North star or a fast horse: the journey of protests in Durham

If given a choice between a fast horse or the North Star, the wise person chooses the star.

Better a long journey in the right direction than a fast one to parts unknown.

True to this has been my week in Durham. Late Monday night a group of protesters, angered and galvanized by events in Charlottesville, VA, took to the streets and toppled the statue of a confederate soldier in front of the old courthouse in downtown Durham.

I passed it almost daily. It’s two blocks from my coworking space (the American Underground) and I eat at the Subway in the basement of the building it “guards.” The caption on the base of the monument reads, “In memory of the boys who wore the gray.” Erected in 1924 – a time when those “good ole boys” were already long gone – this statue was solely erected to remind blacks that white power ruled. What African American would pass by this statue on his/her way into the county courthouse and expect to get justice?

It was a scarecrow, not a memorial.

Curiously, identical “silent sentinel” soldier statues like these were being sold to both Northern and Southern towns by a company trying to profit off faux heritage, according to Today’s Washington Post. Using patriotism – a manufactured form of identity – to manipulate people is a time-honored scam.

On Friday…

I left the office to get a sandwich and noticed a few too many police on bicycles. There was one on each corner of my intersection. They were casual, but I rarely saw such folks downtown. Then I noticed there was a major crowd down the street and a larger crowd taking pictures of that crowd.

At lunch I whatsApped this image to some friends and turned on the local NPR, which filled in the details. Soon after, my wife called. She’d gotten an alert from the local YMCA – closed due to protests – and was checking in. Funny how people farther away had more information to share with me. Most of it turned out to be incorrect.

I returned to the streets and watched things unfold. There were several hundred active demonstrators there, all of them protesting against racism.

I stood next to four cops for a while. Two white, two black. I doubt I would have seen that same ratio in 1967 or 1924.

“Busy day?” I asked one.

He paused, looked at my T-shirt before replying. Probably trying to decide whether I was a protester or a townie.

“Just people exercising their right to free speech,” he said.

A protester crossed the street and shook his hand. “I just want to thank you for being here,” she said to the cop. “We appreciate what you do.”

The policeman and I bantered for a bit. Before long we’d wandered off the subject of protests and onto more salient townie issues – like why the city had blocked Publix building a store downtown — where there is no place to buy groceries. This wasn’t a tense scene, though news reports implied it was.

I asked another cop, “When’s the last time you saw something like this in Durham?”

“I’ve been on the force 22 years. Never.”

On the other corner, four more cops were standing around chatting with themselves. They wore police vests atop street clothes – likely off duty cops called in to show maximum force here. In front of the defaced monument, hundreds of people chanted and beat drums in celebration.

I asked the other people around me, some there to protest and some there (like me) to watch on lunch breaks, what they thought of this. Two things were clear:

(1) Nothing like this had happened here for generations.

(2) There were exactly two actual white supremacists that had showed up that morning. One was described as a “scared kid” and the other was also young and ineffective.

The news reports of armed marchers were selective perspectives and exaggerations. One person may have had a gun, but the surrounding police force greatly outnumbered him. In contrast, being there affirmed for me that these crowds were overwhelmingly good, justice-seeking  people who wanted to see change happen. They’re here because the North Star points here, though some times fellow travelers on some fast horse out of control end up in the same place.


The reason thousands descended on Durham on Friday (Aug 18 2017) was to preemptively counter-protest a rumored KKK march that day. Ironically, according to one good local reporter’s account, the city issued warning to local businesses that morning that a KKK march might happen. Word spread. People mobilized against it. Suddenly you have the largest anti-racism protest in Durham in decades.

Our fear of change is accelerating change.

A demagogue like Trump can unite a diverse coalition against him and make fuzzy issues look more black-and-white. Liberals and Conservatives disagree about what kind of government we want, but we both agree that fascism and despotic rulers are antithetical to American values. People who fear the worst are showing up to oppose it, and the white supremacists are running away.

