The Radicals Who Toppled a Confederate Monument Have Sparked a National Conversation. But Who Are They? | Durham County | Indy Week

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The Radicals Who Toppled a Confederate Monument Have Sparked a National Conversation. But Who Are They?


The smell of hushpuppies hangs in the air, and Kendrick Lamar is telling the crowd, "We gon' be all right." People sign up for updates from the Workers World Party Durham Branch, grab Marxist literature, and donate to the Durham Solidarity Center's bond fund.

This is a party for the revolution.

The Bull City Block Party, hosted Saturday by the Workers World Party Durham Branch outside of the Hayti Heritage Center, was part celebration, part recruiting for the fight to "topple fight supremacy," as the event's flier puts it, and to rally support for a group facing felony charges after pulling down a Confederate monument in Durham on August 14.

That incident marked the beginning of a week that saw protesters' homes raided, a mass turn-in at the jail by supporters, and a spontaneous gathering of hundreds of people who jumped into action amid sketchy reports of the Ku Klux Klan coming to town—and more arrests.

While the dismantling of the monument, erected in front of the old Durham County courthouse in 1924, is just part of this group's larger mission, the action has had a ripple effect in the Triangle and beyond. Students who staged a sit-in around UNC's Confederate monument, Silent Sam, drew inspiration from the group. Governor Roy Cooper, who at first condemned the toppling of the statue, has since called for Confederate monuments statewide to come down. Groups in New York and Baltimore are planning solidarity events this week as the demonstrators, united under the name Defend Durham, prepared for court appearances Tuesday. "Do It Like Durham" has become a rallying cry and a hashtag.

The demonstrations in Durham have thrust local activists into the spotlight and animated national debates about Confederate monuments, false equivalencies of right-wing hate groups and antifascist protesters, and a split on the left over what tactics are appropriate. They've captured the attention of state and national media, shaped the conversation around upcoming municipal elections, highlighted an ideological divide between the Durham Police Department and the county Sheriff's Office, and forced conversations in Durham on race, equity, and personal liberty to a more open, informed level.

So who are they?

Twelve people, some affiliated with WWP, have been charged in connection with the August 14 monument toppling. They are students, teachers, workers and parents, their paths as activists informed by their own lived experiences as LGBTQ folks, people of color, and immigrants. Asked what others following their story may not know about them, they reply that they know the law, have jobs, and are by-and-large anticapitalist. They're also friends outside of their work.

Loan Tran, who spoke at the August 14 demonstration and was one of the first to be arrested, started organizing in high school. Tran is a Vietnamese immigrant whose father had been incarcerated and the family's home taken through foreclosure. Raul Jimenez, who turned himself in, also got active as a high school student, an immigrant, and a farmworker in eastern North Carolina, where symbols of the Confederacy were commonplace.

Takiyah Thompson, the N.C. Central student who climbed a ladder and looped a rope around the Durham monument, says she has been organizing for about ten years but has been an activist far longer.

"If you understand the history of black women's activism, it's not always the activism we think of," Thompson says. "Black women are activists when they survive and strive and bring their communities with them in a world that has every card stacked up against them."

While overcoming systems of white supremacy is the ultimate goal, pulling down a symbol of it was an important first step for Defend Durham. It was a morale boost for the group after Charlottesville, tangible proof that it's making progress. It created "a safer space," as Jimenez puts it, in place of a statue that represented hatred for so many and showed activists elsewhere that they can do the same. It signaled that the continued existence of white supremacy won't go unchallenged, at least in Durham.

"When I see black people in Durham who are extremely proud of what we did, that's the most important thing to me," Thompson says. "We have to start by creating a culture in which white supremacy and racism and hate are not OK. The next step is to build on the advances of that and pull up these systems by the roots."

The next front in Durham's defense against white supremacy? Gentrification, Thompson says.

"I see racism and capitalism as going hand in hand," she says. "They washed up on America's shores at the exact same time."

For this group, the past month has meant going hoarse from chanting, planning support overnight for people due to appear in court, and receiving death threats. It's also strengthened relationships between Durham's activists and given way to more meaningful conversations about how people's lives are affected by white supremacy—from discriminatory lending practices to the threat of armed white supremacists in our streets.

"The first step to changing anything is to have a really hard conversation about what's wrong, and those conversations are being had," Jimenez says.

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