Like many Americans, my mom feels a deep sense of disconnection from the country that elected Donald Trump. Despite being born in West Virginia and raised in a somewhat rural part of Ohio outside of Columbus, she’s lived in the Boston metro area for about 35 years. She hardly associates with conservatives.
A friend in New York City voiced similar sentiments. Based on her location and a regular culling of Facebook friends, she’s realized she lives in an echo chamber. Their feelings are reflected in hand-wringing editorials about liberal media bubbles, and the coastal elites who convinced so many Americans this election was in the bag.
But I can’t exactly relate. I’ve lived in Greensboro—a small, relatively working class city in the middle of North Carolina—for the last decade. I spent Election Night interviewing voters as they left polls, many of them Trump supporters. I thought Hillary Clinton would win, but definitely not here.
There’s a level of progressive shelter to living in a city like Greensboro, where all but one of our nine city council members are Democrats, but I’ve learned never to doubt the conservatism of the larger state.
Greensboro is the state’s third most populated city, home to just under 300,000 residents. The New York Times recently described it as a “genteel, leafy city” due to our slower pace and abundant greenery. It’s featured in history textbooks as the site of a student sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, which sparked one of the biggest movements of the Civil Rights era. Today, more than 100 languages are spoken by students in the public school system here, as a result of longterm refugee resettlement and large immigrant communities.
But for the last six years, the Republican-dominated North Carolina General Assembly has gone to war with blue cities like Greensboro on just about everything: local control of an airport, banning minimum wage increases and anti-discrimination ordinances, and redistributing tax money to rural areas, to give just a few examples.
Propelled by grassroots activists and accompanied by legal support from groups like the ACLU and a similar outfit called the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, our cities have fought back and persisted with their constituents’ progressive agenda. Now, it seems the battle lines I’ve seen form here since the Republicans solidified their statewide power are being replicated on a national stage.
If you’re like my mom or my friend or a lot of liberal America, bewildered by what’s happening in your country right now, understanding how the last six years unfolded here in North Carolina could help.
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Long before the 2016 election, before Trump’s alarmist rhetoric and nativist campaign promises became executive orders, North Carolina’s Republican leadership extolled similar points of view. Language about criminal immigrants, dangerous Syrian refugees, and a need to stand with police are all familiar talking points here.
When Representative George Cleveland, a Republican from Jacksonville, N.C., pushed for a law preemptively banning sanctuary cities in the state and restricting forms of accepted immigrant IDs in 2015, he sounded a lot like the campaigning future president.
As we reported last year in local alternative-weekly Triad City Beat, where I’m the managing editor, Cleveland took the house floor at the time to call undocumented immigrants in North Carolina’s jails rapists and child abusers. “You can be as kind and considerate as you want,” he said. “But eventually they’ll overrun you and you won’t have the life that you have now.’”
Trump’s January 25 executive order on immigration, in which he threatened to cut federal funding from “sanctuary jurisdictions,” describes similar enemies. Soon after he’d sign three telling executive orders on policing, following an earlier claim on the White House’s website that his administration would end “the dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America.”
The orders are politically aligned with the so-called “Blue Lives Matter” laws passed in Mississippi and Louisiana, which make assaulting an officer a hate crime. We haven’t seen the same thing in North Carolina—at least not yet—but recently proposed legislation instructs motorists how to interact with police. A 2016 state law limits the release of dash cam and officer-worn camera footage. Bills designed to improve accountability and police training are quickly scuttled.
While the state of North Carolina did tack hard right in the last six years—with legislation including an incredibly restrictive voter ID law in 2013 and the controversial, anti-trans “bathroom bill” of 2016—our bigger cities like Greensboro, Durham, Raleigh, and Charlotte have gone the other direction. Buoyed by progressive and radical activists, local municipalities have frequently challenged the state. In my backyard, that’s meant the county school board suing the state over teacher tenure and the city council suing to block a city redistricting law that would’ve favored Republicans.
It’s also meant a prolonged disagreement between cities and the state about who gets to hold the police accountable, and how.
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Greensboro adopted body-worn cameras before most other municipalities, back in early 2013. In 2014, when an officer shot and killed Chieu Di Thi Vo—a Vietnamese woman holding a knife—it took more than two years of consistent pressure from activists and residents (like retired civil rights attorney Lewis Pitts) to convince the city to release the video.
