Since the murder of George Floyd, a small, but dedicated group of activists has been holding peaceful protests calling for an end to racist policing and for the removal of the Confederate monument that stands in front of the Gaston County Courthouse in Gastonia, a city of 77,273 west of Charlotte, North Carolina.
The protests led by Gaston County Freedom Fighters and East Gaston Coalition for Freedom and Justice have been met with dismissal from conservative whites falsely portraying them on social media as violent looters, troublemakers and attention seekers — a perception promoted by some local elected officials.
Tensions rose with the arrest on Monday of a Black woman named Lydia Sturgues outside of Tony’s Ice Cream, where she said was treated poorly because she was wearing a Black Lives Matter button. As word spread among conservative whites that the locally owned ice cream shop had become a target of protest, their paranoia and hostility mounted.
The days that followed have brought white vigilante violence, open displays of firearms by both white and Black groups, mass arrests and a militarized police crackdown on protest, threatening the fragile progress built through weeks of peaceful protests.
Ashley Rivera, one of the cofounders of Gaston County Freedom Fighters, knew there would be a hostile group of counter-protesters at Tony’s on Tuesday evening. She said she and other organizers wanted to get the facts before they leapt to conclusions about what happened inside Tony’s, but they thought it was wrong for police to arrest Sturgues after she left the business. They wanted people to protest outside the police department instead, and Rivera said she went to Tony’s on Tuesday to try to redirect any supporters who hadn’t gotten the message.
Almost from the moment she arrived, the situation devolved into chaos.
“The people that were there, they believe they were protecting Tony’s,” said Rivera, who was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt. “They believe we’re going to come and loot. They get super aggressive, screaming at us. I’m trying to keep my calm. My members see me, and they come over and engage. They were saying, ‘Let’s talk about our differences.’”
That’s roughly when Markus Thomas and his wife, Jayla Gordon — who are Black — showed up. In video taken by another antiracist couple on the scene you can see Thomas speaking into a megaphone, saying, “We’re here, too. We didn’t tell [Tony’s] to shut down. You shut down because you already know what was right, and you know wrong. You shut down for no reason at all.”
As Thomas is speaking, a white woman named Amanda Lawson is standing beside her pickup truck, yelling and slapping her palm against the windshield.
Gordon recalled that she was talking to Amanda Lawson and trying to tell her that she had children, and she wanted the same for her children that Lawson wanted for her children and grandchildren.
Rivera said she heard Lawson tell Gordon: “F*ck you. F*ck your kids.”
“She was reaching into her purse,” Gordon recalled. “She said, ‘Give me my gun.’ She pointed it at my face. She said, ‘He’s about to fuck you up.’ Right after that, he punched me in the face.”
The alleged assault by Sink Lawson isn’t visible in the video, but suddenly people start yelling and running towards the Lawson’s truck, and then forming a barrier between Gordon and the Lawsons. Someone says, “Get her. She’s got a gun.” Two antiracist activists can be seen grabbing Amanda Lawson’s arm so that the gun is pointed in the air. Then Sink Lawson walks in front of the video and the blade of a knife can be seen flashing across the frame. By this time, the video shows other counter-protesters intervening to try to restrain the Lawsons, with one persuading Amanda to put the gun back in the truck and another following Sink and ordering him: “Put it down!”
When the Gastonia police arrived on the scene, the video shows Markus Thomas attempting to give a statement to police, but when Sink Lawson angrily retorts, two white men moved in between and cut the conversation with the officer short.
“Me being a Black man, if I had a gun and got out of my truck and punched a white woman in the face, you be the judge of what would have happened,” Thomas reflected later. “I probably wouldn’t be living, brother, to be honest. I feel some way about this. There’s no justice. We’re peaceful protesters. We’re not looters.”
The officers detained the Lawsons. The antiracists briefly took up some chants: “No justice, no peace,” and “F*ck 12,” an anti-police slogan. Then a police officer addressed them: “Everybody has to get off the property…. Or you’re trespassing.”
Gordon said the police advised her to go to the magistrate’s office to give a statement against the Lawsons. There, she said, the magistrate refused to take her statement, but told her she could come back the next morning. Rivera said she was not asked to give a statement and did not see anyone from the antiracist group approached by police to describe the incident.
“It seemed biased,” she said.
