Last Friday morning, a report spread through my hometown of Durham, North Carolina, that white supremacists were descending on downtown. “We are carefully monitoring the situation,” said an all-points bulletin to city workers, “and are taking precautions to ensure the safety of employees and visitors.” County offices shut down early. Downtown businesses followed. The sheriff’s office reviewed intelligence and notified community leaders. My synagogue moved most of its Torah scrolls. A City Council member tweeted that the Ku Klux Klan was marching at noon.
Durhamites had reason to believe that our liberal city might be in the cross hairs. Four days earlier, anti-racism activists had hitched a nylon strap to a 1924 statue of a Confederate soldier, then wrenched it off its granite pedestal in front of the old courthouse. In the most immediate sense, the toppling was a reaction to the weekend’s carnage in Charlottesville, Virginia, three hours away. But it was also a manifestation of long-simmering tensions in Durham, where unequal treatment of African Americans by the criminal-justice system has been well documented, and where a spruced-up downtown, featured in foodie magazines, has driven up real-estate costs and displaced blacks and Latinos from nearby neighborhoods.
The fear on Friday morning was that Klansmen would come to protest the destruction of the rebel statue and replicate the violence that had just racked Charlottesville. In response, as 12 o’clock approached, hundreds of local residents migrated downtown. They assembled near the old courthouse: millennial and Boomer, mainstream and revolutionary (one carrying a rifle), racially diverse, and determined to hold the supremacists at bay.
“There’s a certain veil that’s being uncovered,” said shirlette ammons, a 43-year-old Durham musician who came downtown that morning. “We think explicit racism has disappeared, but it’s resurfacing in a way that makes it impossible not to be part of the resistance.”
For some, the emboldened white-nationalist movement has been clarifying but familiar. “It’s the visual image of what we’ve faced our whole life,” said Zainab Baloch, a Muslim-American state employee, who drove 30 minutes from Raleigh, where she is running for City Council. Baloch, the daughter of immigrants from Pakistan, was in fifth grade during the September 11 attacks. After that, she told me, “we were forced to defend ourselves every day, even as children. We had to be nice. We had to show kindness. But obviously, after this election, that method is not working.”
Noon arrived with no sign of the Klan. The loose assemblage lined up in parade formation. They carried drums and banners and an eight-foot-tall puppet of Martin Luther King Jr. “This is what community looks like,” they chanted as they marched through the downtown streets.