In the shadow of three black church burnings in April the son of a St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s officer, we wanted to think about possible avenues of solidarity with black community spaces. In the following piece, comrades from North Carolina share more about their experience with armed community defense after publicly tearing down Confederate monuments in Durham and Chapel Hill and running white supremacists out of Charlottesville.
Two days after the now infamous battle of Charlottesville in August 2017, I joined a delightfully mob-like crowd of 150 people to march upon a Confederate monument in downtown Durham, NC. Inspired by a new sense of urgency, anger, and power— it’s worth remembering that Heather Heyer was murdered while on a victory march following the forceful eviction of fascists from Emancipation Park, after all— members of this crowd still carried the visible and hidden scars of that battle. Many of us still do today. And so we placed a long yellow rope around the statue’s neck, and tore it to the ground. And that was that.
The statue toppling in Durham, as well as the similar action which took down the famous Silent Sam statue a year later in nearby Chapel Hill, was the result of ad hoc coalitions among anarchists and other radicals, years of trust built among specific affinity groups, a long tradition of anti-racist organizing in central North Carolina, and particularly the creative initiative of specific Black women who’ve had the courage to stand up publicly and without compromise. Similar arcs of struggle have played out in other towns, exhibited by groups like TakeEmDown NOLA. It is no coincidence that over 100 monuments have been taken down “voluntarily” across the South since 2017, largely by liberal mayors attempting to lead from behind while preventing this kind of radical organizing in their own backyard.
Less discussed than the (often misconstrued) spectacle of the statue toppling in Durham is the wave of death threats and right-wing vandalism it brought upon our town.
Within days there were threats on social media, sketchy phone calls to the workplaces of various local black and brown activists, threats on the home of an anarchist comrade identified from Charlottesville, right-wing graffiti on the wall of a soul food restaurant, vandalism at an office building that houses local lefty nonprofits, and a promise by the Klan to come to downtown. They never materialized that day, but 2,000 of us mobilized anyway, marching through the city center on the prowl, sharing free ice cream, dancing, all while open carrying handguns and other weapons.
The public face and media spectacle surrounding the statue toppling became all about the ensuing court cases, which we beat thanks to a solid campaign of public pressure on the District Attorney and a very generous Quaker lawyer. But a tremendous amount of the day-to-day organizing revolved around community defense. While the media crystallized the political moment into a single 10-frame instance of viral disruption, which liberals would at once condemn and be proud of almost in the same breath, many of us were more concerned with the next Dylan Roof showing up to our house, or the local synagogue, mosque, queer bar, or community center.
Community defense in our context meant a lot of different things to different people: mental health care, driving people to work, sentry duty, digital security, installing cameras on comrades’ houses, medic trainings, and trips to the local gun range. Community defense makes use of and hones our skills, but it is not a specialized role that needs to be reserved for certain “skilled” people. It is not a solitary man with a gun. It is an entire town in Oaxaca building a barricade out of bricks dried in the sun; it’s the poor neighbors at Durham’s MacDougal Terrace who watch each others’ kids while their parents are at work; it’s when the crowd at a protest identifies and ejects an undercover cop, and when we mask up to protect each others’ identity. All of these are practices of communal self-defense.
For me and my affinity group, it meant spending a lot of time on the second floor patio of an office building used by some of the local leftists that were facing threats. I would sit there with a radio on one hip, my sidearm on the other, and a little speaker on the ground playing a podcast, often reporting news of some other folks in another part of the country dealing with the same kind of bullshit.
I thought a lot while on that patio— sentry duty gives you a lot of time to think— about stories I’ve read from the 1950s, when groups like the Deacons for Defense protected early Civil Rights demonstrations in Louisiana. I thought about the Monroe, NC chapter of the NAACP, who advocated black armed self-defense against KKK attacks in the 60’s. I thought about the 1979 Greensboro massacre in which people of color and white communists were shot and killed while protesting the KKK and neo-Nazis in their neighborhood. About the allure of “safety” and the illusory, democratic pitfalls that that ideal sets before us. I thought about what we can prevent and what we can’t.
We haven’t yet had any of the kinds of armed standoffs those histories tell of, for which I’m thankful. The idea of being in a shootout is terrifying to me, and not something I think any of us fetishize. Most of the time on that patio, and the other places we’ve offered security, was extremely boring and probably unnecessary. But it did make people inside those buildings feel a little safer, which was worthwhile. Maybe the fash saw we were there and it prevented a massacre that now no one has to wake up and read about in their morning paper. We’ll never know.
Even as a small gesture, the security that different crews provided was able to make more concrete the oft-repeated, seldom-realized chant: “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe!” For the white folks involved in this struggle, I think that it was one way— albeit minor— to demonstrate that this struggle may be different but it is still real for us, that it isn’t an “I Voted” sticker or an instagram post.
Predictably, the most important outcome of this whole thing was not just a toppled statue, but also new relationships and a much broader collective skillset. The diverse coalition of community defense and legal support known as Defend Durham— black, brown, and white; anarchist, communist and progressive— has faded, but many of the relationships and trust built in that time still exist.
The disappearance of this coalition is for the best. Defend Durham arose to meet a specific set of needs, which it largely filled, and for it to continue to exist after the fact would imply a farce and a sham, a mere hollow shell in which nonprofit careerists who are unwilling to confront the state themselves instead build their reputations by riding the coattails of Black courage. What is important is never the organization itself, but the collective knowledge that hundreds of us may act in forceful defiance of the police and the city council, and the skills to protect each other in the face of the many storms that follow.
The activist-scholar Akinyele Umoja, who writes about black armed community defense in Mississippi in his book We Will Shoot Back, recently gave a talk here about the upsurge of white supremacist organizing across the US. He talked about the church burnings in Louisiana by the racist son of a former cop, the recent arson at the Highlander Folk School, about how some small cadre group or organization isn’t going to protect Black people, and how we can’t rely on the state to keep us safe either. He said, “Just like Katrina, the cavalry’s not coming. We have to depend on ourselves.”
Umoja is right: the cavalry isn’t coming. The police certainly weren’t going to protect us after we tore down their statue, and we weren’t going to call them anyway. If the fascists wanted to stop us from organizing, they had to be as willing to bleed as we were. They have to be as willing to die for their whiteness as we are for our freedom. And frankly, I don’t think they are.
Illustration by Luke Howard