Conference strategizes tearing down statues, walls

Durham, N.C. — Energized by the fall of the Silent Sam statue in neighboring Chapel Hill, N.C., just days before, activists and community members representing a wide spectrum of progressive interests gathered on Aug. 25 at the historic Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, N.C., for “How to Topple a Statue, How to Tear Down a Wall,” a conference and celebration marking one year since one of Durham’s own Confederate monuments was brought to the ground.

Planned by the group Defend Durham, the conference brought together anti-racist organizers, religious leaders, student activists and anti-capitalist advocates from groups like Stop Killing Us, Comité de Acción Popular, Fight for Im/migrants and Refugees Everywhere (FIRE), Charlottesville Standing Up For Racial Justice, Duke University’s Graduate Student Union, Workers World Party, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Green Party and others to assess the state of the movement one year after horrific right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Va., prompted freedom fighters locally and nationally to intensify the struggle against racism — both symbolically and materially.

“I’m glad that our action has made people open their eyes and interrogate the seemingly natural order of everyday life,” said Takiyah Thompson, a Workers World member who became a national symbol of resistance when she climbed a ladder and tied the rope that brought down Durham’s statue. “When we see these monuments to white supremacy, we have to understand that they exist as an attempt to humiliate and dehumanize all who are nonwhite. But if you want a truly humanizing experience, there’s nothing quite like physically destroying an altar of your oppressor.”

Panels covered a multitude of topics, including im/migrant rights, capitalism’s inextricable links to racism, the state of University of North Carolina student activism and the need to build political power outside the traditional U.S. two-party system. But in light of the churning controversy over Silent Sam — a small pro-Confederate rally and much larger counterdemonstration were taking place simultaneously over in Chapel Hill — the monument issue was never far from the microphone.

“My heart cries out to all of our oppressed ancestry who had to endure the racism, the rape, the murder, the nonstop killings,” said the Rev. Curtis Gatewood of Stop Killing Us, a Durham advocacy group seeking police accountability, calling the continued presence of Confederate monuments a “slap in the face.” In a breakout session, Gatewood stressed the importance of pushing for immediate reforms, such as stronger measures ensuring that police do not violate the constitutional rights of Black and Latinx people, while simultaneously combating underlying structural issues.

“The solution is not just having better police,” he said. “Everything we do has to be based upon our desire to fight institutional racism. … I don’t care how much diversity training you get, if you’re a racist white supremacist with a badge you’re going to murder Black people.”

While speakers addressed several topics of national importance, some discussions were more locally focused. The Rev. John Gumbo of Durham’s Shepherd’s House United Methodist Church, which serves a largely im/migrant population, discussed the difficulties his church is experiencing in a rapidly gentrifying city. After being gifted use of his building 10 years ago by another Methodist church, the predominantly white North Carolina Council of Churches is attempting to purchase the property, leaving Gumbo to fear that Shepherd’s House’s future is in danger. “Come and join us into the ministry, but don’t overtake everything [and] leave us with no place we can call home,” he said.

Other speakers raised issues of im/migrant exploitation and argued for a deeper analysis of their issues. Teresa Gutierrez, WWP member and deputy secretary general of the International Migrant Alliance, noted that many in the U.S. who hadn’t been conditioned to see im/migrant issues as any of their concern had recently been horrified by the actions of the Trump administration at the Mexican border. “To see children in cages, to see children torn away from their parents, to have parents deported and their children remaining here in the United States just shocked the senses of broad layers of the population,” she said.

While praising the many individual acts of resistance that have garnered attention in this period — from a mother hearing about Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s abuses and driving to the border in protest, to others collecting frequent flier miles to donate in the service of reuniting families — Gutierrez noted that these acts weren’t enough on their own. It is “the task of the left,” she said, “the task of the working-class movement to take this moment in history, this consciousness in support of im/migrants, and take it further. … You can’t be passionate for that Honduran mother or father and still support U.S. policies that create the most violent destabilizations [in those countries]. You just can’t do that.”

Most panelists echoed something of a universal theme: that all of these struggles were connected, and that any successes in realizing a more just world come from the people themselves.

“The hashtag that started going out after [Aug.] 14 [when the Durham statue came down] was #doitlikedurham,” said Workers World Party’s Elena Everett. “I don’t think any of the activists came up with that. It really was Durham that took that statue down. Each of us are actors on a larger historical stage, but we wouldn’t have been able to do it, we wouldn’t be able to sit here before you if it wasn’t the will of the people.” The question now, she said, was how to raise consciousness that “this movement, this community is tearing down white supremacy from Durham to Charlottesville to the White House to South Africa to all over the world; that we’re interconnected.”

Thompson, who reminded the audience that the conference was taking place during Black August and a nationwide prisoners strike, reiterated that point: “We have to tear down the wall in a physical sense, but also in an ideological sense.”

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