Durham County

Did Durham Co. sheriff jump gun on rumored KKK protest? Sheriff, community leaders debrief

Protesters march in Durham after rumors of KKK rally

Several hundred protesters march in downtown Durham, N.C. Friday afternoon, Aug. 18, 2017 after word circulated of a possible KKK rally at noon. The KKK rally did not happen.
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Several hundred protesters march in downtown Durham, N.C. Friday afternoon, Aug. 18, 2017 after word circulated of a possible KKK rally at noon. The KKK rally did not happen.

Sheriff Mike Andrews has defended his warning of a possible white supremacist march last week, an action that drew hundreds to downtown Durham, closing streets, shutting businesses and leading to a tense standoff between a protest splinter group and police in riot gear.

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office shared a social media post entitled “Sheriff Mike Andrews Responds to Concerns Over Rally Rumors,” on Sunday.

The Sheriff’s Office had a duty to take precautionary measures, including notifying leaders in the community about the potential of a counter protest in response to the demonstrators who pulled down a Confederate statue on Aug. 14 evening, the post states.

“Sharing that information with key individuals, including a representative of demonstrators who were staged outside the courthouse Friday morning, was in no way a signal for them to independently sound the alarm ahead of law enforcement, potentially triggering needless panic and anxiety,” the post states. “Our goal was to avoid the possibility of groups with opposing viewpoints violently clashing in the streets of Durham. A tornado watch is not the same as a tornado warning. My agency was still in the process of verifying the information that was shared as a courtesy and in an abundance of caution with key individuals.”

“Had my Office never said a word and the Klan never arrived, it would’ve been a normal Friday in the Bull City,” the post continues. “Had it never given key leaders advanced warning and the Klan arrived, my Agency would've been criticized for being silent with prior knowledge, albeit unverified."

The post appears to respond to Scott Holmes, an attorney representing eight people charged with felonies and misdemeanors related to the toppling of the statue.

On Friday morning, amid rumblings at the Durham County courthouse, Holmes appeared to push the conversation to the surface with a 9:44 a.m. Friday tweet.

“First appearances are done,” he tweeted after four of his clients had a court hearing. “White supremacists arrive at noon.”

Holmes posted on Twitter over the weekend that sheriff’s Maj. Paul Martin had told him the KKK was coming to Durham.

“Note to Sheriff: When your Major tells me, as I leave court, the klan is coming, and my clients are getting threats, I will share the info,” Holmes tweeted Sunday.

City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson retweeted Holmes’ Friday tweet along with others.

Soon, hundreds descended on downtown in a peaceful, hours-long rally held in front of the old Durham County courthouse on a section of East Main Street that had been blocked off by law enforcement.

At 1:05 p.m. Friday Johnson tweeted she had “received information that there are armed white supremacists in downtown now. Several trucks have been seen as well.”

At the City Council meeting Monday, Mayor Bill Bell said elected officials have a personal responsibility for what they say on social media.

“I can tell you we as elected officials have got to be more responsible in my opinion, how we use social media when it comes to instances such as this,” said Bell, who is not on social media. “I am not pointing fingers. I am just stating that was a problem too.”

After the meeting, he said he was concerned about an elected official or officials – whom he declined to name – sharing unconfirmed reports about the KKK rally. If it was him in that position, he said he would call the police chief and the sheriff before he shared that information.

Bell said there needs to be a conversation about social media use.

“At some point, we need to have a meeting on how we police ourselves,” Bell said.

After the meeting Monday, Johnson said she has no regrets.

“If there is an imminent threat of racial violence, I want people to be aware of that,” Johnson said. It’s about personal safety, she said, particularly after small groups in Charlottesville committed acts of violence.

County ‘thought something would happen’

Around noon Friday, the Sheriff’s Office sent out a release “urging the public to avoid circulating rumors on social media and instead wait for verified information from officials monitoring the situation.”

Around 5 p.m., a group of 50 to 75 protesters marched down to the Durham County jail. They then walked down to Durham police headquarters, where there was a brief standoff with black-clad police wearing helmets and holding batons. One person was arrested and charged with failure disperse.

On Friday night, City Councilman Charlie Reece responded to criticism about whether people had overreacted to to a rumor.

“County offices were closed, courthouse closed,” Reece tweeted. “Pretty strong evidence that the county thought something would happen.”

On Facebook, Holmes responded with an extended post saying he is grateful for the Sheriff’s Office for sharing “that white supremacists were coming to Durham.”

“My clients are receiving death threats from white supremacist radicals even as they are also being raided by Durham sheriff deputies. So, all information that could help to keep them safe is welcome,” Holmes wrote. “It was a very difficult situation for the Sheriff to try to predict the unpredictable in a complicated and potentially volatile situation. As far as I know, it could be that the White supremacists intended to march and decided not to after seeing the people of Durham peacefully take to the street in a remarkable act of anti-racist solidarity.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges