Chairman Dasher talks monument, reaction, more

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Editor’s note: Mike Dasher was elected to the Chatham County Board of Commissioners in 2016. He became the board’s chairman last December and has led commissioners through the discussion and votes related to the Our Confederate Heroes monument at the county’s Historic Courthouse in Pittsboro. Following the county’s removal of the statue early last Wednesday morning, he agreed to speak to the News + Record from a personal perspective about the board’s decisions, the impact of the controversy on the county and more.

In the months that have passed since the Chatham County Board of Commissioners first began discussing the issue of the Our Confederate Heroes monument — and after all the conversation, the meetings, the turmoil, the protests, the legal wrangling, the arrests, the notoriety — what has been the most surprising thing to you personally? Has anything occurred along the way which you, and perhaps the board, didn’t anticipate?

I knew it was going to be difficult. Back in January, before the larger conversation began, I said at the MLK event in Siler City that it was past time we had an open and honest discussion about who and what we honor at our Historic Courthouse. That raised some eyebrows and I got a few phone calls and emails. I knew I had touched the proverbial third rail.

But the Board had been hearing from community members for months, if not years, and it wasn’t going to go away. At some point we were going to have to deal with it. What’s probably been most surprising is just how awful a job our schools have done teaching about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow — you name it. Race. We just can’t seem to come to terms with our history on race and racism. And I want to be clear — there are folks who honestly and sincerely do not see that monument as having anything to do with race. Some are people I like very much. But they either don’t know their own history, or are unwilling to look at it through any different lens. And I can’t fix that.

The irony of course is that I’m accused of wanting to erase history. I love history. But these monuments don’t teach history. And if it was a memorial to the awfulness of the Civil War, the horrors of slavery, the legacy and pain of white supremacy — they wouldn’t want it. It’s not the history they learned. It’s not a history they’re able or willing to accept.

What’s been the most disappointing thing?

I worry that people watching from outside (and I suppose some from inside) think that all the ugliness around it is in any way representative of Chatham County — who we are, what we’re about. The fact is there have been a lot of really good conversations — public and private — about the monument, our history, equity and justice…those don’t make the news. But they’re way more interesting and informative and indicative of the kind of community we are.

And what, do you think, is the most misunderstood aspect in all this?

That the Board set out to tear down the monument or approached this with a “my way or the highway” attitude.

We wanted to work together and were open to other ideas. Remember, our first action was to have the County Attorney see what options were available under the law. Our second action was to enter into an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the UDC [the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s local chapter, which owns the statue]. The “reimagining” was pretty open-ended. I thought maybe the soldier could go in the museum downstairs, and some new plaques on the pedestal could make it a monument to all veterans. Maybe a bell or something on top where the soldier had been. I even had a friend work up some renderings.

The fact is the UDC and their supporters made it clear that any alteration was not something they would accept. And so with our August action [the commission board’s 4-1 vote to set a deadline for a removal plan from the UDC] we told them to find a new place for it; that the values and what it represented back in 1907 were not consistent with our values and the County we are now.

It’s been an emotional thing, but the monument is not the only issue you and the board are dealing with in your roles as commissioners. In the totality of what Chatham County is and what’s taking place as changes of many kinds occur here, how relevant — really — is the issue of the monument?

That’s the crazy thing — we’ve gotten a ton done this year and made a lot of progress on some big things. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. And our County Manager and all our staff are doing great things for Chatham County day in and day out. But no doubt discussions around the monument have taken up a lot of oxygen.

Personally I just try and not let it distract me from the other work that needs done. It’s important, and I’m glad we dealt with it, but there are lots of other issues we have to work on.

Do you see a time where we can all say that this has been good for Chatham County and for Pittsboro?

I don’t know that we’ll all say that ever, but difficult though it’s been we’re already better off because of it.

Friends of mine have heard me reference this before, but King’s line from Letter from Birmingham Jail, where he talks about a negative peace being the absence of tension as opposed to a positive peace which is the presence of justice — that resonates with me. It’s difficult and painful and ugly but pretending that those tensions aren’t there doesn’t move us forward any.

And I know it’s been tough to watch — the reaction to our action, the protests and counter-protests. It’s been hard on some area businesses. It’s caused a lot of pain. It’s shaken our image of our County and County seat. But I don’t know anything I could’ve done differently that would’ve made it any easier, short of ignoring it altogether.

An Elon University poll released last week suggests most North Carolinians are OK with monuments of this type in their communities. What’s your reaction to that?

Yeah, I thought that was interesting. I’m not sure it’s a question that lends itself to “yes” or “no” answers. As we’ve seen here it goes a lot deeper. If they followed up and asked “If friends in your community told you it caused them pain” or “If others felt like it sent the wrong message about your community would you still want it there?” — I think you’d see people change their answers. Certainly not everybody, but even here most folks didn’t have a strong feeling either way at the beginning. As the conversation developed I think most of that middle-ground came down on the side of moving forward sans monument.

Some Chathamites have suggested a referendum on the monument, which of course wouldn’t be binding…but did the county do any kind of polling on this issue before or during this process? Was there any thought to putting this to a public vote to build more support and minimize conflicts?