Thousands of citizens showed up that Friday in Durham, yet none of us woke up that morning with any plans to do so. This self-organizing emergence of mass moral opposition to racism is what true social change looks like. Years of Black Lives Matters activism oriented our moral compass towards the North Star and an imminent threat provided the spark. What happened is the opposite of that famous quote:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Instead, droves of good people showed up, and that was enough to keep evil in its hole for another day.

The next day the same thing happened in Boston, MA. Fearing a KKK “free speech” march might happen, over 40,000 anti-racists showed up to oppose them. The Nazi/KKK/white supremacists held a brief rally that omitted their speeches, deterred by overwhelming opposition.

Witness reality, don’t stream it.

Still, these events are difficult to grasp when seen through the lens of Television News or social media. All day long, I found that news reports about the events I was witnessing were highlighting the rare exceptions and failing to report on the dominant mood and flavor of the event.

During my stay I witnessed over a dozen individuals cross the street to shake hands with the cops and personally thank them for keeping the peace.

It was a sign of respect. Grown ups in public.

Even the city council was on board. That week, no one condemned the statue coming down. One said, “We should have done this ourselves years ago.”

Unfortunately the ultraconservative NC legislature passed a new law effectively outlawing any such removals in 2015. But this week the governor (a Democrat) talked about removing all offensive statues statewide because of what happened in Durham. The city belatedly arrested four people for removing the statue later that week after they came forward and held a press conference, and owned up to it. The governor could pardon anyone who destroys a confederate statue if he chose, and I’d like to see him use it. On Saturday students defaced a statue of General Lee in front of Duke’s campus chapel and the university president removed it on the same day, apologizing for allowing this relic of the state’s dark history to remain for too long.

These events, like those of 2015 in support of marriage equality, are the tail of a long moral journey – a journey that news reports barely manage to notice in earlier stages.

Newspapers and social media report on the “flash of the fast horse” and miss the direction the crowd is headed. The people who make headlines are usually not heading straight for the ultimate destination of our moral journey. It falls on citizens, activists, and preachers to remind us of where we have to go, and how to get there – together. We depend on Sunday preachers to speak out on the direction and build the coalitions necessary to dismantle the system. Rash attacks and protests are merely capable of tearing down the symbols of an unjust system – not the system itself. To dismantle the system, we need sustained commitments to constantly block those who would turn back the clock, and the means to dialogue towards a shared prosperous future for both sides.

On Friday, I overheard one of the townies lament, “It’s just commies fighting fascists.” That wasn’t what I saw at all.

Both extremes are the fast horses, but not the moral direction of the crowd. And it’s easy to dismiss the crowd when our reality is mostly streamed to us, and not witnessed. Even when it’s live in front of us, do we see what is there, or only what we expect to see based on the narrative we have been presented with about the world?

There is a media filter. What is newsworthy is seldom what is significant to changing the course of history. News writes a dismally inaccurate first draft of history, where social change is concerned. The media’s filter isn’t part of any conspiracy – it’s merely a product of our own psychological limitations (see this TED talk). But the filter works against social movements all the same; the absence of “North Star” signs in our daily feed serves to amplify fear, mistrust, and ignorance in society, and divide people. The rise of Trump couldn’t have happened without high levels of fear, and a general disbelief that government would ever intervene to better the lives of ordinary people.

Many people there could have looked at the police with distrust, after hearing of the endemic problems police have in fairly enforcing laws on people of color. But the overwhelming majority of the people didn’t do that. They showed respect and engaged in bridge-building. I witnessed a mob of peacemakers standing up for dismantling an unjust system. Removing the symbols of that system is just the beginning. Right now, there are many more good, energized people willing to take risks to engage in public spaces in civil dialogue than at any point in my life.

Friday’s protest affirmed that the days of racism and intimidation are numbered, and that moral action can be a self-organizing principle. I suspect that every movement looks this way: a long journey through darkness with just a lonely unwavering star to show us the way. And that star, like the world we imagine creating, is always too far to actually reach. But marching towards it has inspired each generation to make the world a little brighter than the one that came before it.

Each person who stumbles and falls, wears down the path for the next to come along. This is progress. Choose the North Star over the fast horse.

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