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Drop the Charges: Organizing to Protect the Durham Freedom Fighters

We are unionizing workers to fight white supremacy.

Activist Takiyah Thompson speaks at the Durham World Workers Party protest where a statue of a Confederate soldier was pulled down in Durham, North Carolina, August 14, 2017. (Photo: Rodney Dunning)

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 65th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

In the wake of the white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, protests have sprung up around the country. In North Carolina, a place laden with its own history of white supremacist violence, protesters pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier outside of the Durham County Courthouse. Arrests and raids on activists’ homes followed; so have further protests in solidarity with those who took down the statue, including, on Thursday morning, an attempt by hundreds to march on the jail and turn themselves in to protest the arrests and call for charges to be dropped.

We asked Angaza Laughinghouse, a long-time organizer in the area, to share his thoughts on the protests, the long fight against white supremacy in the South and workers’ role in that struggle.

Sarah Jaffe: One of the things that is striking right now is how many people forget how close the history of racial segregation is.

Angaza Laughinghouse: Me, it is my life experience. … I am a long-time community activist and labor union leader. I’m the former president of North Carolina Public Service Workers Union. I was a founding member of Black Workers for Justice. Engaged in this whole fight against white supremacist actions since we’ve arrived here. I am from North Carolina. My parents are from Greenville, North Carolina. I grew up around the main streets [near] the demarcation line for apartheid right there in Greenville, North Carolina: Line Street and Boundary Street … the demarcation line for Blacks and whites.

We had no public libraries in Greenville for the Black community. We couldn’t cross over the line on Boundary Street to get to any of the facilities. No equal access to public facilities at all when I was growing up part of my life in Greenville, North Carolina.

In North Carolina, following the events in Charlottesville this weekend, people took it upon themselves to remove the Confederate statue in Durham. Tell us a little bit about what happened and the aftermath of that.

Well, obviously, people were angered Friday night when they saw those people marching around with those torches, those racist, white supremacist chants, and we knew right then and there that that couldn’t happen without more people being engaged in this discussion and this fight to challenge this growing right-wing popular movement, this white supremacist movement. Discussion started that weekend. By the time Saturday rolled around, everybody was on the phone — all the activists were — [and sending] emails, texts communicating that this cannot stand without us responding to the death of our comrade there who was murdered, people who were injured.

Then, later on, people were communicating about the young Black man that was beaten [when] he went to the parking deck to retrieve his car. In that moment, people began talking about Sunday, that we’d have to mobilize across the State of North Carolina to tell them, to tell the world, that we weren’t going to let these fascist Nazis, white supremacists, white nationalists just murder and injure and rally their forces to push this historic white supremacist outlook.

That Sunday we began planning the activity in Durham. We began planning, also, another activity in Raleigh. In Raleigh, we had a candlelight vigil in front of the Martin Luther King statue in the heart of the Black community. Nine hundred people gathered to, number one, mourn the death of our comrade who was murdered and 19 injured people. Durham, as you know, had the other activity. Initially we rallied to show some solidarity in action in terms of the freedom fighters that were attacked. It had a great impact on the community here. We talked about it.

I know for a fact that on December 3 of last year the Ku Klux Klan tried to march in Raleigh to celebrate Trump. Some of them heard about the thousands of people who were gathering in Raleigh and decided to do a quick drive through a small rural town called Roxboro, North Carolina. … So, we are accustomed here in North Carolina to them raising their ugly heads, ugly hate. There has been a long history of it here in North Carolina.

After the rally in Durham and the statue being pulled down, I understand there have been arrests, that the police have been raiding people’s homes. Can you tell us a little bit about what has been happening?

Well, at the press conference which was held the following day after the statue was pulled down, two undercover agents approached Takiyah Thompson of North Carolina Central University, a Black student and also a long-time activist with several of the leading organizations that are a part of building a broader people’s assembly. They just came and they asked her, “Are you Takiyah Thompson?” and she said, “Yes.” They arrested her for the incident that had occurred. There was a group of people who surrounded her immediately after the press conference and they walked her and told her “We love you and we have got your back” as she approached the undercover car that they put her in after they handcuffed her.

The following day they continued to round up individuals. One is a lawyer, Peter Gilbert, and one is a union organizer, Dante Strobino, and others. They are continuing to round up as we speak, picking them up. We are fortunate that we have a long history of working together in this community. We were able to acquire the legal services of a well-known social justice and criminal lawyer by the name of Scott Holmes. He is helping us get them out and process them as we try to pull together a team of lawyers to represent these freedom fighters that took down the statue.

The governor, who is now a Democrat, said that these statues should come down in the wake of this, right?

