In North Carolina's Alamance County, Trump and Biden Country Collide - Rolling Stone
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An American Powder Keg

In Alamance County, North Carolina, the nation’s future and past collide — often in terrifying fashion

Protesters and Alamance County sheriff's deputies in riot gear face off in front of the courthouse in Graham, N.C. on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020

Protesters and Alamance County sheriff's deputies in riot gear face off in front of the courthouse in Graham, North Carolina, on October 31st, 2020.

AP

Megan Squire took her place at a busy intersection near the campus of Elon University, the small liberal arts college in central North Carolina where she and her husband teach. A soft-spoken data scientist with pale freckled skin and long red hair, Squire specializes in tracking and exposing right-wing extremist networks online, and is something of a celebrity in the small community of people who spend their days monitoring militias and hate groups. She also happens to live in a place where the white supremacists and neo-Confederates she follows online are, in a broad sense, her neighbors. Now, Squire picked up her handwritten “Black Lives Matter” sign, hit “Record” on her iPhone, and waited.

A few miles away, a convoy of several hundred cars and trucks lined up two and three across on the banked track of the Ace Speedway in the town of Altamahaw. Fixed to the back of almost every vehicle like rooster tails were flags: American flags and Trump 2020: “No More Bullshit” flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, and Blue Lives Matter flags, Trump-as-Rambo flags, Betsy Ross colonial flags, Confederate flags, and at least one American flag bearing the logo of the violent Three Percenter militia movement.

It was a cold, clear Saturday morning in late September. One by one, a smattering of local Republican candidates delivered brief remarks out on the racetrack’s finish line about their bids for school board and county commission, judgeships and state legislative seats and a nearby U.S. congressional district. The last person to speak was a man named Gary Williamson. Bearded and broad-shouldered with a baseball cap pulled low, Williamson wasn’t running for any office, but he was as well-known as any of the politicians on hand. Williamson runs Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, or ACTBAC (pronounced “act back”), one of the most ardent defenders of Confederate monuments across North Carolina. Here, the fuzzy border between the GOP and the neo-Confederate movement wasn’t a border at all but an open bear hug.

Microphone in hand, Williamson urged everyone in attendance to vote the Republican ticket, top to bottom. “We’re one of the last true conservative counties in the state,” he said. “And we’re gonna keep it that way.” Just before the convoy rolled out, he urged his compatriots to keep their cool and “do it the right way.” “When you see them, don’t let them provoke you,” he said.

A short while later, Megan Squire saw the convoy approaching and raised her Black Lives Matter sign. One by one, as the cars and trucks rolled past, the vitriol and hate flowed freely:

“Fuck black lives!”
“Go back to your home, c–t!”
“White power!”

After the convoy was seemingly over, Tony Crider, who is married to Squire, grabbed his camera and headed for the town center in Graham, the seat of Alamance County. He had gotten a tip that some local neo-Confederates were meeting there, rallying around the Confederate monument outside the county courthouse. An astrophysics professor at Elon, Crider fills his spare time by photographing political demonstrations and extremist rallies. More than any single news organization, he has been one of the most obsessive documentarians of the rising tide of white supremacy and neo-Confederacy in the Southeast since the election of Donald Trump.

The convoy arrived, and Crider began shooting photos. In one, a thin woman smokes a cigarette while carrying two Confederate flags, one on each shoulder like rifles. In a pair of photos, a paunchy white guy makes a white-power hand gesture and holds a Black Lives Matter sign changed to read “Crack Lives Matter.” In another, a local law-enforcement officer has a friendly chat with ACTBAC’s Gary Williamson, who had shown up on his motorcycle.

The strangest photo of all, though, was of a woman in a mask with a fake black penis and testicles attached to the front. The woman points the penis in the direction of someone out of the frame. Her blue T-shirt says on the back, “Donald Trump: Finally someone with balls.” The image is repulsive and grotesque and racist, but also incomprehensible. What point does this woman think she’s making, Crider wondered.

Squire had by then packed up her sign, uploaded a few videos to Twitter, and headed home. As she turned onto her street, she saw a red truck up ahead with a row of Trump flags on it. She recognized it from the convoy that day. Now it was parked across the street from their house.

A Trump supporter in Alamance County, N.C.

A Trump supporter in Alamance County, N.C.

Photo courtesy of Anthony Crider

THIS IS LIFE in Alamance County, North Carolina, a place where the nation’s future and past live in uncomfortable proximity.

