It’s hard to think of a better example of doing what you can with what you’ve got than Naomi Dix when the lights went out.
When Dix, the producer and host of Downtown Divas, a benefit drag show in Southern Pines, North Carolina, suddenly found herself in total darkness while on stage at the historic Sunrise Theater in early December, she directed audience members to pull out their phones, turn on their flashlights, and sing. For the next forty-five minutes, 350 supporters belted out classics like Beyoncé’s “Halo” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’. ”
Dix had no idea that night that the power had been cut—not just to the theater, but also to some 40,000 residents across Moore County, the result of what the FBI called a malicious and intentional attack. Did the gunshots targeting two strategically chosen electricity substations have any connection to the protests that had been plaguing event organizers for months? While people in the LGBTQ+, drag, and broader progressive communities across North Carolina are demanding a full investigation, they’re not holding their breath.
Later, on Christmas, someone else vandalized four power substations in Washington State, knocking out power to 14,000 residents. The FBI is investigating these crimes, which some suspect are part of a nationwide terror campaign by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. North Carolina is fertile ground for both.
Southern Pines is an inauspicious place to hold a drag event. It is quaint enough, with its boutique shops and historical Welcome Center for visitors. But beyond the golf courses and horse farms, the town is situated in one of the most militarized, radicalized, and least drag-friendly regions of the United States. To the east is Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne Division and Army Special Operations Command; to the south is Mackall Army Airfield. In fact, if you drive thirty minutes in just about any direction from Southern Pines you will find a military base, an airfield, or an array of military contractors—from caterers and outfitters to shooting ranges, gun shops, and for-profit training facilities serving active-duty personnel, veterans, police officers, and self-styled survivalists.
For decades, Southern Pines was a so-called sundown town that practiced racial segregation by not allowing African Americans to live or conduct business there. In the 2020 presidential election, 63 percent of Moore County residents voted for Donald Trump. When Trump lost, busloads of local residents traveled to Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, to participate in a rally that ended with a Trump-inspired mob attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Like Wisconsin, where conservatives have invested lots of money and attention in demonizing public workers and undermining union strength, North Carolina has been a testing ground for the right wing’s culture wars, particularly concerning LGBTQ+ equality and civil rights. As the state’s population has become increasingly urban and diverse, the right has doled out unlimited campaign cash to extremist rural candidates, and successfully gerrymandered the state so that in the 2022 midterm elections, the GOP gained a supermajority in the state senate and fell one seat short of a supermajority in the statehouse.
How did a purple state like this become a backlash petri dish? Anti-queer, anti-drag, and anti-LGBTQ+ baiting has played a significant role.
North Carolina provided the blueprint for the current nationwide wave of anti-trans legislation when, in 2016, legislators passed a bill to restrict transgender access to public restrooms and prevent municipalities from enacting new anti-discrimination ordinances. While that bill was eventually rolled back, few states have seen more anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-drag threats in recent months than North Carolina. Armed and masked members of the Proud Boys intimidated people at drag story events and Pride parades last summer. In October, they showed up in a town just north of Southern Pines in full combat gear outside of a drag brunch.
As soon as the Downtown Divas event was announced, the hate and the threats started pouring in. As a small mob gathered outside the venue, Dix and the event’s sponsors, Sandhills Pride, vowed to continue the program as planned.
Emily Grace Rainey, a known agitator who had been leading the anti-drag protests in Southern Pines, is a former Fort Bragg-based Army psychological operations officer who was investigated after she led the group Moore County Citizens for Freedom to the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Just hours after the lights went out December 3, 2022, Rainey posted on Facebook: “The power is out in Moore County and I know why.”
The local sheriff visited her house after that. As of this writing, no arrests have been made regarding the attack, and photos posted online appear to indicate that Rainey’s relationship with the local sheriff is a close one.
Unsexy as it may be, organized residents can do a lot with research and small print.
As Serena Sebring, executive director of the progressive statewide network Blueprint NC, noted in a December 8 press conference, what happened in Moore County is not an isolated event. “Far-right, extremist, and white supremacist organizing has been gathering steam for the last several years, . . . emboldened [by] a growing tolerance for a level of extremism and violence,” Sebring said. That violence is likely to intensify in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election. And that’s exactly what Sebring and Blueprint NC are working to track and resist.
