Professors Rally Around a Student Who Became the Public Face of a Confederate Statue’s Fall

August 16, 2017

Julia Wall, AP Images
Takiyah Thompson, a student at N.C. Central U., was arrested on Tuesday on felony and misdemeanor charges for her role in bringing down a Confederate statue in Durham, N.C., on Monday night.

Takiyah Thompson wasn’t in class on Wednesday. When Allan Cooper looked out across his classroom of 50 students, one was missing. But he wasn’t surprised.

She had a court date.

Monday evening, after a largely peaceful protest in downtown Durham, N.C., Ms. Thompson ascended a ladder to wrap a rope around the neck of a 15-foot statue of a Confederate soldier. Then, a car tied to the statue pulled away and sent the soldier tumbling toward the jeering crowd.

Yaba Blay, a visiting assistant professor of political science at North Carolina Central University, said she did not immediately recognize Ms. Thompson when she saw the video of the statue coming down, but when she heard news media naming her former student Monday night, she became concerned.

"On the one hand, I’m her professor, but I’m also a mother, and a mother-figure," Ms. Blay said. "The moment I saw her name, I was concerned, and it wasn’t like in a scolding way. It was more so like, ‘We live in North Carolina, and they’re going to come for you.’"

On Tuesday morning, during a news conference on the campus of the historically black institution, Ms. Thompson, who is 22, was arrested and was charged with two felonies — participation in a riot and inciting others to riot — plus two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct and damage to real property.

Her bond was set for $10,000 and she was released from custody within the hour, said Scott Holmes, a professor of law at the university and Ms. Thompson’s attorney. When she left the police station late Tuesday night, Mr. Holmes said she wasn’t afraid; she was excited.

"She is an inspiration to watch. She gave a brilliant interview, was arrested, came out and had a big smile on her face. She is resilient and smart and knows she’s done something that has awakened the conversation around race."

Mr. Holmes is offering free legal assistance to all protesters who took part in Monday’s rally on the grounds of Durham’s old courthouse. Two other students have already been arrested in connection with the desecration of the statue. Mr. Holmes wants to help. "It’s a busy time for civil-rights lawyers in North Carolina," he said.

Ms. Thompson could not be reached for comment.

Gary Brown, interim vice chancellor at N.C. Central, said the university "values and welcomes freedom of expression" but "does not condone student participation in any illegal activities."

‘Whatever We Can Do’

Professors are among members of the community who are raising money for Ms. Thompson’s and other protesters’ legal costs. "There are many of us who are just concerned for her safety," Ms. Blay said. "We’re talking about a college senior and the charges are no joke. Whatever we can do to advocate for her."

Ms. Blay said she didn’t understand why Ms. Thompson had become the face of the toppling of the statue when numerous people helped pull it down.

"It saddens me, it disheartens me, it troubles me that, as a black woman, it feels like a lot of the heat is being placed on a black woman when there were so many people involved," Ms. Blay said.

Jim C. Harper II, chair of the history department, said Ms. Thompson’s arrest was unfortunate, but he and other faculty are there to support her. "I saw the demonstration and the toppling of the monument. I think it’s a healthy thing for students to have a voice and to be leaders in activism," Mr. Harper said. "We’re going to do everything we can to support Ms. Thompson."

Mr. Cooper, a professor of political science, said he had received an email from Ms. Blay on Tuesday morning warning professors that Ms. Thompson would probably not be in class this week. "I have been and will remain in communication with her," the email said. "Our first concern, of course, should be her safety."

When Mr. Cooper got to his Introduction to Political Science class, he took attendance. When Ms. Thompson wasn’t there, he said to the class, "‘I didn’t think she would be. She has a court date and she was the person charged with taking down the Confederate statue downtown.’ The whole class applauded."

After class, Mr. Cooper sent an email to the chair of the department. Maybe, he said, it would be appropriate to award Ms. Thompson with a scholarship for "her ability to use her political-science education to the benefit of the community."

Mr. Cooper said the chair was out of office on Wednesday, but he was sure the department would meet and vote on whether to give her a scholarship soon.

Claims of Retribution

T. Greg Doucette, a 2012 graduate of the North Carolina Central University Law School and a local criminal defense lawyer, said he doesn’t think the felony charges will stand up in court.

"When you do civil disobedience, there’s some kind of charge that’s proportional to the disobedience that you’re causing," Mr. Doucette said. "I think the felonies were charged because it’s public retribution. She’s now got a public mugshot that everyone’s posting and words saying she’s a villain."

In a written statement Tuesday night, Michael D. Andrews, sheriff of Durham County, said his "deputies showed great restraint and respect for the constitutional rights of the group expressing their anger and disgust for recent events in our country. … Rightfully, Durham County and the City of Durham have a longstanding respect for the right of peaceable assembly."

Mr. Doucette said this statement, among others from the department, don’t match up with the charges levied against Ms. Thompson. If the assembly was peaceable, why was she charged with participation in and incitement to riot?

"That’s going to be Exhibit A for the defense — their own statements," Mr. Doucette said.

There is little cities and counties can do to remove the statues alone, Mr. Doucette said, because of a 2015 law that prevents localities from removing or altering statues and other monuments on public property.

"If you don’t want these kinds of repercussions from the public, you have to give the public a voice," Mr. Doucette said. "The state of North Carolina has taken the exact opposite approach."

As long as the public has no authority to change the place they live, he said, students like Ms. Thompson will continue to act.