Two drastically different events combined to stir political controversy in Chatham County over Valentine’s Day weekend.
Pro-Confederate demonstrators showed up outside a scholarly discussion among professors from UNC and Duke on Feb. 15 at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center. The discussion focused on “the truths and fallacies of the Civil War and Confederate symbolism today,” according to the event’s Facebook page, and was entitled “The Civil War Today."
The event was hosted by Abundance N.C. and Chatham For All, a group of Chatham County residents that advocates for Pittsboro's Confederate statue to be returned to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
The discussion was held in the same building as an early voting polling place, which had opened about an hour earlier for the first Saturday of North Carolina’s current primary election season.
Counter-demonstrators had learned of the pro-Confederates' plans through social media and had prepared their own presence at the building, so did law enforcement.
One voter, Phyllis Clark, said the first thing she saw when she got to the Agriculture Center was a big Confederate flag. Clark is a 62-year-old Black woman who retired in December from a 34-year stint at UNC Health, which was formerly UNC Health Care. She recently moved from Chatham County to Alamance County, but said because she has not officially changed her residence, she went to Pittsboro to vote.
“Because I am older and I was a pre-teen during segregation, I’ve seen it all and heard it all, you know,” she said. “It did bother me. I mean, it bothered me to the point of, ‘OK, we should be way past this.’”
Clark called the demonstration "heart-sickening," and said the rally made her more determined to get people to vote, regardless of who they vote for.
“To me, they used one platform as an excuse to intimidate the other platform,” she said. “I don’t feel they could have cared less about that Black history discussion, because I mean, what was talking hurting? I think that was just an excuse to have their presence seen and felt during voting.”
Allan Hall, a 52-year-old man from Pittsboro, was one of the people flying flags from his truck that day. Hall identifies as a Constitutionalist, and flies his flags in Pittsboro every Saturday. He said the pro-Confederate demonstration was held in response to the Civil War conference, not to protest any voting.
At one point, Hall himself went in to vote. He said he volunteers for Republican campaigns occasionally.
"I'm just a volunteer, and like I said, all I fly is Trump flags, American flags, that’s all I fly," Hall said. "And plus, like I said, I ended up — I was there to vote that day, as well.”
Multiple other people involved in the pro-Confederate demonstration on Feb. 15 didn't respond to requests for comment through social media.
Lindsay Ayling, a UNC history Ph.D. student and long-time community activist, said the pro-Confederates showed up to protest the historical discussion, but she accused them of intimidating voters in the process.
“They were pretty gleefully posing with Confederate flags by the voting site, and in one case behind the no-campaigning line, which is very purposeful,” Ayling said.
Ayling said people were present from outside groups that have also protested on UNC’s campus for Silent Sam’s return. Those groups include ACTBAC, short for Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, and the League of the South, a group that seeks “a free and independent Southern republic,” according to its national website, and had members present at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where counter-protester Heather Heyer was murdered.
A Chatham County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said they did not receive any complaints about potential voter intimidation. However, the Chatham County Board of Elections did.
Five different people emailed the county’s elections board with concerns that the pro-Confederate’s activity near the early voting site could be seen as voter intimidation, Chatham County Board of ElectionsDirector Pandora Paschal told The Daily Tar Heel.
Mary Hart, a 64-year-old resident of Chatham County, wrote one of those emails. She said there was no way to avoid seeing the pro-Confederate demonstrators when she, her partner and her son went to vote at the site.
“It was the most intimidating experience of my voting life,” Hart said.
Hart said in her statement to the county that she saw a woman holding a Confederate flag with “Trump 2020” superimposed, as well as a sign encouraging people to vote out Mike Dasher. Dasher is one of four Chatham County commissioners who voted to remove a Confederate monument outside Chatham County Courthouse last August, in a lopsided decision that only one commissioner voted against.
“If people come into the fifty-foot (buffer zone) with campaign material, whatever they have out there, as long as they are maintaining peace and order, sometimes there’s not much we can do about it,” Paschal said. “But we are aware of that situation, and hopefully that won’t happen again.”
The N.C. State Board of Elections was aware of the Civil War history event and potential of protesters outside the early voting site “well before Feb. 15,” said Public Information Officer Patrick Gannon. Citing security reasons, Gannon declined to say what kind of preparations they had made, but he said there was a presence there.
On Feb. 28, the state elections board's executive director, Karen Brinson Bell, issued an updated version of a 2016 "numbered memo" about voter intimidation. The memo lays out specific guidelines of prohibited actions near voting sites in North Carolina, including “individuals in the parking lot physically (preventing) multiple cars from parking at the only parking lot in the voting place," which could cause voters to "turn around and leave.”
Given the overall environment of elections in the United States right now, Gannon said, the state elections board thought it would be appropriate to remind people of these guidelines.
Both voters and counter-protestors said they imagined the scene outside the Agriculture Center would cause new voters to turn around and leave.
At one point, a pro-Confederate protester used racial slurs against counter-demonstrator Heather Redding, a Chatham County activist, according to a video Redding posted on Twitter of the interaction.
Redding said the experience made her feel intimidated.
“The presence of the flaggers and hate group members in the parking lot and at the building made the entire environment unsafe, hostile and intimidating for several hours,” she said. “They did this purposefully and without regard for the many people of color at the location.”
Though she doesn’t know what statement the pro-Confederate demonstrators were trying to make, it doesn’t seem like it’s about history said Aylett Colston, political action chairperson for the Raleigh-Apex branch of the NAACP.
“They had a flag for a current politician,” Colston said, referencing one of many large flags pro-Confederates were displaying in support of President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign. “I mean, they didn’t just have, you know, varying flags from their different organizations, which makes it seem like a little bit of a contemporary statement, in some way.”
Though she can’t reach a legal conclusion about whether this was a case of voter intimidation, Colston said her main concern is making sure people can vote.
“Most of us, I think, would be surprised to see something like that,” Colston said, “So it’s good to have clear instructions ahead of time for the people who are charged with safety and protecting elections so that they have some really clear guidelines about what to do.”
Dylan Mole, a fourth-year UNC undergraduate studying chemistry, was present at the voting site on Feb. 15. Mole also counter-demonstrated at a Silent Sam rally in September 2018, where he was punched in the face by ACTBAC member Barry Brown. Both individuals were arrested and charged with simple affray at the time, but Mole’s charge was later dropped while Brown’s stood.
He said the symbolism was the most noticeable part of the event.
“The tactics and strategies of 20th century white terrorism are certainly not over, even if it’s the 21st century,” he said. “They still do these things, and voter intimidation is still alive. I just saw it the other day, and other ways that they try to suppress minority voices.”
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