Yes. Yesterday, Governor Roy Cooper came out with an actual press statement outlining steps for the removal of all Confederate statues from state property. Under the leadership of the Republican governor, who he defeated, Pat McCrory, under his administration they passed a law that states that they cannot move, replace, relocate any of these historical confederate statues from any state property. The governor wants to repeal this law that was passed by the majority Republican state legislature. … [The state legislature] successfully [pushed] through the North Carolina House of Representatives a bill that states they will not hold liable any driver driving a vehicle through any [of] these protests. The governor is urging the State Senate not to pass this bill and said that we need to make sure people don’t drive through demonstrations, they can find some other route, and that they will be held liable, because otherwise, the bill that was passed by the Republicans will be used to injure other demonstrators and murder people as they turn their vehicles into actual weapons.

You were telling me that you have experienced that when you are organizing, people sometimes try to run you down with a car.

One of the things that we do as a union is we oftentimes go to the workplaces, whether it is street maintenance or it is the sanitation yard, and usually they are in areas where people have to drive down a road to get into their workplace, to pick up their trucks, their sewer trucks or their equipment. While we are handing out the flyers, oftentimes some of the anti-union people, some of the people that have old white supremacist ideas and they are union haters — “You goddamned union communist organizer” — they try to hit you. So, it is very important that the governor stop this, make sure people are held liable as criminals when they hit or try to run over people as they hand out flyers in front of workplaces.

It is not just a question of protests and rallies. In the “right-to-work” South, where less than 3 percent of all workers in North Carolina are unionized, there is a lot of anti-union feeling. This white supremacist thinking is institutionalized. It is everywhere: in the history, in the workplace, part of the anti-union “right-to-work” climate. These supremacists … are now calling the county government telling them to prosecute these folks who pulled down the statue to the fullest extent of the law. It is fully institutionalized, it is systematic, this white supremacy thing. It is not just a few crazies as some people want to write it off.

Could you tell us a little bit more about the history in North Carolina? [Black people] have been confronting this stuff for a long time.

Black people certainly have been confronting this for hundreds and hundreds of years. Whether it was lynchings or whether it was the Wilmington riots of 1898, where there was a populist [movement] down in Wilmington, North Carolina, that’s in the history books, where the white supremacists came and they burned down a Black newspaper, Black businesses and murdered and slaughtered Black people.

There has been a long history of white supremacists and their violence, since that is what they have always done. I think back to the stories my grandmother told me [about why] my dad was missing a portion of his chest, about how they robbed my great-grandfather’s store way back in the early 1900s (it was around 1920s/’30s down in Greenville, North Carolina) and threw the safe on my father’s chest. My dad had a big scar on his chest. He was missing a whole pectoral muscle. As I reflect upon that, peace and blessings be on my dad who passed in 2007. A long history of white supremacist violence.

What brought me back to North Carolina — although I have been here in North Carolina every summer of my life since I was born in 1952 — was the murder of those five union organizers, political activists in Greensboro. This was the historic Greensboro Massacre of November 3, 1979, when the Klan came into a Black community known as Morningside Heights and gunned down five community and union organizers who were having a rally there. There is a long history.

Also, there is a lawyer working down rural areas, particularly Newton Grove, Johnson County, more what we call the Black Belt region, where the African Americans live and the farmworkers, there again. It was very apparent the role that these white supremacists played in intimidating the workers. They would cheat them out of their wages, they would work them overtime without paying them, spray the fields with pesticides knowing the workers were still working in the fields — it shows just how this white supremacist ideology devalues Black lives.

How can people support the folks that were arrested? How can people support your work in North Carolina and the organizing that is still going on in North Carolina?

One of the things we are asking people to do is call the district attorney in Durham County: dial 919-808-3010. We are asking them to tell whoever answers the phone to drop the charges on the freedom fighters that took down the statue. The other thing we are doing is we are asking people to please donate. If they go online to the Durham Solidarity Center Freedom Fighter Bond Fund, they can donate toward the legal representation of the people who took the statues down.

Certainly, we are doing organizing, during community town hall meetings, on a host of other issues that we should take time out to discuss the importance of us all participating in efforts to get these statues down, all these racist monuments to white supremacy. That is a very important role they can play. I think workers, too, have a unique role to play. In light of what is happening in our workplaces, I think we have to take up this discussion of why all workers have to make every effort to defeat white supremacy, this white nationalism and neo-fascist popular [movement] that is developing. The reason why is it keeps workers divided in our workplaces so we can’t unionize and win basic rights and better conditions and wages in our workplace. Many of us have heard about the recent loss down in Mississippi with the United Auto Workers Union organizing of the Nissan plant down there in Mississippi. It is just very important to take time out to see how this impacts our workplace.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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