A Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina, after being removed by protestors on August 14, 2017.David A. Graham / The Atlantic

DURHAM, N.C.—“Let me be clear, no one is getting away with what happened.”

That was Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews’s warning on August 15, 2017. The day before, a protest had formed on the lawn outside the county offices in an old courthouse. In more or less broad daylight, some demonstrators had leaned a ladder against the plinth, reading, “In memory of the boys who wore the gray,” and looped a strap around it. Then the crowd pulled down the statue, and it crumpled cheaply on the grass. It was a brazen act, witnessed by dozens of people, some of them filming on cell phones.

Andrews was wrong. On Tuesday, a day after a judge dismissed charges against two defendants and acquitted a third, Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols announced the state was in effect surrendering, dismissing charges against six other defendants.

“Acts of vandalism, regardless of noble intent, are still a violation of the law,” Echols said during a brief news conference at the county courthouse. But he said the unfavorable decisions on Monday made clear the state would not be successful. “For my office to continue to take these cases to trial based on the same evidence would be a misuse of state resources.” Additional trials had been scheduled for April 2.

As a legal matter, these dismissals reflect the specifics of this case, especially the shockingly weak case brought by the Durham County Sheriff’s Office and the DA’s office. As a political matter, their effect could be wider. Actors on all sides portrayed the Durham case as an important one. Activists viewed the destruction of the statue as a blow against white supremacy and the hundreds of monuments that dot the country, paying tribute to a rebellion that sought to preserve the enslavement of African Americans. Their opponents—including President Trump—argued that the monuments represented a piece of history, and warned that allowing such destruction would sanction anarchy. The failure of the attempt to prosecute the guerrilla action in Durham shows how activists maintaining a united front can stare down a government divided over the proper approach to the controversial matter of Confederate monuments—and it may offer encouragement to activists elsewhere in the country, including in places where government cannot or will not act, to take monument removal into their own hands.

The destruction of the statue in Durham came two days after violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, left one dead, and it helped galvanize the effort to tear down Confederate monuments and statues across the country.

“This victory is the result of one thing and one thing alone: the conviction and determination of a mighty movement against white supremacy and the racist system that it upholds,” Defend Durham, an umbrella group for activists, said in a statement Tuesday. “Power to the people! Fighting white supremacy is not a crime!”

When I spoke to Qasima Wideman, one of the erstwhile defendants, Tuesday evening, she was still in disbelief. She said she was proud of what the movement had done.

“After the events of Charlottesville a lot of us were feeling like we were beat,” she said. “People were physically beaten, and murdered, in Charlottesville. Folks felt like the brave people of color and their allies who were on the right side of history were outnumbered. That was a really scary idea to entertain. This victory proves that that’s not true.”

Outside of court, protesters never seriously denied taking down the statue. Doing so would have been absurd, given the widespread coverage. Instead, they argued that they were following a higher law.

“I did the right thing,” Takiyah Thompson said the day after the protest, minutes before she was arrested. “Everyone who was there—the people did the right thing. The people will continue to keep making the right choices until every Confederate statue is gone, until white supremacy is gone. That statue is where it belongs. It needs to be in the garbage.”

The statue occupied a peculiar and increasingly untenable position in Durham. The city has long had a strong black middle class—one block away from the old courthouse sits Parrish Street, once known as “Black Wall Street”—and a tradition of civil-rights activism. Today, the city grapples with the racially disparate impact of law enforcement, and with growing gentrification that is pushing many minorities out of homes and neighborhoods. The statue was not only antique but antiquated and offensive.

The monument was erected in 1924, 59 years after the surrender at Appomattox. Though sometimes defended as simple war memorials or commemorations of the dead, Confederate statues and monuments rose in two major waves across the South, both of them well after the war, and both of them correlated with periods of racial backlash. The first came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as repressive race laws were being erected post-Reconstruction, and the second arrived in the 1950s and ’60s, around the time of the civil-rights movement.

Julian Carr, a Durham industrialist who had served in the Confederate army as a private but in later years styled himself “General” because of his work with the United Confederate Veterans, was a driving force behind such commemorations in the area. In a speech at the 1913 dedication of Silent Sam, a monument at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carr boasted of having “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because … she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady” just a few days after returning from Appomattox. Carr was also involved in the planning of the Durham statue, but resigned in a huff over the county’s reluctance to raise more money, and died shortly before its dedication. (Carr’s concern with cost-cutting was validated in August 2017, when the statue—cheap sheet metal covered in bronze—crumpled.)

The statue stood in front of the courthouse for years, greeting all those who came for supposedly impartial justice in its halls. “All those years, black people had to go to court, walk past this sign, and think you were going to get justice?” Tia Hall told me the night it was pulled down.

