Feature / December 4, 2023

What Made the Lights Go Out in Moore County?

As a drag show was taking place in the North Carolina region, an attack on the electrical grid shut the power down.

Laura Flanders

When the power went out for tens of thousands of homes and businesses in Moore County, N.C., on December 3, 2022, Sheriff Ronnie Fields announced almost immediately that it wasn’t a technical glitch. It was an act of vandalism, carried out deliberately and involving high-powered firearms at two electrical substations 10 miles apart. The next day, after officials inspected the two sites in the piney woods of the southern-central part of the state, that assessment was upgraded to sabotage. A state of emergency was declared, and the White House was informed. By the end of the week, Governor Roy Cooper, the FBI, and Duke Energy, the power company that owns the two facilities, were offering a $75,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

The blackout affected some 45,000 Duke Energy customers for five days, causing schools to close, the local hospital to switch to generator power, countless farms and businesses to suffer, and one woman—87-year-old Karin Zoanelli, who relied on an oxygen machine—to die in her home. This past August, Zoanelli’s death was ruled a homicide.

“An attack like this on critical infrastructure is a serious, intentional crime” Cooper said soon after the event. “I expect state and federal authorities to thoroughly investigate and bring those responsible to justice.”

Almost a year later, however, there have been no arrests, and the public has heard nothing more about the case. The sheriff’s office, which is leading the investigation with support from the FBI and the State Bureau of Investigation, has announced no suspects, saying only that whoever shot up the substations “knew exactly what they were doing.”

A Duke Energy spokesperson told me that the company is supporting the inquiry and strengthening its infrastructure against physical and cyber threats. But Nicholas Polidori, the police chief in the Moore County town of Southern Pines, told me, “Quite honestly, we’ve had no interaction with Duke.” In October, I took a five-person camera crew to one of the attacked substations. I was able to stand at the fence for almost an hour without interruption and without seeing a soul.

Erica Street, a Moore County native and a single mother of three, remembers driving home on the night of December 3 on an unlit highway to a dark house, her powerless fridge filled with a week’s worth of fresh groceries. Street said she feels no safer today. The fact that no perpetrator has been named is chilling, she told me in October, sitting on a swinging bench outside her small suburban ranch house.

“I know all my neighbors, but [whoever did this]—they could be living down the road,” she said.

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Naomi Dix, who was onstage in Southern Pines’ historic Sunrise Theater when the lights went out that night, didn’t know that the entire county was in the dark. Dix, a drag artist and event producer who is based in Durham, was hosting “The Downtown Divas Drag Show,” a performance produced in collaboration with the local advocacy group Sandhills Pride. She knew only that she was responsible for a captive crowd in a pitch-black theater, and that her fellow artists could be in danger.

“I went into almost like mommy mode,” Dix recalled this fall.

In the run-up to the attacks of December 3, the citizens of Moore County weren’t worrying about grid safety—they were embroiled in a debate about the upcoming drag show. Dix finds it especially surprising that she was never contacted by law enforcement. An elegant Afro-Latinx performer who stands all of 5-foot-5 before she steps into her heels, Dix has never called for violence, but in the weeks after the show was announced, her social media feed overflowed with threats and hate.

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“The LGBTQ forces are coming to Southern Pines and they are after our children,” read a letter sent by Calvary Christian School to area businesses, pressuring sponsors of the show to cancel their support. The Pilot, a local newspaper, reported that the Sunrise Theater had received many e-mails with “the same copied-and-pasted text” stating that the show “shouldn’t be here and isn’t in line with the values” of Southern Pines. Organizers of the event believe it was shared by Libs of TikTok, the social media account that the organizer of a drag brunch in Sanford, N.C., believes was responsible for the appearance of the Cape Fear Proud Boys, who showed up in masks and flak jackets.

In its annually updated map of hate groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center lists 43 that are active in North Carolina, most of them Confederate, neo-Nazi, and anti-government. Rachel Carroll Rivas, the SPLC’s deputy director of research, reporting, and analysis, explained that as organizing by civil rights groups and the LGBTQ community has increased, so too has the vitriol of the backlash. The same phenomenon appears everywhere, but North Carolina has some particular characteristics. The state has a huge active-duty military presence and the eighth-highest veteran population in the country. People with military training are prized recruits for violence-prone extremists, Carroll Rivas said. Moore County houses many soldiers and their family members stationed at nearby Fort Liberty (formerly Fort Bragg), home of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army Special Operations Command. One former psyops officer based there, Capt. Emily Grace Rainey, led a busload of residents to Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, to participate in the rally that ended in the attack on the US Capitol.

A lead rabble-rouser against the drag show, Rainey celebrated when, after weeks of pressure, an age limit was slapped on the show against Dix’s wishes. Still, Rainey called on her supporters to stand with her outside the theater on the day of the performance, “in defiance of the dark depravity inside.” And that’s what they did.

The lights went out just after the show began.

Making mayhem: Accelerationist pamphlets promote white supremacist ideology and advocate terrorist strategies.

The FBI has been tracking the plotters of similar attacks for years. Four men, including two former Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., were indicted in connection with a grid attack in 2021. A Department of Homeland Security–funded study released in the summer of 2022 reported that white supremacist plots targeting energy stations had “dramatically increased in frequency” since the 2020 election. That report, from the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, urged energy companies and public authorities to be on the alert. It was titled, bracingly, “Mayhem, Murder, and Misdirection.”