While the level of political violence is escalating across the country, with little being done by the government to crack down on paramilitary groups, track extremists in law enforcement, or expel hate from mainstream politics and discourse, groups like Blueprint NC and their allies are protecting communities by strengthening relationships. Connecting approximately seventy social justice groups, Blueprint NC describes its work as “an expanding web of network allies” who stick together because the threats are up close, familiar, and interconnected.
The latest attacks, Sebring says, “give us another chance to say this is not the world that we want. This is not the world that we choose.”
While they don’t have cops, or combat gear, or government might, anti-racist progressive activists here do have decades of shared experience and community-based research. After the violence at the Capitol on January 6, Blueprint NC paid for research across the state about the local roots of the insurrection. In March 2021, they produced a report titled, in part, “Go There Ready for War.” The report sounded the alarm about people like Rainey. More broadly, it highlighted a growing “paramilitary industrial complex” fueled by a virtually unmonitored stream of military-grade weapons, training, and “white warrior” ideology flowing out of North Carolina’s military and police institutions and into civilian life.
Sometimes resistance entails simply showing up to town meetings and scrutinizing zoning regulations. In October 2021, The Laura Flanders Show, which I host, reported from Hoke County, where a diverse coalition of local stakeholders were able to use local zoning laws to stop the expansion of a weapons training outfit near the county seat of Raeford.
The story of what happened in Hoke County encouraged the residents of Hoffman, thirty miles to the west in Richmond County, to dig into how another weapons training facility, Oak Grove Technologies, had expanded to their doorstep. The din from around-the-clock automatic gunfire and explosions at Oak Grove’s Tactical and Cultural Training Center had tormented this small town of mostly African American residents for years. Their concerns grew after The Laura Flanders Show discovered that the facility had hosted a survivalist group with ties to the January 6 insurrection. Help from Blueprint NC enabled local residents to reveal serious errors in Oak Grove’s planning permit.
“In their arrogance, the lawyers for Oak Grove assumed no one would give their application a careful look,” says Mab Segrest, a longtime anti-racism activist, author, and consultant with Blueprint NC who helped dig up the relevant documents. On November 1, nine Hoffman residents filed a lawsuit against county officials, the town of Hoffman, and Oak Grove Technologies in an attempt to shut down the facility.
“This is community-based safety through zoning, and it’s kind of unsexy, but so very powerful for local community members to have access to change the game and say this won’t happen here,” Sebring told The Laura Flanders Show.
Unsexy as it may be, organized residents can do a lot with research and small print. In another story from Southeast North Carolina, The Laura Flanders Show followed NAACP organizers in Columbus County who were experiencing a worsening climate of fear after a self-described former Oath Keeper acquired a massive arsenal of decommissioned military hardware soon after taking office as sheriff in a contested election.
“It’s a battle for the soul of America,” lead organizer Curtis Hill, president of the Columbus County NAACP chapter, said as he described life for Black residents after Sheriff Jody Greene acquired $3.8 million in decommissioned military hardware under the federal government’s 1033 program. Among the items Greene obtained were two helicopters, a mine-resistant vehicle, and riot shields. When local people gathered in Whiteville, the county seat, to hold a gospel protest after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, they noticed they were being observed by what appeared to be snipers positioned atop the county courthouse. Whiteville’s population is fewer than 5,000 people, and the entire county has fewer than 50,000 residents.
After media reporting helped direct critical attention to the sheriff, and an audio recording of racist comments he had made about his own employees surfaced, Greene was suspended pending an investigation, prompting him to resign. With the support of local Republican leadership, however, he was re-elected in November.
While that was discouraging, Blueprint NC’s Sebring was undeterred and wrote to the state body that oversees the federal equipment program. Sebring requested that state officials investigate the civil rights violations that had by then become public. Shortly before Christmas, Blueprint NC received word that the Columbus County Sheriff’s Department had been suspended from participating in the Department of Defense military surplus program pending an investigation. In January, Greene resigned a second time.
Small print, research, good organizing, and relationships—community caring and responsiveness—are really what’s making the difference. While much has been made of the small crowd of protesters that showed up outside the Sunrise Theater on December 3, watch the video posted in social media and you’ll see that the clutch of demonstrators riled up by Rainey weren’t the only ones there in the street. A much larger crowd of supporters—Southern Pines residents, activists, and neighbors—greeted Dix and her fellow performers that night.
“I love you. I love you,” Dix told the crowd. “This is not a moment to silence yourself.”
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