When she returned to the magistrate’s office on Wednesday morning, Gordon was stunned to learn that there was a warrant for her arrest for assault, based on a statement by the Lawsons that she had shoved Amanda Lawson.
The accumulation of grievances over Lydia Sturgues’ arrest outside Tony’s Ice Cream on Monday, the un-checked violence against antiracists on Tuesday and the miscarriage of justice against Jayla Gordon all set the stage for angry protests on Wednesday.
By Friday, the Gastonia Police Department would make a dramatic about-face on the altercation with the Lawsons, but only after two more days of tense confrontations between Black Lives Matter protesters and neo-Confederates, armed actors and more than a dozen arrests for weapons, assault, disorderly conduct and other offenses.
On Friday afternoon, Gordon received a phone call from Sgt. Josh Smith, informing her that he would be meeting with the district attorney on her case.
“I’m going to be dropping your assault charge,” Gordon said. “The male [Sink Lawson] is going to be charged with assaulting you and filing a false police report, because he lied to us and said that you started it, and said you assaulted the wife. That’s why you had that charge on you.” (Sink and Amanda Lawson could not be reached for this story.)
Sgt. Smith said the owner of Tony’s had contacted him and told him that based on the surveillance video, Gordon should not have been arrested.
“And he showed it to me,” Smith recounted, “and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’”
“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Sgt. Smith told Gordon. “Do you understand? And we want everything to calm down out here, because we love our community. We do. And we want to make sure everyone’s treated right and fairly.”
‘We’re not provoking violence’
On Wednesday evening, almost 48 hours before the Gastonia police’s admission of error would be known, the antiracist protesters gathered at Gaston County Courthouse, where a Confederate monument soars 35 feet into the air in front of the modern-looking judicial complex. Members of the New Black Panther Party dressed in black clothing and black berets joined about 50 antiracists. (Although they share the same name, the New Black Panther Party is not associated with the original Black Panther Party, which was founded by Huey Newton in Oakland, Calif. in 1966 and disbanded around 1980.)
When I visited a jail-solidarity encampment outside the courthouse on Thursday evening, a young activist who identified himself as Luther X told me he and others requested that the New Black Panther Party come to Gastonia because they didn’t like the fact that Jayla Gordon had been punched in the face without any repercussions or consequences.
“We wanted to show our young Black youth that we have people who will stand behind them,” Luther said. “We wanted to show our oppressors that we have ourselves and we have others who will support us. We’re not provoking violence. We’re not initiating violence. But at the same time, we’re not turning the other cheek.”
On Wednesday evening, Rivera recalled, about seven counter-protesters showed up with a Confederate flag, but left after about 10 minutes.
“Things were still a little bit heated,” she recalled. “Everyone was hanging out. Some people were getting aggressive, yelling negative things. There were no fights, no looting and there was not a riot, just a lot of emotion.”
In a Facebook Live video streamed by one of the antiracist activists, you can see police in riot gear massed along the length of the courthouse behind yellow crime tape.
“We are peaceful, and you all are still trying to throw abuse of power,” a man can be heard yelling in the video. “Go to Tony’s and look at what these white racist rednecks are doing. Why aren’t you at Tony’s with the white people pointing guns at the cars that drive past? Are you aware of what’s going on at Tony’s right now, or do you not want to do your fucking job?”
A Facebook Live video shared on Wednesday evening shows white men with long rifles strolling around along the street near Tony’s. A man wearing a red Trump hat complains, “I got my gun permit and my concealed carry, but I can’t find any ammunition.”
A photo tweeted by WSOC TV also shows three New Black Panther Party members carrying long rifles on East Franklin Boulevard in Gastonia in the early evening.
Rivera, the cofounder of Gaston County Freedom Fighters, said she didn’t notice whether the Panthers had their rifles out at the courthouse, but lauded them for their restraint.
“The Panthers did an amazing job of keeping everything peaceful,” she said. “When people started getting vocally aggressive, the Panthers said, ‘This is not the way to handle it. We need to make sure we’re peaceful.’” Video posted by antiracist activists shows one of the Panthers urging protesters to move back from the police to avoid getting arrested.
Rivera said the police issued an order to disperse and many of the protesters started heading to the parking lot with the intention of driving over to Tony’s.