About a year ago, I started to make regular visits to Alamance, which is an hour’s drive west of Raleigh, the state capital, in the central swath of North Carolina known as the Triad (not to be confused with the Research Triangle). Something about the place had transfixed me. In downtown Graham, I could stand outside a hip coffee shop with a sign in its window urging tolerance and look two blocks south to see a towering Confederate monument standing in front of the county courthouse. The local sheriff, Terry Johnson, is a Trump-like xenophobe who has accused undocumented immigrants of “raping our citizens in many, many ways.” And yet Alamance could soon elect the first Latino Democrat in the 230-year history of the North Carolina statehouse, and it’s the setting for some of the most cutting-edge grassroots organizing work happening anywhere in America.

The Triad region has a complicated history, and race is the uniting theme. After the Civil War, a years-long campaign of violence by the Ku Klux Klan led the state’s Republican governor, William Holden, to declare martial law in Alamance and nearby Caswell counties in the so-called Kirk-Holden War of 1870. (Holden’s actions led to his eventual impeachment, and to the demise of the Republican Party in North Carolina.) A century later, just down the road from Alamance, the sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience in the Triad cities of Greensboro and Winston-Salem helped light the fuse on the civil rights movement.

Every time I visited Alamance, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was witnessing history unfold in real-time. I had the sensation of standing on a fault line and watching the collision of two vast tectonic plates, a daily struggle between what political analyst Ron Brownstein called the “coalition of transformation” and the “coalition of restoration,” between those who want to lead the country into a more diverse and tolerant future, and those who wish to restore a bygone past.

Alamance was my front-row seat to this struggle, and it left me with a question: Was this place a reason to be hopeful, proof that it’s not too late to heal and unify our nation? Or was it an omen of the violence and unrest that lay at the dawn of a new decade?

IN THE SUMMER of 2017, Brigid Flaherty left behind her life in Brooklyn, New York, and moved to western North Carolina to fight white supremacism. Flaherty and her friend and fellow activist Todd Zimmer had launched Down Home North Carolina, a community organizing group, and Flaherty was spending her days hanging outside of Waffle Houses and community colleges and trying to engage strangers in one-on-one conversations. With her partner still living in New York, Flaherty and her dog, Ramona, lived in a cabin and settled into a routine of playing podcasts each morning and night just to hear the sound of other human voices.

By the time I first visited Alamance in the fall of 2019, Down Home had grown to the point where Flaherty and Zimmer had opened new offices and hired a few people. The group’s Alamance office was located in a half-vacant strip mall and had a duct-tape-and-DIY vibe. The walls were festooned with massive Post-it notes with different colored instructions for volunteers and staff. There were a few grubby yellow couches and a partial wall draped in white Christmas lights that separated the front lobby, such as it was, from a larger meeting space. As I stood there taking it in, a scruffy-haired organizer named Danny Trimpona greeted me. “This used to be a Confederate memorabilia store,” he told me. “You really can’t make this shit up.”

Down Home, in a few short years, had emerged as a counterweight to the ever-louder voices of bigotry and hatred that felt emboldened and ascendant after the election of Donald Trump. Flaherty and Zimmer didn’t waste their resources organizing liberal enclaves and college towns where the work would be easier; they opened offices in parts of the state where they knew the work would be tough. “It is a daily fight,” Flaherty told me.

Down Home was founded on the proposition that unity and collective will across race and class was the way out of this perilous moment in American history. I felt the appeal of that almost quaint notion, but more specifically what had drawn me to the group was its participation in a cutting-edge experiment into what’s known as deep canvassing, an organizing tactic that uses long, empathetic conversations to break down prejudice and bigotry — in other words, whether it was possible, in this polarized moment, to change the mind, if not the heart, of a complete stranger.

The next day, I joined an organizer named Mahsima Hallaji as she put deep canvassing to the test. We parked outside a small brick house a few miles from the Down Home office. I stood awkwardly to the side as Hallaji knocked on the door, clipboard in hand.

A man named Tim opened the door. He wore a white V-neck undershirt, salmon-colored shorts, and had a closely shaved head. He looked to be in his fifties or sixties. Standing in the doorway, Tim said he held conservative views and supported the president. Hallaji asked him on a scale of zero to 10 whether he supported universal health care, and whether he supported extending that universal health care to undocumented immigrants. Tim replied “zero” to both.

In a typical door-to-door canvass, the conversation would end here. No point in spending time trying to sway someone that opposed your positions. With deep canvassing, an organizer like Hallaji tries to shift the conversation away from politics and toward the personal in an attempt to make a connection. With Tim, Hallaji told her family’s immigration story, how they had waited for 10 years for the chance to emigrate from Iran to the U.S. and then another decade to get American citizenship. Her father was an engineer with a master’s degree but worked for a time at a Food Lion grocery store cleaning bathrooms and picking up the carts.

