Photo gallery of anti-racists and counterprotesters in Gastonia at the bottom of the story. Images by Shane White and Grant Baldwin
Two arrests of Charlotte activists in front of the Gaston County courthouse Thursday ratcheted up tensions during a week of protests and unrest in the usually quiet town of Gastonia. After weeks of peaceful protests centered around a Confederate monument that sits in front of the courthouse, allegations of racism at a popular ice cream parlor near the middle of town set off protests by anti-racists and Confederate supporters on Tuesday and Wednesday night, ending in police deploying tear gas and arresting more than dozen people. Anti-racists in Gastonia also gathered outside of Tony’s Ice Cream to continue protests against the restaurant and Confederate supporters yesterday.
Just before 3 p.m. on Thursday, July 23, community advocates and volunteers from Charlotte jail support “packed the court” at the Gaston County Courthouse in solidarity with individuals arrested on charges related to the previous night’s protest in downtown Gastonia and to provide bail if needed.
As they filed out of the court, they stopped to look at the Confederate monument that sits out front, the site of ongoing protests in the usually quiet town about 30 minutes west of Charlotte. Following weeks of protests hosted mostly by a local organization called Gaston County Freedom Fighters, a government-assigned group called the Council of Understanding recently voted to remove the monument, a recommendation that will now be taken up by the Board of Commissioners.
Unmasked deputies add fuel to the fire
What started as a simple regrouping after Thursday’s hearings was deemed something more by nearby Gaston County Sheriff’s deputies, as a female officer approached those in the group of about 12 and asked them not to get too near the flowers that are planted at the base of the Confederate monument. As the group complied, more deputies approached, prompting the group to begin questioning why some of the deputies weren’t wearing masks, and leading to anti-police chants.
Deputies called the gathering a protest and told the group to relocate off courthouse grounds. Most members willingly walked away, though Andrew Woods stood his ground and placed his hands above his head. Deputies pushed him back all the way to just before the police line that indicates the end of county property, then took him to the ground and placed him under arrest for resisting. Another individual, Otasia Springs, was taken to the pavement and arrested as well. Springs has been charged with assault on a government official and second-degree trespassing.
One deputy chased activist Anthony Ferguson to the other side of the street until a fellow officer took him by the arm and led him away from Ferguson and back across the police line, where the deputy continued to glare at the group.
Less than half an hour later, Lydia Sturgues-Robinson, who says she was discriminated against for wearing a “Black Lives Matter” pin at Tony’s Ice Cream on Monday, spoke with press alongside longtime Charlotte activist John C. Barnett. The incident at Tony’s sparked recent clashes between anti-racist and pro-Confederate demonstrators in Gastonia. Individuals on both sides of the debate have been openly carrying firearms during protests this week, getting in heated arguments that at times have turned into debates and even prayer circles.
Sturgues-Robinson and Barnett stated that what happened on Monday, and what has transpired since then, is merely a flashpoint in a long-standing problem.
Ice cream, confederates, anti-racists, SWAT and Christians … Oh my
Nearby, supporters of Tony’s stood guard by the closed restaurant, leaving sticky notes of support and signing a board reading, “#TONYSSTRONG.” They stood on the sidewalk waving Confederate, Trump, and Blue Lives Matter flags. One said they were there to make sure no one burned the restaurant down.
Christian street preachers set up across the street, saying they had come to bear witness to all and spread peace and the word. At one point a Tony’s supporter mistook them for anti-racist demonstrators and began an argument, putting his hands on several members of the group before he was able to be talked back down.
The same group of Christians then showed up at the courthouse, standing on the sidewalk near the Confederate monument where jail support advocates had been pushed away, prompting a confrontation that resolved itself and again included some members of both sides joining together in prayer. However, many in the jail support contingent were less inclined to speak with them, noting that one in the group members had a Confederate patch on his jacket and a Trump hat.
“Cops killed Jesus,” activists chanted.
The night before had been even more chaotic, with protests taking place at both the courthouse and Tony’s.
At the courthouse, following a dispersal order, SWAT officers poured out to the front of the courthouse in riot gear and chased off anti-racists in Gastonia, many of whom resurfaced at Tony’s, where they were met with another show of force and multiple arrests were made.
Discussions of peace planned in lieu of continued protests
Counterprotesters showed up to Tony’s in higher numbers than they had at the courthouse, and in one instance a man carrying a bat and waving a Confederate flag walked down the road chanting, “Confederate Lives Matter.” After nearly getting into a fight with another man, he ran across the line of police, where another man attempted to steal the flag. Both men were tackled to the ground and arrested.
On Thursday afternoon, local organizers with Gaston County Freedom Fighters released a statement on Facebook disavowing the protests of the previous two nights, stating that they had originally been involved with the actions outside of Tony’s and the courthouse on Wednesday, but went home after seeing that multiple people on each side of the issue were openly carrying guns.
Barnett said he and Sturgues-Robinson are planning to sit with the owners of Tony’s “at a table of peace” in order to bring things to an amicable resolution. He said he hopes Sturgues-Robinson, who was charged with second-degree trespassing during the original incident on Monday, has her charges dropped.
“If we can’t get peace there at that table, then unfortunately these protesters will probably get peace in their own way,” he said.