Editorial: A contrast in Confederate protests

Groups protesting Confederate symbols declared two victories this week. Only one is worth celebrating.

The crowd that pulled down the statue of a Confederate soldier in downtown Durham replaced one symbol of oppression with another.

The statue outside the old courthouse may have offended some as honoring those who defended slavery. But the symbolism of tossing a strap around the statue’s neck and pulling it down evokes the blind anger of mobs from the very past the protesters want to deny.

There are sound reasons to seek the removal of Confederate symbols, but violence and vandalism is not the way.

Unfortunately, the message of peaceful protesters against bigotry is increasingly being turned inside-out by violent extremist groups. They are not “on the left.” They are simply against and eager to smash with no vision of what to build. Government leaders should be forceful in condemning these tactics.

Gov. Roy Cooper was quick to do so, tweeting that “the racism and deadly violence in Charlottesville is unacceptable but there is a better way to remove these monuments.” Durham County’s government did the same, saying in a statement: “We share the sentiments of many communities around the nation that admonish hate and acts of violence as we believe civility is necessary in our every action and response.”

The violence in Charlottesville brought to national attention the anger and anxiety about race and change in America. President Trump was wrong to blame it on “many sides.” The violence was clearly provoked by white nationalists and one drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one young woman and injuring 19.

But the actions that followed in Durham were not the right response. Durham’s law enforcement officers did well to keep the situation from escalating.

In contrast Monday night in Orange County, community members who have waged a battle with the county school board came away with the ban on the Confederate flag they have been seeking.

Moved by the weekend violence in Charlottesville, the Orange County Schools Board of Education reworded a proposed revision of the student dress code to specifcally prohibit the flag, KKK symbols and the Nazi swastika.

It was a hard-fought win for the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, whose founder Latarndra Strong formed the group after seeing the Confederate battle flag in the student parking lot at Orange High School three days in a row. For months the coalition brought students, parents and community members to the board to ask for the ban.

They argued eloquently in three minutes each that children do not have the choice to walk away from divisive symbols in the school classroom or lunchroom. Such symbols rob students of their ability to focus and achieve academically, they argued.

The board listened, and for months said nothing. Then it formed an equity task force to study that and other issue, and then it proposed a vague revision of the dress code that initially did not address the flag.

And then Monday night, victory, of a sort.

Unfortunately, the coalition tapped so deep a vein, bringing so many speakers to meetings, that school board members now want to limit public comment to one session per month.

That would be unwise and an indirect slap at those who successfully used the democratic forum to make themselves heard and effect change. The school board should find another way to deal with dissent, and to thank the coalition for providing a prescient civics lesson that others might do well to learn by.