I could see Tim warming up as the conversation went on. He told us he had traveled all over the world as a Christian minister and had a fear of authoritarian governments gaining too much power. He said he had worked with immigrants from Cambodia and India during a stint at an inner-city church in Dallas, and emphasized that he’d met many hardworking immigrants and believed that they had a place in the U.S. if they assimilated, learned English, and became a part of society. He and Hallaji talked about Canada’s health care system and the flaws in our own system. The conversation went on like this for nearly half an hour.

At the end of it, Hallaji asked Tim where he stood on that 0-to-10 scale about giving universal health care to undocumented residents.

Tim paused: “Put me down in the middle,” he said almost begrudgingly. “You made some progress with me.”

I was lucky. On my first-ever deep canvass, I had gotten paired with a talented organizer who had changed, however briefly, someone’s mind. Still, the experience hooked me, and it proved to be the first of many deep canvasses I observed over the next year, in person and then by phone, after the pandemic had made face-to-face conversations impossible.

Those trips to Alamance came to feel like a form of rejuvenation. When the news got too bleak, I would tag along on a deep-canvassing shift to remind myself that we weren’t locked into rival tribes and that people did change their minds, including me. The beauty of those conversations was that the change happened in both directions, in the stranger who answered the door and the organizer who rang the doorbell. “I thought politics was stupid, honestly,” Sugelema Lynch, a former teacher who is now a full-time organizer for Down Home North Carolina, told me. “I didn’t believe that as an individual my vote counted, my voice mattered. But now I have a fucking skill that I can use to make change.”

Pro-Trump demonstrators in Alamance County, N.C.

Pro-Trump demonstrators in Alamance County, N.C.

Photo courtesy of Anthony Crider

MEGAN SQUIRE’S SKILL was data. Finding it, scraping it, studying it.

She had worked at a company in the late Nineeties that used “really creepy surveillance-type software” to mine internet traffic as it flowed through the internet service providers of the era. (“I dodged a few bullets on that one,” she says.) After the first tech bubble burst, she got a job at Elon University, where she put her data-science skills to use studying the culture of open-source software developers. “It turns out it’s a very 99.5 percent male-dominated, very online, bro culture,” she says. Which made for an easy leap, she says, to tracking far-right online extremism.

Squire and I were talking on the back deck of her house, socially distanced, one morning this fall. For someone who spends most of her time studying and outing neo-Nazis or amateur bomb builders in encrypted chat rooms, Squire was disarmingly calm and quick to laugh. Still, the tiny security cameras placed outside the house served as a reminder that Squire’s work entails more than its share of risks.

I had paid Squire and Crider a visit because I noticed her videos and his photos on the day of the Trump convoy. I wanted to hear from Squire about what it felt like to study extremists while living among them in Alamance, a cultural powder keg waiting to explode. And I wanted to know how Crider, an astrophysicist and college professor, had decided to take up as a hobby chronicling Southern white hate groups.

As Squire began to immerse herself in far-right online communities like Reddit’s r/The_Donald, a notorious and now-defunct pro-Trump forum, Crider started taking photos at the rallies he and Squire went to on the weekends during those feverish early months of Trump’s presidency. When a friend put out a plea for people to come to Charlottesville to oppose the Unite the Right rally in August 2017, Squire and Crider made the three-hour drive. Using only his iPhone and a GoPro, Crider took hundreds of photos, including one of the most iconic images from that ugly day that managed to capture neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and Southern nationalists in the same frame. “Looking back, I didn’t realize Charlottesville would be such a prominent thing in national history when I’m taking the photo or even posting it,” he says. Squire, for her part, was standing a few feet away from Heather Heyer when James Fields Jr. hit Heyer with his car and killed her.

Since Charlottesville, Crider has documented dozens of demonstrations across the South, from pro-Confederate monument rallies and Boogaloo Boys appearances to Souls to the Polls voter-mobilization drives and multiracial unity marches. He upgraded to a basic SLR camera and sprung for a 500mm telephoto lens, if only to let him photograph sometimes hostile crowds from a safe distance. The local extremists recognize him enough to flip him off or flash a white-power salute at him, but he says some have also posted his photos on their Facebook profiles. “The Confederates would even come up and say, ‘You’re terrible, but you take good pictures, man,’” Crider told me.

I wanted to ask Crider if he saw a connection between his astrophysics expertise and his photography. He told me about the concept of “ground truth.”

