There are more than 230 memorials to the Civil War in North Carolina, and just before lunchtime on Tuesday, an elderly man in a cowboy hat stood at the foot of what remained of one of them in Durham.
“I don’t care how you feel about what is going on,” bellowed the man, who would give his name only as Gary. “I refuse to allow socialists and rabble-rousers to come in here and vandalize this town.”
Some passers-by wondered if it was a stunt. Gary is African-American, and the statue he was defending, which had been pulled from its pedestal by protesters eighteen hours earlier, honored the memory of Confederate soldiers—who fought for “enslavement and murder and the right to hold slaves,” as Rann Baron, a bearded Duke University mathematics professor who stood nearby, chided him.
That didn’t go over well either. “You’re ignorant,” retorted another passerby, who cradled his toddler son and wore a black T-shirt with a Confederate flag advertising the Sons of Confederate Veterans, retorted in a thick Eastern Carolina drawl. “The Civil War was about states’ rights. You can spout your false narrative all you want. You do not know what you’re talking about.”
It was a tense day in Durham. After a white nationalist protest over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, about three hours north, turned violent, leaving one woman dead, a group of Bull City activists gathered by a statue of a young Confederate soldier outside the former courthouse. Using a thick yellow cord, they uprooted the statue. Video of the moment went viral on Twitter, and one protester, a 22-year-old student at the historically black North Carolina Central University, now faces felony charges.
The protesters argued they were forced to take the law into their own hands. Under a state law passed not long after white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-American worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, local governments cannot remove or modify historical monuments, including those that commemorate the Confederacy.
“We won’t accept memorials to people who held slaves,” said Baron, who had participated in the Durham protest. “If the city won’t do it, if the state won’t do it, then the people will do it.”
Local officials weren’t exactly rushing to condemn the vandalism.
“People are outraged,” Durham Mayor Bill Bell said. Bell, the city’s longest-serving mayor and the second African-American to hold that office, sounded tired. “The tearing down of the statue represents the frustrations of the people in attendance last night, given the climate in this country and specifically what happened in Charlottesville.”
Durham is not alone in the state in being divided. In recent years, the state’s urban centers in Raleigh and Charlotte have become more populous and more cosmopolitan, setting up a tension with the more conservative areas in the rest of the state. In 2016, the seven most populous counties went for Hillary Clinton, while 76 of the remaining 93 were won by Trump. That tension played out in a contentious fight over state legislation in 2016 that aimed to restrict which bathrooms transgender people could use.
The fight over statues will likely prove another flashpoint. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement Tuesday that he hopes to remove the remaining Confederate monuments, saying that “we cannot continue to glorify a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery.” But for now, the restrictions on removing memorials remain in place, and the Republican-led legislature would have to agree to change that law.
In Durham, local leaders weren’t eager to put the statue back up either.
“We don’t know what our options are legally,” Durham County Commissioner Brenda A. Howerton told me over the phone. “I’m not speaking for the rest of my fellow commissioners, but personally and politically, I’m not interested in using the taxpayers’ dollar to put it back up.”