One enduring mystery is why the protestors were allowed to tear down the statue without law enforcement officials intervening. The county was aware of a planned protest, but the sheriff’s office apparently opted to hang back rather than confront protestors. (The Durham Police Department distanced itself from the episode, noting that it took place on county property.) When I arrived on the scene, shortly after the statue was toppled, several deputies were milling around filming the scene on handheld cameras.

This was not, it turned out, a sign of acquiescence. Sheriff Andrews quickly pursued aggressive arrest warrants, including felony charges for participating in and inciting a riot. Several activists were arrested the next day at a rally where they were demanding amnesty. Deputies also executed search warrants on several suspects’ homes. Under state law, the sheriff can determine the charges on which to arrest someone, but the district attorney determines what charges to bring in court. A 2015 state law also effectively bars the removal of any Confederate monuments.

This resulted in a standoff among three nodes of the county government, all of them separately elected. The left-leaning county commission seemed just as happy to be rid of the statue, even if members disapproved of the method in which it had come down. The sheriff was furious and determined to punish the protestors. Echols, as prosecutor, had a delicate balance to strike. His job is law enforcement, and it requires close coordination with the sheriff. But he suggested early on that he was wary of prosecuting the case aggressively.

“Justice requires that I must take into account the pain of recent events in Charlottesville and the pain in Durham and the nation,” he said. “Justice requires that I consider that Durham citizens have no proper recourse for asking our local government to relocate or remove this monument.”

As I reported in September, legal experts saw little chance that the riot-related felony charges would stand up in court. In January, once national attention had drifted away, Echols announced he was dropping the felony charges. All charges against three of the defendants were also dropped. That left nine defendants. One of them took a deferred prosecution deal in December, but the remainder vowed to take the case to trial.

On Monday, trials began for those eight defendants, who were charged with defacing a public monument, conspiracy to deface a public monument, and injury to real property. Supporters held a rally in front of the courthouse in the morning, then packed the courtroom. The trial was heard by a judge, with no jury.

In his opening statement, in keeping with the protesters’ stance that they had acted rightly, defense attorney Scott Holmes sketched out a novel defense. Holmes argued that the statue was in violation of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bans slavery; the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law; the North Carolina Constitution, which prohibits secession and requires allegiance to the U.S. government; and state law, which bars the teaching of overthrow of the government.

Judge Fred Battaglia showed little patience with this line of argument, and later in the day asked rhetorically whether Holmes’s argument meant that if the defendants were convicted, it would make the courthouse a symbol of white supremacy that ought to be torn down, too.

Nonetheless, it became clear almost immediately that the prosecution was in trouble. Even though videos of the statue’s destruction appeared to show the first defendant Dante Strobino, at the protest, the assistant DA didn’t put an eyewitness on the stand who placed Strobino at the scene, and Battaglia wouldn’t permit her to enter an identification by a detective who examined the video. When she tried to recall an earlier witness she had dismissed, the judge refused. As evidence of conspiracy, she produced only a grainy photo taken after the statue came down, of a car with a ladder on top. With no official evidence in the record placing Strobino at the protest, and only the photo to prove conspiracy, Battaglia dismissed the charges against Strobino.

A second trial, for Peter Gilbert, unfolded at greater length, but with similar results. The prosecution called the same witnesses, beginning with a resident who had been driving by and taken a video that she uploaded to Facebook. The video was later published by the AP and Washington Post. This time around, Holmes convinced the judge to disqualify it by pointing out that that the video could have been edited. Battaglia demanded to know why the prosecution hadn’t obtained the video directly from the witness, who had been subpoenaed to appear. The county security manager testified that a surveillance camera had been trained on the statue, but that temporary scaffolding had blocked it. The judge also refused to allow the detective to identify Gilbert solely on the basis of his appearance on video, saying the video was unclear, and noting that once again, no eyewitness had placed Gilbert at the scene.

“Yes, we are going to follow the rules of evidence,” Battaglia scolded the prosecutor. He also noted that even if the photo of the alleged getaway car had been clear, the state offered no evidence that the ladder on the car was the one used in the alleged crime, and that even if it had done that, the most it might have proven was that the driver was an accessory after the fact—not a charge brought in the case. Once again, the defense moved to dismiss the case, and again Battaglia granted the motion.

A third trial, of Raúl Jimenez, progressed further. Battaglia refused to dismiss the charges, but after hearing evidence, he ruled that the state had not proven any of its charges. The prosecution had gone zero for three. That was apparently enough for Echols, who pulled the plug on further prosecutions on Tuesday.

