Confederate monument in Pittsboro draws hundreds to demonstrate support, opposition

For more than seven hours Saturday, hundreds of people demonstrating against or in support of a Confederate statue and battle flags on display in the heart of this largely liberal small town chanted, sang and taunted each other.

Sanford Road’s three lanes separated the dueling sides for much of the afternoon, with people in passing cars sometimes honking or cheering.

A crowd of roughly 30 people representing members of several extreme far-right and neo-Confederate groups set up camp around a Confederate battle flag that had been erected on private land facing Horton Middle School, named for George Moses Horton, an enslaved poet.

Among the groups represented were Heirs to the Confederacy, ACTBAC, CSA II, the Virginia Flaggers and the Hiwaymen, an Arkansas-based group that flocks to far-right events such as Unite the Right in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one counterprotester dead. Under an array of flags, they grilled hot dogs and played country music.

About 200 members of antiracist and progressive groups held signs and waved flags on the other side of the road. The group included liberals as well as people further left on the political spectrum, a coalition that was sometimes prickly. Pittsboro locals were joined by people from Hillsborough, Durham and Charlottesville, some of whom also protested Silent Sam, the Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill that activists brought down last year.

Efrain Ramirez, who lives nearby, turned his back on the neo-Confederates and held an American flag behind him. “They’re not worthy of my front,” he said. “It’s disgusting.”

“They lost and still can’t give up the hope.”

Saturday’s event was the latest in a series of face-offs in Pittsboro that has left many locals feeling weary. The county commissioners plan to declare the statue public trespass by Nov. 1, making it eligible for removal, The News & Observer has reported.

Chatham County resident KJ Laurro found Saturday’s event “heartbreaking.”

“In society right now, there’s a license to do this and be hateful,” Laurro said. “It’s OK for them to be physical and even violent.”

Hours into the confrontation, an antiracist protester sat down in front of a tractor that was approaching the middle school adorned with a Confederate flag.

The driver, who wore a surgical mask and a red Trump 2020 hat, stopped, and law enforcement soon arrived, ushering the crowd that gathered back onto the shoulders of the road.

Protesters sit in front of a tractor flying a Confederate flag in Pittsboro on Oct. 19, 2019. Carli Brosseau cbrosseau@newsobserver.com

A shoving match left one man from the neo-Confederate side on his back in the road. No arrests had been made as of 7:30 p.m.

Several neo-Confederates wore guns in holsters on their hips, and the opposing group repeatedly asked police officers and sheriff’s deputies why they were allowed to be armed. Officers did not say.

Rik Stevens, the legal adviser to the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office, later said that part of the event was on private land, which meant guns were allowed.

The two sides goaded each other into crossing the street a few times, and officers arrived to separate them. But as evening approached, crowds dwindled.

Officers began searching bags carried by some of the progressive protesters, a livestream video filmed by Heather Redding, an activist with Hillsborough Progressives Taking Action, showed.

The footage shows people across the street flying the flag of the League of the South, a white supremacist group that advocates Southern secession and Christian theocracy.

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Carli Brosseau is a reporter at The News & Observer who often analyzes databases as part of her work. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.