Video taken by one of the antiracist activists at that point shows militarized police dressed in helmets and camouflage fatigues and equipped with military-style rifles suddenly running through the group of the protesters with runs pointed in front of them, swarming around two vehicles, and then pointing their rifles at the protesters.
— Jordan Green (@jordangreentcb) July 23, 2020
“Are you all serious?” one of the protesters shouts at the police. “What did we do?” As the militarized police surround the cars, the video shows another group of riot police wearing helmets and holding batons across their chests moving in and forcing the protesters to disperse.
Donna Lahser, a spokesperson for the city of Gastonia, confirmed that the police carrying M-16s were members of the Gastonia Police Department’s shift tactical unit. The department’s policies and procedures document describes the unit’s function as “to preserve the public peace, prevent crime, arrest offenders when necessary, and protect the rights of persons and property in the city of Gastonia during civil disorder and to assist other agencies during states of emergency.” The policy specifies that each member of the unit is issued a M-16 or M-4 rifle with three magazines of ammo, tactical vest, gas mask with carrier and filter, riot control helmet, chest protector, leg protectors and arm protectors, riot shield and baton.
The video shows three people being led away by members of the tactical unit.
A New Black Panther Party member who identified himself as Brother Dot from the Charlotte Mid-Atlantic District confirmed to Raw Story that members were arrested at the courthouse on Wednesday and that on Thursday they were waiting for one member to be released on bond. He declined to comment on the charges, but on Thursday a video posted by the Gaston Gazette shows that three African Americans from Lumberton, Greenville and Washington, DC and a Latinx man from Charlotte made first appearances on weapons charges, including going armed to the terror of the people and possession of a weapon at a parade or demonstration.
“It is noticed how white men and white women can open carry and nothing be done, but when black men and black women open carry, it’s a police presence,” Brother Dot told Raw Story. “Why treat us different for doing the same thing they’re doing? It’s the same law…. Does that just apply to whites?”
The Gastonia Police Department made additional arrests on Wednesday evening at Tony’s, with assistance from other law enforcement agencies, including the Gaston Police Department, Gaston County Sheriff’s Office, North Carolina Highway Patrol, and police departments from five other small cities in Gaston County. Two men from Gastonia were arrested at Tony’s after tussling over a Confederate flag. Three others, also from Gastonia, were charged with resisting arrest, assault and disorderly conduct. A press release issued on behalf of the mayor and city council on Thursday credits the police with “deescalate[ing] the situation,” and notes “there were no injuries or property damages reported.”
When I showed up at the courthouse in Gastonia on Thursday evening, antiracist activists approached me to emphasize points also made by Ashley Rivera — that they’ve demonstrated peacefully and that Black people are being locked up for no reason, while police appear to be overlooking violations by white counter-protesters. They said it was painful to see county commissioners characterize them as violent outsiders who are not authentically engaged in seeking to make positive changes for their community.
Kaily Reid with East Gaston Coalition for Freedom and Justice cited a Facebook post made by Commissioner Tracy Philbeck, who posted on Wednesday: “I fully support Tony’s Ice Cream and condemn fully the racist paid thugs who seek to destroy our community! #Alllivesmatter.”
Another antiracist who was at the courthouse on Thursday evening expressed dismay at a recent guest editorial by Vice Chairman Jack Brown in the Gaston Gazette. Brown wrote that “Southern people are being confronted by a vocal minority wanting to change or even erase our Southern history.” Brown continued in his editorial: “These protesters, rioters, and frankly, lawless out-of-towners, are tearing down everything they can get their hands on — regardless of what the statue or monument is!”
When antiracist protesters angrily confronted a Christian group that came to pray and preach across the street in front of the courthouse, Reid crossed the street to speak with the pastor. She told him she understood that he was sincere, but noted that the Confederate patch and Trump hat worn by one of the men in the group undermined his message of Christian love. Her purpose for being on the front lines was to ensure that reasonable dialogue prevailed over angry confrontation.
Reid told me she has seen some reason for hope over the past seven weeks, including a 7-5 vote by a committee appointed by the county commission recommending relocation of the Confederate monument. Now, she was worried that any tenuous progress made by peaceful antiracist protesters was slipping away.
“I’m out here to keep the peace,” Reid said.
Still, she expressed optimism.
“Protesters are being patient,” she said. “That monument is going to come down, or the people are going to take it down. This is a danger to the public.”