Several months later, Greensboro City Council again voted to release footage from a controversial incident, this time involving the assault and wrongful arrest of an unarmed black man sitting on his mother’s front porch. Both of the officers who arrested Dejuan Yourse that day resigned before internal investigations were completed. When the council refused to provide complete details of the department’s investigation into Yourse’s case, seven activists were arrested while committing nonviolent civil disobedience in City Hall.
To the city’s credit, such footage releases are rare for any city, let alone for two incidents relatively close together. The release was also fully supported by the police chief. But two months after the council’s first vote, the largely Republican legislature declared that these recordings aren’t a public record and curtailed similar releases.
The residents of Durham County, an hour east of Greensboro, voted about 78% for Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. The city of Durham—known for its recent rebirth as a hipster haven and foodie hotspot—is similar in many ways to Greensboro demographically. Not that it mattered much in this case.
Over the fall and through the winter of 2015, a spate of police killings in the city would prove how impotent body camera laws could be without the state's full cooperation. The Durham City Council approved the devices on November 21, though two council members voting against the expenditure, arguing that the state law defeated the purpose.
The very next day, Durham police fatally shot a black man named Frank Clark. On February 10, Greensboro police shot and killed Carlos Keith Blackman. (An officer was shot in the incident too, according to the police department.) On February 12, a Highway Patrol trooper fatally shot a man in Durham, and two days later, Durham police fatally shot another black man, with police claiming the decedent had a gun. In a familiar turn, several people who live in the area said the man was shot in the back while fleeing, according to Indy Week.
Greensboro police reviewed body camera footage from the February 10 incident to gain more clarity, and reported parts of what they saw to the public. If officers in the other shootings were wearing cameras, the process would’ve been much the same. But with fraying public trust, particularly in Durham, it’s not like residents are likely to believe the police version of events.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the state legislature have tried to push their cities’ progressive agendas, but with nothing to show for it. Lawmakers brushed aside a rather benign and limited 2015 House bill from Greensboro Democrats that would’ve enabled the city to give a limited explanation of disciplinary charges to the city’s formal police review board. And when Charlotte Democrats sought subpoena power for police review boards and tried to require training on discriminatory profiling—two frequent calls from police accountability activists in Greensboro—their bills in the state House and Senate didn’t gain traction.
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The left can still claim some victories, Republican dominance in North Carolina notwithstanding. Despite favoring Trump in 2016, North Carolinians picked Democrat Roy Cooper as the new governor, accompanied by a Democratic attorney general (who joined in the lawsuit against Trump’s immigration ban) and a candidate for state Supreme Court preferred by the left.
Mass mobilizations led largely by the state NAACP and directed at the regressive state government have energized the left where the Democratic Party here has largely failed. Weekly protests held while the General Assembly is in session—known as the Moral Monday movement—have spilled into anti-Trump marches and airport demonstrations.
And cities continue to promote progressive agendas, despite frequently getting knocked down by the state General Assembly. Even after the new law limiting the release of body-worn camera footage took effect, Greensboro’s mayor said it wouldn’t stop the city from making recordings public. Police chiefs themselves spoke out against the attempt to scrap immigrant IDs, and the pressure directly led to a softened technical corrections bill. More recently, several of the same chiefs said they wouldn’t adopt Trump’s call for local immigration-enforcement agreements.
As we’re seeing nationally with Trump’s immigration ban, the courts have repeatedly proven an effective avenue for beating back regressive efforts in North Carolina, with courts rejecting several redistricting laws, a voter ID law, and an anti-gay marriage amendment.
The war on blue cities continues in North Carolina, but as I’ve witnessed in Greensboro, a determined grassroots refuses to give in. They’re not making all the headway they’d like, and the losses are sure to worsen given the Trump regime’s agenda and the president’s executive orders. Even considering the state GOP’s rightward lean over the last six years, the Trump administration is still more extreme.
Americans who are just waking up to the political power struggles the rest of us have been living with can draw from the example of their counterparts in red states like this one. People here appear ready for resistance, though there isn’t a clear blueprint for what that will mean. It might take a while—it’s taken years for things to show any meaningful sign of turning around in North Carolina—but our state shows that victories for the left are possible, even under consolidated one-party rule. And if you ask the folks on the ground here, they’ll tell you there’s plenty of room in the trenches.
Eric Ginsburg is the managing editor of Triad City Beat, a weekly newspaper covering North Carolina’s Triad region