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All morning, the emails poured in. Some were angry and derogatory. Others sympathetic or at least respectful.
But the vast majority made one opinion in particular clear: The people arrested after the toppling of the Confederate monument at the Old Durham Courthouse didn’t deserve to face felony charges.
Yet in the early hours of Aug. 18, city and county leaders were less concerned about the handful of people charged with felony vandalism a few days before than they were about the event that had precipitated the takedown. Polo clad white supremacists gathered with Tiki torches in Charlottesville, Va., to rally, and in their resulting clash with counter protesters over the weekend, a 20 year old white man from the group was charged with mowing through a crowd in a Dodge Charger, killing a young woman.
Now, local leaders feared, a similar rally was headed to Durham.
As 2017 winds to a close, that hot, fraught Friday in August remains a memorable one in the eyes of Durham residents and officials, none of whom can remember a similar protest that shut down businesses and government offices. Hundreds of pages of public officials’ texts and emails, as well as interviews with people on the ground and huddled in government command centers that day, fill in many of the gaps of how the rumor of a rally shut down the center of one of North Carolina’s largest cities.
“It wasn’t a typical Friday in local government by any means,” said Jodi Miller, Durham County’s general manager of community and public safety.
But four months later, two questions remain unanswered: Who started the rumors and why?
The warning came from an unknown source to the sheriff’s office: The Sons of Confederate Veterans would demonstrate at the old courthouse at noon on Friday, Aug. 18. that day to discuss their options. Davis thought it would be a “non event,” she later told city council members. Police get information on a regular basis about groups possibly coming to the city, she explained. But during the meeting, the sheriff and county leaders decided the tip was serious enough to immediately activate their Emergency Operation Center and Unified Command Center. They wouldn’t share anything publicly not yet.
Within hours, Durham leaders began hearing new rumors.
“Just heard KKK Will be at Admin at 1200.
As the county manager prepared to close buildings, word began to spread at the courthouse a few blocks away.
Already in the building that morning for one of his cases, attorney T. Greg Doucette was called into a conference with the judge and opposing counsel. Deputies had told court officials about the potential KKK rally, and they wanted to delay the morning’s scheduled hearing.
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“They were trying to get everyone who had business at the courthouse handled as quickly as possible so they could get as many people out of downtown as possible,” Doucette said in a recent interview.
He did likewise, calling the other lawyer in his downtown firm to send her home and rescheduling their appointments for the rest of the day.
From there, the message spread to social media: white supremacists were headed to the Bull City.
Durham lawyer Scott Holmes was among the first to share the information on Twitter. He had just wrapped up court appearances for his clients charged with toppling the Confederate monument. As he left the courthouse that morning, a Durham sheriff’s major tipped him off that the KKK was coming, he said. to his nearly 1,000 followers.
“First appearances are done, White supremacists arrive at noon,” he wrote.
“I thought the people I represent would want to know that information,” Holmes said in a recent interview.
One minute later, Durham City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson shared Holmes’ tweet with her 3,000 followers and added her own message.
“White supremacists are marching at the new courthouse in Durham at noon today,” she wrote.
Johnson’s tweet took off, amassing 186 retweets and 70 “likes.” Within minutes, city and county officials took notice of the social media chatter and began texting and emailing screenshots of Holmes’ and Johnson’s tweets to colleagues, sending them with “high” importance.
Johnson did not respond to WRAL News’ requests for interviews.
Word was spreading fast. Reporters began contacting Durham leaders. Were the rumors true? Had the KKK applied for a permit to rally? The onslaught of questions prompted city and county leaders to meet again this time at City Hall.