The result is astonishing. The prosecution’s approach raises many questions. For example, why did the DA’s office choose to start with Strobino, rather than with Thompson, who had publicly boasted about her role in tearing down the statue? The assistant DA trying the case also seemed underprepared for the case, even though the defendants had made clear they would follow through with a trial, and even though Holmes is a veteran of such cases. She also seemed unversed in the rules of evidence. Although Echols on Tuesday defended the decision to charge the eight, his early statements about the case and speed to drop the remaining charges are enough to raise the question of whether he was just as happy to be done with it. (Echols did not take questions.)

But the sheriff’s handling of the case is even more astonishing. “The state presented all of the admissible evidence available in this case,” Echols said Tuesday. In a statement on Tuesday, Andrews said the following:

While I appreciate the strong emotions surrounding this issue, the Sheriff’s Office has done its job. We applied the law for the removal and damage of public property— just as we would in any other case. It’s up to the court system to decide what happens next. The Sheriff’s Office is going to continue doing its job by serving and protecting our community and upholding the law.

Yet despite the public nature of the crime, the sheriff’s office—by the prosecutor’s own account—could not produce stronger evidence than a bystander’s video twice-removed, a cell-phone video taken by the county security manager, and a grainy photo of the supposed getaway car taken by another deputy, even after executing search warrants on suspects’ homes. And even though a trial-court judge found that evidence too flimsy to convict them of misdemeanors, Andrews sought felony charges against the defendants. Andrews, through a spokeswoman, did not respond to questions about his handling of the case, but when he speaks of “strong emotions,” it’s hard not read them at work in his own actions.

Although it is too soon to interpret the local political ramifications, both Andrews and Echols will be on the ballot this year. (Like most elected officials in Durham, both are Democrats.) One man remains charged with bringing a gun to a rally on August 18, 2017, several days after the statue was removed, when a rumor spread that the Ku Klux Klan was preparing to march in Durham.

The failure to prove, or even produce real evidence for, the conspiracy charge is particularly ironic, because by any plain reading of the facts, it seems plausible and even likely that activists did conspire. The county knew of the protest ahead of time; the ladders and straps were conveniently available precisely when they were needed; and the Durham activist community is tight-knit and carefully organized. Over a series of events starting with the statue, I’ve observed members of group in action. It’s a disciplined group. At protests, some people serve as medics, while others serve as marshals, keeping marchers compact or stepping in to prevent conflicts. Despite ideological differences—some are communists, others anarchists—they work closely. It is as though the district attorney’s and sheriff’s offices saw this close interaction and thought the court would take it for granted, too.

Tuesday evening, I put the question to Wideman directly: Now that charges were dropped, had activists conspired to remove the statue? She paused, then said, “The people of Durham collectively wanted that statue to come down, and it came down.”

The activists who march under the banner of the Workers World Party see the victory as a blow against capitalism and a larger system that includes the police and jails. “This is a huge win, but this fight is also not just about statues,” Wideman said. “Even though the statues represent much more than a statue, the fight is about white supremacy and about everything that these statues uphold.” (Wideman quipped that when Battaglia asked whether the courthouse should be torn down, that didn’t seem so outlandish to her.)

The more direct influence will likely be on the Confederate monument fight, especially since people on all sides predicted it would set a precedent. The state division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, condemned the result as “a total miscarriage of justice.”

“There is no true justice in Durham—there is only the will of the political party in control and their open sympathy with the violent, twisted objectives of the Workers World Party,” SCV said in a statement. “The members of the Workers World Party of Durham should celebrate because they have won a major victory that proves the full extent of their influence and the full extent of Durham County’s complicity in naked hypocrisy.”

Wideman agreed—sort of. “I think it sets a really strong precedent,” she said. “It also will hopefully help people to feel empowered to take bold action, to know that when they act together, when they organize and have strong communities behind them, that they can accomplish really amazing things.”

Even with the criminal case resolved, one central question remains: What will become of the empty plinth outside the old courthouse? For now, it seems trapped in purgatory. Since the statue came down, artists have on occasion placed alternative statues atop it. The ruined statue was hauled off to a county warehouse. As part of the prosecution, Echols asked the county commission to estimate the value of the statue, which came to roughly $24,000. Even if commissioners wanted to replace the statue, which they don’t, spending such a sum would seem politically untenable. (The United Daughters of the Confederacy, which helped erect the statue in 1924, did not respond to a request for comment.) Yet given the state law that bars removal of Confederate monuments without legislative approval, it does not appear that the county can take away the granite base, either.

For now, the plinth remains in place, and it still serves as a sort of monument—but what it memorializes now is less Confederate soldiers than the protest that tore the statue down.

This article is part of our project “The Presence of Justice,” which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.

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