Well it’s [a referendum] not allowed under state law. There are a very few specific items that are allowed to be placed on the ballot for popular vote. The fact is (and the thinking is), we elect representatives to make decisions and to take actions. If we don’t like their decisions and actions, we vote them out. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Now we could’ve gone the legislature and requested a local bill that would’ve allowed us to have a referendum but I don’t think that would’ve gone very far. Remember, the 2015 law that prohibits removal of some monuments was intended to prevent local communities from making these exact decisions themselves.

What’s been the cost to remove and store the statue, and the additional law enforcement support costs?

All together we’re close to $200,000 by now. The removal and storage is about a quarter of that.

What’s really hurt the budget is the law enforcement and public safety folks who have been working so many hours keeping everyone safe. And they’ve done an amazing job. I really can’t thank them enough for their professionalism, their measured response in really difficult situations…but the fact is they shouldn’t have to give up their Saturdays so people can stand across the street and scream at each other.

And look I’ve got friends on the anti-racism side. I get where they’re coming from. They argue that if you let folks wave flags and promote white supremacy in your community and you don’t counter it, you’re giving some kind of tacit approval. And some of these flag-wavers are aligned with really dangerous groups. I think that’s been a really underreported element. But I’ll be honest — they (the counter-protestors) don’t help the politics of it. But that’s not why they do it and I understand that. That’s the irony of people accusing me of encouraging the counter-protestors. It doesn’t help me one bit.

And speaking of cost: What’s been the cost to you, personally, as the most visible representative of the official body that put all this in motion? And to your family?

There’ve been some tough times, but it’s not about me. I remind myself a lot that all of the folks screaming at me, in person or online, don’t know me or anything about me. We probably have a lot more in common than they think. I try not to make judgments about them, because I don’t know them either. If we were making small-talk at a barbecue we’d talk about our kids, or sports, or something else and probably enjoy each other’s company.

I also remind myself that there are a whole lot of people who have risked much more than I would ever risk and sacrificed much more than I would ever sacrifice. So I try and avoid the “woe is me” stuff.

There are claims that you and other commissioners encouraged protests, and even invited outsider groups and activists to come to Chatham. How do answer that?

The last thing I wanted was for out-of-County folks on either side coming to Chatham and inserting themselves into our conversation. But this is happening all around us. We can’t pretend we’re in some vacuum.

Our whole approach was to do it different here. To have a conversation and not to see the monument pulled down by protesters. And I think because we were dealing with it proactively, most of the anti-racism activists were giving us a pass. That stopped when out-of-County groups showed up on the other side. I think the flag [the Confederate flag being placed on private property] across from Horton Middle was when things really went downhill. And they made it clear to the Board, in a public meeting, that they knew exactly what they were doing and intended to hold us hostage and make us change course. It didn’t work.

What will happen if the courts rule the monument shouldn’t have been removed?

Then we’ll abide by the court’s decision. I have to say I think that’s very unlikely. But I certainly thought about how it would end before we began. Whether the UDC’s lawsuit is dismissed Dec. 2 or not, the law is pretty clear and we’ve been consistent in our position. I hope it doesn’t, but should it end up going all the way to the N.C. Supreme Court I’m confident they’ll find our actions were legal.

Some of Chatham’s online communities — two which come to mind are a community Facebook group and Gene Galin’s “Chatlist” — have been breeding ground for a particularly venomous brand of rhetoric (not to mention some misinformation) about the monument in general and the commission board in particular. Some are even pitching the sale of a (illegal and copyright-infringing, we might add) sticker showing Calvin, of the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, “targeting” you and your three fellow commissioners (Jim Crawford, Karen Howard and Diana Hales) whose votes have pushed the removal issue forward. What’s your message to those who have used those outlets to vent and to express so much anger (and, in some cases, rage)?

I can certainly understand the anger. I get angry every day at what my Congressman, Senators and President do. I often feel like they don’t represent me or the will of the majority. Throw the General Assembly in there too. You’ve got to have something besides anger though, or it just eats you up.

Unfortunately we’ve got a movement in this country, from the President on down, that feeds it and feeds off it. And they tell you who to blame for your problems, and that we can go back to some imaginary time when those problems didn’t exist. I think for a lot of folks on the Chatlist or in Facebook groups — it’s less about me and the monument than it is about trying to make sense of a changing county, a changing country. But when you stop being mad about it, most of the time you find that change is for the better. We just need to get outside our social media echo chambers and talk to each other more. In spite of the last few months — maybe because of the last few months — I’m optimistic.

As for the Calvin sticker, it doesn’t bother me. It’s kind of silly, but I’ve spent $6 on dumber stuff. I’ve got a coffee mug that says some unkind things about the President, so who am I to judge?

The fact is there have been a lot of really good conversations — public and private — about the monument, our history, equity and justice…those don’t make the news. But they’re way more interesting and informative and indicative of the kind of community we are.

Mike Dasher

And I know it’s been tough to watch — the reaction to our action, the protests and counter-protests. It’s been hard on some area businesses. It’s caused a lot of pain. It’s shaken our image of our County and County seat. But I don’t know anything I could’ve done differently that would’ve made it any easier, short of ignoring it altogether.

Mike Dasher

I think for a lot of folks on the Chatlist or in Facebook groups- it’s less about me and the monument than it is about trying to make sense of a changing County, a changing country. But when you stop being mad about it, most of the time you find that change is for the better. We just need to get outside our social media echo chambers and talk to each other more.

Mike Dasher

Dasher

Dasher

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