By Laura Plummer

July 17, 2020

“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” – James Baldwin

On June 4, a sergeant with the Wilmington Police Department in Wilmington, NC, was conducting a routine audit of patrol cameras when she came across on-duty policemen using shockingly racist language while they believed the camera was off. Corporal Jesse Moore and Officers James Gilmore and Kevin Piner referred to black people as “negroes” and n——s, disparaged blacks in positions of power, talked about purchasing assault rifles so they could “go out and start slaughtering”, and said they were “ready” for a “civil war” to “wipe ‘em off the map.”

The sergeant quickly moved the tape up the chain of command and, on June 23, the trio was fired. In a statement, Chief Donny Williams called their comments “brutally offensive” but urged the public to not “judge our officers based on the conduct of a few.”

The “bad apple defense” is a common refrain when individual authority figures are exposed for wrongdoings. We are told that these cops do not represent the majority of law enforcement. The fact that the sergeant turned over the tapes immediately and that the men involved were summarily terminated does bode well for the WPD’s anti-racist internal culture, especially as the tapes had not leaked to the press and so could not become the target of public outrage. In addition, Chief Williams created an action plan both to hold the officers accountable and to prevent similar incidents from recurring.

But what is particularly noteworthy about this incident is the actual language used, language that is not only racist, but genocidal. The mention of a race war is common rhetoric used by radical white supremacist groups. This violent fantasy and the casual way in which the officers discussed it recall a period in the city’s history that is less about bad apples and more about a rotten tree.

Or in this case, a forest.

If you’ve never heard of the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, you’re not alone. It’s not a staple of school history curricula, despite the powerful impact it had on the spread of white supremacy throughout the south. This is due in part to the fact that, up until recently, the event was portrayed as a race riot incited by blacks. It’s now well documented that it was a calculated white supremacist c’oup d’état.

In 1898, Wilmington was the largest city in the state with about 25,000 residents, 56 percent of them black. Its black and white coalition government was neither Republican nor Democrat, but Fusionist. Blacks held public office, owned businesses, published a newspaper, worked as skilled craftsmen and even served in law enforcement.

This enraged Democrats (the parties were the opposite of what they are today), who had governed North Carolina since Reconstruction and who didn’t want to see former slaves and their offspring in positions of power. They began planning how they could overthrow the biracial government in Wilmington and deprive blacks of their rights to vote and to hold office.

They initiated a news campaign of racist propaganda painting blacks as incompetent and a sexual threat to white women. The campaign was meant to appeal to poor and working-class whites in North Carolina, to turn them against their black neighbors. White southerners were all too eager to have a scapegoat for their near-total dispossession following the Civil War. The Democrats won back the state legislature from the Republicans in November. However, Wilmington had elected a white Republican mayor and a black alderman.

Two days later, two thousand members of the Red Shirts, a paramilitary branch of the Democratic Party, descended on the city. Armed with machine guns, they burned down the public records office and the black newspaper, forced office holders to resign and shot dead at least 60 black men. Many more were wounded and thousands of black families fled. White sympathizers were banished.

Despite calls for Washington to intervene and seek justice, President McKinley turned a blind eye. White newspapers across the country adopted the narrative that the riot had been incited by blacks, and this version was codified in the collective consciousness. Almost overnight, Wilmington went from a majority black egalitarian southern city to a white stronghold that would endure for decades. Blacks in Wilmington were literally “wiped off the map.”

Over 120 years and a two-term black president later, three white uniformed officers were caught on video espousing many of the same sentiments as Carolinian Democrats did at the turn of the 20th century. While the very public killings of black citizens by police have mobilized a nation, even more insidious are the conversations that go on behind closed doors among those in positions of authority when (they think) the cameras aren’t rolling.

Learn More:

  • Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, David Zucchino
  • Personal Interview, Andrew Thornebrooke, Author of The Rearguard, July 09, 2020
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