldier in downtown Durham.
The protest was a response to last weekend’s violence at a white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Staff writers Joe Johnson and Ray Gronberg contributed to this story.