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Durham vigils — and speculation about motive for cross burnings

Hundreds gather for a prayer vigil at Roxboro Road near Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, the scene of one of Wednesday night’s cross burnings. (The Herald-Sun/Bernard Thomas)

Kate and I attended two of the vigils last night in response to the cross burnings in our town.

We first swung by the site of the one that occurred closest to our house, at South Roxboro near Martin Luther King, Jr. Pkwy. around 8:30 PM. There was a stream of cars and people lining the sidewalk near the area where the cross was placed. It was a ballsy location; right on an open construction site within a subdivision.

Kate snapped these shots of the crowd in south Durham.

After that, we drove to the vigil for the burning at St. Luke’s, which was held at Oval Park, nestled between two progressive neighborhoods, Old West Durham and Watts-Hillandale. I used to live in OWD, and I met up with some of my former neighbors, including John Schelp, president of the neighborhood association, and organizer of this vigil. About 250 people participated here.

John Schelp; folks that gathered at Oval Park

I also ran into JOyODurham (below), a Daily Kos diarist that posted on the vigils; she brought a sign (below). My DKos diary is here.

One completely baffling aspect of some of the reporting about this that I came across, both in a report in the afternoon on public radio, and below in today’s Durham Herald-Sun story, is a struggle by both the reporters and those interviewed to find a racial, teen prank, or local school board politics connection to the placement of these crosses — really just about anything else except a possible message of intolerance toward gays. In neither case do they even mention the Westboro Baptist Church members’ recent visit to picket the Durham School of the Arts production of The Laramie Project and several gay-accepting churches in the area, including St. Luke’s Episcopal — where a burning cross was actually found. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but come on people, at least the first Herald-Sun story by Eric Olsen had quotes from Bill Gutknecht, senior warden at St. Luke’s, who brought up this possibility.

While burning a cross has a direct historical racial and religious intimidation connection, I think it’s safe to say that given the tense politics about the marriage amendment in the state, and no historical highly recognizable symbolic way to get the public’s attention about intolerance to gays, a cross burning is an easy way to get your point about an objection to diversity of all types across. The fliers left at one site don’t give much of a clue; they seem to have some reference to gang activity and the KKK, but don’t make much sense either, given the locations of the burning crosses. (Herald-Sun):

…Durham residents were shaken by the news that three flaming crosses were found in the Bull City on Wednesday night. Almost 600 gathered at three vigils Thursday night to protest the burnings.

Although authorities have not pinpointed a motive for the burnings, many residents see them as an attack on the diversity they say attracts them to the city. Community and religious leaders swiftly organized the three candlelight vigils to demonstrate they would not be intimidated by the symbols that some called “domestic terrorism.”

Nearly 100 people gathered downtown and planted a crape myrtle tree at the site where one 7-foot cross burned the night before. “We feel like we were victims” said the Rev. Ryon Price, a white 28-year-old who attended the vigil with his black wife, Irie. “Regardless of motive, we feel we are victims of a hateful act.”

In southwestern Durham, about 225 people gathered at a construction site on South Roxboro Street, just north of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, where a cross was extinguished by firefighters the night before. Some of them prayed and others spoke about what the incidents meant to them.

“We are here together as a community and we will not let someone tear us apart with hatred,” said Donna Kornegay, who brought her two young daughters to teach them what race means to some people. “I will not relinquish my power to those who hate me.”

The city Human Relations Department is planning a larger communitywide unity rally for next week. Yvonne Peña, who heads the department, said it’s important to coordinate an event catering to all backgrounds. “The message is, ‘We will not accept this kind of activity whatsoever,’ ” said Peña, who canceled her vacation after hearing about the incident so she could be involved in the investigation. “We’re a diverse community and we’re striving to overcome racial barriers.”

On Thursday, the Durham Human Relations Commission met to brainstorm on whom to contact to help organize the citywide rally. The plan is to bring community leaders together Sunday to decide where to hold the rally and how to get the word out to black residents who were offended by the incidents. Most of the people who attended the vigils were white. “You’re going to have to do it in a place that is not in an entity that is threatening to anyone,” advised Jackie Wagstaff, a black Durham school board member who attended a meeting of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham with Peña.

The flaming 7-foot crosses found Wednesday have left Durham residents speculating why they were put up. Some black residents have suggested the burning crosses are a result of a proposal to change the way school board members are elected — though fliers left at the site of one cross burning mention Durham gangs and say “gangbangers ? will answer” to the KKK.

The election proposal — being pushed by a group called Concerned Citizens for Accountable Government and the Durham Regional Association of Realtors — would change the current setup, which ensures minority representation on the seven-member board by setting aside three areas with black majorities. The change calls for letting all registered voters cast ballots for every seat on the school board. It’s a change that opponents say could diminish black representation. “The whole idea of changing the school board and the way it’s been proposed creates a space for people to be saying ‘white power,’ ” said Theresa El-Amin, director of the Southern Anti-Racism Network.

She said she cried when she was told about the cross burnings and said she hoped it was “s
ome kind of cruel and little silly joke.” Civil Rights investigator Stella Adams, who heads the N.C. Fair Housing Center, said there is no evidence the flaming crosses were planted in response to the proposed changes, even though “that’s what the African-American community feels.”

Although the cross lit at Peachtree Place and Holloway Street was relatively near the Durham Public Schools headquarters, Adams said the two other crosses appeared to have no relationship to the school system.

Others have suggested high schools students may have set the crosses ablaze as part of a graduation prank. It’s a suggestion that Jordan High School’s senior class president Kristin Cunningham doesn’t believe. “I think the younger generation is generally better about respecting each other’s differences anyhow,” Cunningham said a few minutes before walking into her graduation ceremony Thursday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

City Manager Patrick Baker said the incidents do not help the city’s reputation, but that he did not want “to read anything into the event. “I don’t think this is a reflection of the values of the community,” Baker said. “Durham has always embraced the diversity of this community and I think this is sort of an anomaly.”

Despite the fliers’ reference to the KKK, the national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan said Thursday that his organization did not have a hand in the incidents. “I’m confident they’ll find this was either perpetrated by some small kid or, most likely, by some kind of minority who is trying to create sympathy for whatever cause he may feel like he had,” said Thomas Robb, who is based out of Harrison, Ark.

News and Observer coverage of the vigils is here (it doesn’t mention the gay hate crime possibility either).

[UPDATE: The FBI has joined the investigation.]


I didn’t see it, but I heard that Mayor Bill Bell was interviewed on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann. The story did make the Countdown list last night, but the transcript isn’t up yet.

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Pam Spaulding

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