On Monday morning, the folks in Raleigh woke up to a new take on a racist old statue. By that evening, Jon Williams found himself in handcuffs in his own driveway, surrounded by at least a half-dozen police officers, listening to one of the officers read a warrant for his arrest. The charge: littering.
Located in a park nearby the statehouse, a statue depicting a Confederate mother and son were adorned with a pair of white hoods—very obviously meant to evoke Ku Klux Klan regalia—some time between Sunday evening and early Monday. The News & Observer reported on Monday that Raleigh State Capitol Police were investigating the origin of the hoods.
On Tuesday, ABC 11 reported that Williams, who initially posted the picture of the statue online on Monday, had been charged in the case. That afternoon, Williams spoke with Splinter about the charges.
But before we get to Williams’ story, a little background on the statue. Known as the Monument to North Carolina Women of the Confederacy, the statue sits in a public park near the State House, where it was erected in June 1914 and introduced by a speech from Gov. Locke Craig titled, “The Legacy of the Confederacy.” The monument cost $10,000 to erect, which was paid for entirely by Confederate Col. Ashley Horne.
Like a great many Confederate statues sitting on public grounds in North Carolina, the monument has been the subject of protests in recent years. In 2015, the words, “Black Lives Matter,” were spray-painted on its base. Then, this past Saturday, the statue was barricaded off from the public by police ahead of a rally organized by a local group of Confederate sympathizers.
Williams, the son of a Southern Baptist minister who has lived in Raleigh since 1994, said he swung by the Confederate rally, which was greeted by a group of counter-protestors, before he and his wife continued on a pre-planned date. Williams said the pro-Confederate group’s actions on Saturday sparked outrage in the community. He tried to put them out of his head, but kept coming back to thinking about the statue.
Williams is an alum of Moral Mondays, the protests held on the state Capitol grounds starting in 2013 as a rebuke of the actions of North Carolina’s ultra-conservative state legislature. There, he said he was arrested twice, along with hundreds of others, for trespassing, though the charges didn’t stick. Saying he is in a “much better point in my career now” compared to six years ago, Williams had been thinking about what he could do to express the fight over racist statues is not one being fought on a level playing field—at least not in North Carolina.
See, in 2015, the state legislature, then dominated by a GOP supermajority in the House and Senate, passed legislation in the wake of the Charleston church shooting that required any future moving of monuments from state grounds be approved by the state’s Historical Commission. That law effectively kneecapped any legal efforts to remove Confederate statues. In response to campus and local leaders pointing at the legislation as easy cover for doing nothing, students and residents in Durham and then Chapel Hill tore down the statues without permission. With the law on their side, the right smeared them as lawless extremists.
At some point before Sunday, Williams began thinking more about what he could do to bring attention to the subject in a way that would force the conversation on public officials. (“I’m pretty good at Photoshop—I could have Photoshopped [the hoods on the monument],” he told me.) Sometime during that same time period, Williams contacted a lawyer to represent him, which the attorney agreed to do for free.
Now, there’s one thing worth making clear in all of this: Williams did not admit to putting the hoods on the statue. He was adamant about this, both in his interview with Splinter and in a slyly-worded post on Twitter. When asked whether the hoods were placed on the statues Sunday evening or Monday night, Williams responded, “I have no way of knowing that.”
What Williams does know is that on Monday morning, he posted a photo of the now-hooded monument on his Twitter account. The photo was the first of the statues to surface on social media and was quickly circulated, eventually resulting in local news coverage.
Fast forward to Monday night, when Williams was driving home from picking his step-daughter up from piano class and noticed a car he hadn’t seen before sitting near his driveway. When he pulled into his driveway and put his car in park, Williams said the Crown Vic with tinted windows pulled in behind him, blocking him in his driveway. For “two seconds,” he said he was concerned a “para-military Confederate group” had found his information online.
He breathed a brief sigh of relief when several uniformed officers stepped out of the car, joined soon after by officers unloading from a Raleigh Police SUV. Williams told his daughter to go down and alert his wife about what was happening.
“I had warned my wife to expect something like this,” Williams said. “Maybe not at 8 o’clock at night, but eventually.”
A police officer read him his charges and instructed him to place his hands behind his back to be handcuffed. Williams said he asked the officer to speak with his wife and that the officer simply repeated his order to Williams to put his hands behind his back. He said that when he heard he had been charged with littering—and only littering—he was surprised and a little entertained.
“I thought it was hilarious that that was the one and only charge,” Williams said. “I came up with a list that ranged from everything from littering to terrorism. I was not surprised by the charge but I was surprised by that being the only charge.”
Williams spent three hours in booking at the police station—he said very little to the officers, prompting one to comment that he smelled alcohol and order him to take a sobriety test. Splinter left a message with the communications director of the State Capitol Police on Tuesday; we will update this post if they respond.
For the most part, though, the officers were “pretty cool,” to Williams, he said, including when he had a bout of anxiety-induced vomiting toward the end of his detaining (“All of it went in the trash can, so, score?”) When he finally got his moment in front of the magistrate to hear the stipulations accompanying his charges, she informed him that he would not be allowed back on park grounds until the resolution of his case.
When he asked what the precise reasoning was for him being barred from the park, he said the magistrate said that “personal opinions aside,” he was known for, “stirring up trouble around an issue that’s already socially volatile.”
Williams found that explanation lacking and the tactic of barring citizens from public grounds for months at a time deeply disturbing. In our interview, Williams pointed out the twisted nature of North Carolina’s justice system in stifling protests against the state. By forcing citizens to go through the costly and time-consuming legal system—and by having magistrates tack on indefinite bans on the protestors’ return to those public grounds until the resolution of their charges—he said the state has constructed a system that not only punishes those attempting to express disdain with what they view as immoral and publicly-funded stances, but prevents them from doing so again.
“The thing I want to stress is the use of putting someone into the court system as its own sense of punishment. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter basically all whether you’re found guilty or not guilty. It’s the fact that it’s going to chew up tons of your time and resources,” Williams told Splinter. “It seems like that’s becoming the pattern to deal with people who don’t want to color inside the lines all the time.”
Again, Williams never outright admitted playing a role in the incident; he also never denied it. He spoke at length about why the statue issue in particular has gotten under his skin as a middle-aged white Southern man—his motivations essentially whittled down to the idea that the arguments being made in the case of Confederate monuments are not two sides of the same coin, but a history of systemic racism and oppression being manipulated to obscure the very real ramifications of what a state endorsement of such relics means to the people who have never had the same advantages a person like Williams has.
“Confederate monuments being at the North Carolina state capitol is immoral. It ought to be illegal, but it’s definitely immoral,” Williams said. “It sends a really, really fucked up message to anyone non-white that says, ‘This isn’t for you.’”
When asked about his personal motivations for his actions, Williams responded simply: “I wanted to be able to look my son in the eyes in 20 years and have an answer to the question of, ‘What did you do?’”