On Monday evening, as a crowd of demonstrators pulled down a Confederate monument on Main Street that had stood for ninety-three years, a sheriff's deputy, clad in an army-green tactical vest, stood quietly by, filming.
It was the beginning of a week bookended by stunning protests and by puzzling law enforcement responses to those protests.
To be fair, there is probably no way that Sheriff Mike Andrews could have handled the demonstrations in Durham this week and entirely escaped criticism. He's been chastised for not arresting protesters on the spot Monday, as they toppled the statue with surprising ease, and for sharing information with "leaders in the community" about a potential KKK rally in Durham on Friday. He's also been criticized for charging Monday's demonstrators with inciting a riot, and for walking back the Sheriff's Office's warnings of a Klan appearance via press releases and a social media campaign, #DoNotSpreadRumorsDurham.
First, let's rewind to the beginning of what was a remarkable week in the Bull City.
On Monday night, several groups, including the Workers World Party's Durham branch, Industrial Workers of the World, and BYP100, held a rally in front of a Durham county building in response to a white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville the weekend before. After handing the mic to counterprotesters who had been in Charlottesville, the group surrounded a Confederate monument erected in 1924, pulled it to the ground, and took to the streets to march.
For anyone who spotted the camcorder-toting deputy, it was likely no surprise that the Sheriff's Office had made a decision to forgo trying to diffuse the protest (surely preventing injuries) and pursue charges later. But for those who joined the rally—or watched it in one of many videos taken at the scene—felony charges for participating in and inciting a riot seem like a stretch. Per state statute, a riot entails "disorderly and violent conduct, or the imminent threat of disorderly and violent conduct."
"The mood was celebratory," says Scott Holmes, an attorney representing eight people who have been charged in connection with the statue's demise. "The officers who were standing there didn't feel the need to intervene to protect anyone's safety. There was no threat to safety, so there was no riot."
Holmes believes "there is at least one person who has been charged who is innocent of any crime" and says the Sheriff's Office needs "training on how to protect people's First Amendment, while also keeping them safe."
Andrews himself said in a press conference last Tuesday that "my agency is tasked with a difficult job in a community that supports peaceful protests at times, and my office has been a focus of those protests." Some of the same people who have protested conditions at the Durham County Detention Facility (which is under the umbrella of the Sheriff's Office) were involved in Monday's protest, chanting "cops and Klan go hand in hand."
"I just don't think we can completely separate what may be his frustrations with them raising awareness of these issues and him now pursuing charges against them for something separate," says Magan Thigpen, president of the Durham People's Alliance, which in a statement Friday came out in support of removing the "symbol of horror, terror, violence, and inequality" that was the Confederate monument. The PAC approved of deputies' restraint last Monday but called the felony charges "excessive and unjustly punitive."
"He has already been getting a lot of criticism from people on the left about his transparency and accessibility, and that has already been a conversation that's been really active," Thigpen says. "This certainly makes it a lot more high-profile, and we would really like to see him listen to the concerns that people are expressing and always want to leave room for him to be more responsive to these concerns."
Another PAC, Friends of Durham, supports the sheriff's handling of the matter.
"He acted responsibly," says chairwoman Alice Sharpe. "He did not further inflame the situation. Regardless of how any of us feel about whether the statue should come down, we have to obey the law. He doesn't create the law; he has to follow it."
But Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols doesn't seem as gung-ho as Andrews. At the height of a protest downtown on Friday, Echols announced in a press conference that he would not prosecute anyone who wasn't "directly involved in the destruction of the monument."
"Justice requires that I must take into account the pain of the recent events in Charlottesville and the pain in Durham and the nation," Echols said.
Fast-forward to Friday, when county buildings began to close and the street in front of the dismantled monument was blocked off. That morning, Andrews said in a statement that his office was "thoroughly researching the potential of several groups with opposing viewpoints holding demonstrations in Durham."
By noon, as antiracist protesters filled the streets, the Sheriff's Office was emphasizing it had no "confirmed" reports of a protest and "urging the public to avoid circulating rumors on social media and instead wait for verified information from officials monitoring the situation." (City manager Tom Bonfield told staff that city offices would remain open and "there was no credible threat.")
But as Andrews made clear in a statement Sunday evening, rumors about a possible hate group rally in Durham began with the Sheriff's Office "notifying leaders in the community" as a "precautionary measure."
"Sharing that information with key individuals, including a representative of demonstrators who were staged outside the courthouse Friday morning, was in no way a signal for them to independently sound the alarm ahead of law enforcement, potentially triggering needless panic and anxiety," Andrews said.
Holmes took the alert seriously amid death threats against his clients.
"It's pretty widespread. Folks have been receiving all kinds of different messages threatening them personally, their families," says Ben Carroll, who was acting as a spokesman for the arrested demonstrators.
A Durham resident and member of the antiracist network Redneck Revolt says any information about a KKK rally should have been treated as a serious threat, especially after a man linked to a white supremacist group allegedly drove his car into the crowd in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer.
"Armed Klansmen is redundant," he says, asking only to be identified as Dwayne.
Dwayne said he recognizes the pressure law enforcement was under, but he questions whether authorities were prepared if the KKK had showed up in large numbers. He says motorcyclists with Confederate flags "buzzed" down Main Street, followed by what he identified as militia trucks.
After seeing the terror attack in Charlottesville, Dwayne came to Friday's rally armed with a rifle, hoping he wouldn't have to use it, and made sure people blocking traffic understood the risk they were undertaking as the crowd took over the streets. He hopes that taste of solidarity, autonomy, and "people power" will spark residents into action.
"Durham got high that day," he says. "For people to get high off of social intimacy like that and political action just warms my cold, cold anarchist heart."