Michael Loadenthal, an assistant professor of research at the Center for Cyber Strategy and Policy at the University of Cincinnati, tracks federal prosecutions related to unlawful political violence. The far right has advocated attacks on the electrical grid and other forms of critical infrastructure for decades, he said, as an essential element of disruptive violence and as a tactic within a strategic framework called “accelerationism.”

“The online ecosystem made possible by under-regulated platforms such as Telegram has allowed violent social movements to amass large followings,” Loadenthal said. That includes the so-called “Terrorgram” network, “which advocates for followers to attack energy infrastructure to exacerbate already existing social, political, and economic tensions—and provide a catalyst and accelerant for radical social change.”

Terrorgram participants don’t just vent; they instruct, as they did in an illustrated zine released in July 2022 titled Make It Count: A Guide for the 21st Century Accelerationist. Over graphic images of bleeding women, Nazi death camps, and lynchings, the text urges readers—whom it calls “men of action”—to select targets for maximum impact. “The main thing that keeps the anti-White system going is the powergrid,” write the authors. Attacking substations “is easier than you think…. Sitting ducks, worthy prey. They are largely unprotected and often in remote locations.” Above a graphic depiction of the energy grid appear the words “BLACK OUT: LOCATE SUBSTATION. RANGE FIND. SHOOT TRANSFORMERS. FLEE UNDETECTED.”

In February 2022, three men with links to neo-Nazism and accelerationism pleaded guilty to federal crimes related to a scheme to attack the power grid with rifles. According to court documents, the men met online and formed a chat group called Lights Out. Each was assigned a substation in a different region of the US. “They had conversations about how the possibility of the power being out for many months could cause war, even a race war, and induce the next Great Depression,” prosecutors said.

On February 2 of this year, two other people were indicted in Baltimore on federal charges of “conspiracy to destroy energy facilities” by taking down five transformers at substations around the city. One was Brandon Clint Russell, the founder of an international accelerationist group based in the South called the Atomwaffen Division. According to the complaint filed by the Justice Department, Russell “posted links to open-source maps of infrastructure, which included the locations of electrical substations, and described how a small number of attacks on substations could cause a ‘cascading failure.’” Russell also discussed maximizing the impact of the planned attack by hitting multiple substations simultaneously.

“The Downtown Divas Drag Show” wasn’t Dix’s first collaboration with Sandhills Pride. Three previous events were held in the Belvedere Plaza, where, in the summer of 2022, she met Erica Street, the Moore County mother of three, and her trans daughter Alex Lafferty.

“That was epic for me,” Lafferty recalled excitedly in October. “That was the first drag show I’d ever been to—the first big queer event where everyone was there to be there and everyone was super chill with it…. That was the first time that ever happened to me…that I really experienced community like that,” she added, her cheeks glowing.

For Dix, that’s what it’s all about. She said she comes to predominantly white, Christian small towns like Southern Pines precisely to create safe, inclusive spaces and bring visibility and community to people—including young people—who don’t have it. “I think it’s important to also understand that as a person of color, this type of hatred is not new,” Dix said. “We’ve seen this since the beginning of time.”

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” said Street, who strongly suspects that the power outage and the anti-drag protests were connected. “I feel like those protests allowed people to come out of the woodwork and gave them an opportunity to do this.”

Emily Grace Rainey implied the same connection on her Facebook page. “The power is out in Moore County and I know why,” she posted soon after the blackout began. Later that night, Rainey posted that Sheriff Fields’s office had “checked in” with her. “I told them that God works in mysterious ways and is responsible for the outage.” Elsewhere on her Facebook page, Rainey has cheery pictures that show her seeming to be friendly with Fields, who declared at a press conference the next day that she was not a suspect.

Fields’s office declined my request for more information, as did every level of law enforcement, from local to county to state, as well as the FBI, whose public information officer would only confirm that the bureau “continue[s] to work with the Moore County Sheriff’s Office to investigate.”

Because Sandhills Pride had succumbed to pressure and clamped an age limit on Dix’s show, Lafferty, who had just turned 16, wasn’t allowed to attend. But her mother did. From the center of the darkened stage, Dix invited the sold-out audience of 300 or more to take out their smartphones and then led a group rendition of Beyoncé’s “Halo” by flashlight.

“It was an incredible moment,” Street said. After almost an hour, Dix stationed herself at the exit, making sure to say goodbye to everyone individually as they left the theater.

It takes a lot to frighten a drag queen, but Street believes that the rest of us should be a bit more afraid. “Someone out there is a threat to our kids,” she said. “But it’s not Naomi.”

This year, North Carolina legislators passed a bill increasing the penalties for property crimes against utilities. At the same time, at least a dozen anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced, including bills to exclude transgender students from participating in school sports; to ban gender-affirming healthcare for youth; to allow broad “curriculum censorship”; and to ban drag shows. Three of those bills passed into law.

Meanwhile, attacks and suspicious activities at energy substations haven’t slowed. The Department of Energy’s incidents tracker reflects a 71 percent increase in attacks from 2021 to 2022, including 82 incidents in 2022 as well as 49 in just the first six months of 2023. The SPLC’s Carroll Rivas, who spends her days tracking extremist chatter, is concerned that would-be saboteurs are shifting their attention to other parts of the infrastructure, “like the Internet.”

This year, Erica Street formed a chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), while Alex Lafferty testified at a Moore County school board meeting that was also attended by Emily Grace Rainey.

“I kept repeating, ‘My name is Alex Lafferty, and I’m a human being,’” she said.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders is the author of several books, the host of the nationally syndicated public television show (and podcast) The Laura Flanders Show and the recipient of a 2019 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship.

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