Dueling protests in Pittsboro feature fisticuffs, taunts

BY HANNAH MCCLELLAN & D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 10/28/20

PITTSBORO — Nearly 50 people gathered at the Chatham County Historic Courthouse on Saturday holding signs and yelling chants — one side denouncing racism, the other applauding President …

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Dueling protests in Pittsboro feature fisticuffs, taunts

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PITTSBORO — Nearly 50 people gathered at the Chatham County Historic Courthouse on Saturday holding signs and yelling chants — one side denouncing racism, the other applauding President Trump’s presidency and the Confederacy.

Stationed on either side of Hillsboro Street — adjacent to the traffic circle — the groups taunted and baited each other. The contrast was palpable: self-proclaimed and masked anti-racist community members held up Black power flags while collecting 200 pounds of food donations for CORA. Across the street, fervent Trump supporters, notably maskless, decorated their hotdog cookout with Trump banners, Confederate flags and sexually graphic messaging (someone wore a shirt that said "Antifa can suck my d***").

The courthouse has become a lightning rod for contentious debate since May 2019, when Chatham County commissioners first entertained the idea of removing its long-standing Confederate monument; the “Our Confederate Heroes” statue was taken down in November.

“We are 10 days away from a historic election, Nov. 3 is the day that we will take back our country,” said Sarah D’Amato, an organizer with Chatham Takes Action, the group that organized anti-racist protesters. “We are here to support our community, where Black lives matter, where trans lives matter, where healthcare is a right for all, where immigrant lives matter — that’s the community that we are here to create and support.”

Chatham Takes Action had begun organizing the event — coined as “Mask up, speak out racism out of Pboro” on social media flyers — only a few days before, when community members learned about the “Honk for Trump” rally and were alerted to racist election propaganda found in Pittsboro. One flyer, with a picture of Joe Biden and a communist flag, reads, “We got rid of your statues & reb flag. Now it’s time to get rid of the Stars & Stripes.” (The flier also spelled out the acronym “NAACP” as “Negroes Against America for Communist Party.”)

D’Amato told the News + Record that while the event wasn’t necessarily planned in response to the Trump rally, organizers had hastened to pull it together in time for Saturday.

A few minutes before the event was set to begin, a fistfight erupted in the courthouse plaza. Members of each group bristled as their opposers chalked slogans on the brick. Both parties to the confrontation claim the other attacked first. Neither were arrested, though it took Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson and three Pittsboro policemen to deescalate the situation.

“This is not good for Pittsboro,” Roberson said.

On the left side of Hillsboro (both literally and ideologically) “Black Lives Matter” supporters sang modified versions of classic songs. Lyrics were adjusted telling racists “to go home” and open mic speakers called for community members to organize against intimidation tactics by voting and fighting for justice.

Kerwin Pittman, an organizer with Emancipate NC, called on the town to stand up for “its most marginalized members.” As he and other Black protesters spoke, one Trump supporter donned his Confederated flag and yelled, “Come on, boy. Come on over here, boy.”

Pittman’s organization RREPS (Recidivism Reduction Educational Program Services), along with Emancipate NC, sponsored the “Black Lives Matter” billboard that briefly resided on U.S. Hwy. 64 East Business Route in Pittsboro next to a large Confederate flag, before local Sam White — the owner of the property on which both the sign and flag resided — decided not to renew his lease for the billboard.

Pittman served a prison sentence for murder from 2007 to January 2018 — a fact many Confederate supporters have used to discredit him.

“My past is what qualifies me to do what I’m doing now. I rebuild what I once destroyed, but all they do is continue to destroy. It is a difference,” Pittman said after one Trump supporter called him a murderer. “Do not let these individuals intimidate you to be silenced — because your silence means you accept what they’re doing, and what they’re doing is unacceptable.”

Before the event’s conclusion, Confederate supporters — shouting racist comments and misogynist slurs — walked to the traffic island, where some anti-racist protesters were standing, before police officers ordered everyone back to their respective sides. At one point, Trump supporters beat on a truck displaying pro-Joe Biden messages about a block away from the courthouse; Black Lives Matter supporters ran to stand between protesters and the truck after officers did not intervene.

During the protest, the News + Record tried to speak with multiple Trump supporters. Each of the demonstrators refused to talk or identify themselves, with the exception of Robbie Butler, of Pittsboro, who frequents the Pittsboro protests and has been involved in many altercations, including the fistfight that took place Saturday.

“We support Black lives,” Butler said. “We support unborn Black lives. I mean, to us, the other side supports abortion. We don’t support abortion. We want children to have a chance to live. And so, if it were strictly about Black lives — we’re in total support of that.”

In conflict with Butler’s statement, however, some of his associates have been recorded saying “white power” at previous rallies.

“We support the confederacy, support our monument,” Butler said. “That monument was a monument to dead soldiers was all it was. It didn’t represent slavery.”

This year, three Republicans — incumbent Chatham County commissioner Andy Wilkie in Dist. 5 and candidates Jay Stobbs and Jimmy Pharr — have made “restoration of the Veteran’s memorial” a major component of their joint platform.  

Karen Howard, the Democratic chairperson for the BOC who is seeking re-election, was out of town on Saturday, but she told the Triad City Beat she would have joined the antiracist protest if she were able. The Triad City Beat covers Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point and surrounding areas.

“The people that show up are the best reflection of who we are,” Howard told the Triad City Beat. “Kudos to those who are willing to stand in this space and stand in the gap. We are the ones who will show up and stand against hate and venom. I will proudly stand with them.”

Commissioner Mike Dasher, a Democrat also seeking re-election, was getting coffee downtown during the rally. While he was glad the event seemed peaceful for the most part, he said he hoped this would be one of the last of what “was a fairly regular occurrence for a while.”

“I think everyone is counting down the days to the election and there’s a lot of pent up energy and anger,” Dasher said. “Personally, I kind of hope that it’s sort of one last gasp from a group of folks that, unfortunately, have felt very emboldened over the last three and a half years.”

After a brief pause, he added: “But, I’ve got to be honest, I don’t think those votes speak for the majority of Chatham residents. I would guess that the majority of them are not Chatham County residents. It would certainly not surprise me.”

The description regarding "sexually graphic" messaging at the event was updated Oct. 30 for clarity and specificity.

Reporters Hannah McClellan and Lars Dolder can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com and dldolder@chathamnr.com.

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