After graduate school, Crider got a job at the Department of Energy working with satellites that took measurements of the Earth. “Something that you would do,” he told me, “is say, ‘Well, I need to know what are the conditions on the ground, so that I can calibrate my satellite to make sure it’s picking up and correctly interpreting what’s going on on the ground.” He’d take a measurement of the water temperature from overhead, then calibrate the number with an actual measurement from a given spot — a ground truth — to get the most accurate account.

“Do you see a parallel between that idea and this?” I asked him.

“Megan’s the satellite,” he said. “She sees the entire country of hate and has made that her research. But then we’d go out on weekends to get these ground truths. These days, she’ll stay here on the computer and I’ll go see what’s going on out there.”

Only in a place like Alamance County could a couple like Megan Squire and Tony Crider exist, a husband-and-wife team who risked their own safety and sanity to break the fever of white supremacy and bigotry, albeit each in their own way. One spent her days disrupting Proud Boys funding networks on Venmo while exposing white-power-shouting locals who might shop at the same grocery store she did. The other taught himself photojournalism on the weekends while making sure the security cameras stayed charged and spending countless hours on the phone canceling magazine subscriptions and commemorative coin collections sent to their house by a serial harasser.

And sometimes the two came together, as they did when Squire noticed the truck from the Trump convoy outside their house. When Crider separately saw the truck and went to grab his camera, the truck pulled out and left. They later realized the truck hadn’t been there for them; it was dropping off one of their neighbors. “There’s no escaping it,” Squire told me.

“BLACK LIVES MATTER!” the marcher screamed into his megaphone. “Black lives matter!”

A Monday night in Graham. The air taut with tension. A peaceful demonstration organized by Down Home North Carolina and some other local groups outside the county commission meeting had spilled over into an impromptu march around the town square. The marchers were young, diverse, and defiant, waving huge BLM flags and moving with the verve of a marching band. Standing in a different corner of the square, with a clear view of the barricade-protected Confederate monument, was a small group of older white people under a Confederate flag. From across the street, a few police officers looked on.

Standing at the center of this scene was Alamance’s Confederate monument, an emblem and a flashpoint for so much of the county’s racial and political tension. For several years, progressive and civil rights groups have pressured the county commission to remove the statue as nearly two dozen other cities had already done. But the Republican-led commission has refused to do so, and groups like ACTBAC have vowed to defend the statue at all costs. In response, Alamance Democrats have put up several candidates for the commission who say they’d consider removing the statue once and for all.

From a dozen yards away, I watched the young marchers approach the old Confederates and braced for the worst. The two groups merged into one mass of people and a brief scuffle ensued, leading to several arrests. (One of those arrested was reportedly the same woman who wore the genitalia face mask.) I saw an older white man on the side of the neo-Confederates grab a large knife out of his car and slide it into his pocket; he put it away after the police moved in to break up the demonstrations. A fuse had been lit, it seemed, only to burn out before the powder keg exploded.

This was going to be my last trip to Alamance County before the election. As I pulled back onto the interstate the next morning, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if that knife had been used, if violence had taken place, if the crowds had been a bit larger or the tensions running higher. In the collision of two dueling visions for the American future playing out every day in Alamance, I wondered if the worst was still to come.

THIS PAST SATURDAY, I got a text message from Sugelema Lynch, the organizer with Down Home North Carolina. It was a link to a story in the local newspaper headlined, “March to Alamance polls ends with police using pepper-spray on protesters, children.”

A march and a demonstration in the Graham town square had led to an ugly scene. The police had tear-gassed a crowd of marchers and used aggressive force on the march’s leaders. One witness, Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, told the Triad City Beat, “I saw a little girl, probably five, being carried off sobbing and coughing. She was dressed as a fairy or a princess.”

“I was in the corner of the square by the HiFi Records just watching everything,” Lynch told me when we talked by phone. “All of a sudden, you hear spraying and people were on the ground. It was like Graham PD was on steroids. They pulled out the worst of the worst.”

There’s some evidence to suggest the police might’ve tipped off the pro-monument crowd to stand back before the pepper spray was unleashed, allowing at least one man to broadcast the fracas on Facebook Live and commenting, “The cops literally moved us and now we know why. So, when they went off and when they used that tear gas, it wouldn’t get none of us. I guess it worked out for the best.” “Just when you think it’s over or starting to wind down, it gets crazier,” Tony Crider told me when I reached him on Monday.

But the coalition of transformation was undeterred. Lynch told me the preacher who led Saturday’s march in Graham was planning to lead another one on Election Day.

This American powder keg feels like it might blow any day now. Maybe even today.

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