The New York Times
The Officers Danced at a Black Lives Matter Rally. Then They Stormed the Capitol.
ROCKY MOUNT, Va. — One sunny day last spring, Bridgette Craighead was dancing the Electric Slide with three police officers in the grass next to the farmers’ market. It was the first Black Lives Matter protest this rural Virginia county had ever had, and Craighead, a 29-year-old hairdresser, had organized it. She had not known what to expect. But when the officers arrived, they were friendly. They held her signs high, and stood next to her, smiling. Later an officer brought pizzas and McDonald’s Happy Meals. They even politely ignored her cousin’s expired license plate. This, she thought, was the best of America. Police officers and Black Lives Matter activists laughing and dancing together. They were proving that, in some small way, their Southern county with its painful past was changing. They had gotten beyond the racist ways of older people. This made her feel proud. In a photograph from that day, Sgt. Thomas Robertson is smiling, and Craighead is standing behind him, her face tilted toward the sun and her fist held high. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times She did not see the officers around Rocky Mount much after that. But in early January, someone sent her a photograph. It showed Officer Jacob Fracker and Robertson posing inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the day the building was stormed by Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters. At first, she did not believe it. Not her officers. But there they were. She confronted them on Facebook and they did not deny it. On the contrary, they were proud. What came next happened fast. The officers were arrested, their homes searched and their guns confiscated. Residents yelled at one another outside the municipal building while the Town Council was inside debating the officers’ jobs. Craighead and her hair salon received threatening emails and Facebook messages. The officers did too. Everybody, it seemed, was angry. From the best of America to the worst of America. That was Franklin County over the past year. But what happens now? Fracker, 29, and Robertson, 48, both veterans, one who served in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq, say they did not participate in any of the violence that happened at the Capitol that day, when scores of people were hurt and five lost their lives. The charges they face — disorderly conduct and disrupting the proceedings of Congress — are nonviolent, and less serious than those facing people accused of assaulting police officers. They went to Washington to express their views, and they say they went to war so Craighead would be able to express hers too. “I can protest for what I believe in and still support your protest for what you believe in,” Fracker wrote on Facebook after the riot, adding, “After all, I fought for your right to do it.” The arrests of Fracker and Robertson, who both declined to speak for this article, have divided this county at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Their supporters say that the violence of the riot was wrong, but that the sentiment of the rally that day — protesting an election that many here believe, wrongly, was stolen — was honorable. But others in the county say that the officers’ participation looked a lot like history repeating itself: white people going out of their way to make sure that America was theirs. In Franklin County, a mountainous corner of southwest Virginia of about 56,000, this took the form of the Ku Klux Klan marching in the 1960s. Trump and the Capitol rioters, they argue, were merely the most recent iterations. “People are not going to give up their power,” said Penny Blue, an African American woman who lives in Franklin County, and whose father was also a Franklin County native. “They’re going to do whatever it takes to keep that power. And that is what is going on right now.” If you ask Black people in Franklin County, many will tell you that the current chapter really begins with the election of Barack Obama. David Finney, a retired police officer, remembers a sudden resentfulness. “For years, I thought people hated Obama because of Obamacare, but at some point, I realized it didn’t have a damned thing to do with no insurance,” said Finney, who is Black. “White people hated Obama because he was a Black man who became president and elevated the Black race. Obama leveled the playing field. And that was a problem because before that, most white people truly felt that America belonged to them.” Aaron Hodges, who saw combat when he was in the Army, remembers Fracker from high school. Hodges, 29, now works in construction. Fracker joined the police. But in many ways, the men are the same, Hodges said. “He was just like me,” Hodges said. Fracker, he added, should not be put in prison. “He wanted to serve the country and he did. And now he’s getting eaten up by our country.” In 2019, news of proposed gun restrictions in the state Legislature caught Hodges’ attention. Hodges was sick of people complaining about the government but never doing anything about it. So, he decided to hold a militia muster, a call for able-bodied men. Several hundred people showed up in a public park one day last March. Gun rights were on everybody’s mind. Two months before, on a frigid January morning, thousands of people converged on the grounds of Virginia’s Statehouse in Richmond, to protest what they said were dangerous proposals by Democrats. One of those protesters was Robertson. Robertson served as a soldier in Iraq and Kuwait starting in 2007, according to the Army. Later, he worked as a contractor in Afghanistan. He was “the alpha male inside the department,” said Justin Smith, who previously worked under Robertson but has since left the Police Department. Smith said Robertson was good to his officers. He was politically conservative, “but not in some big South-will-rise-again way,” Smith said. “He’s more like, ‘I’m not going to be told what to do.’” He said Robertson refused to wear a body camera, contrary to department policy, and “was big into Second Amendment rights.” Hodges does not know Robertson, nor has he kept up with Fracker. But he thinks he understands why they might have gone to Washington on Jan. 6. It was the same reason he started the militia. “Just stand up for yourself,” he said. “Say no. Not just to the government taking your rights or property. But to anyone who tries to take advantage of you.” Hodges also went to the Capitol on Jan. 6. But what was he standing up to? He talked about a sense of loss. The old America “that is honor-bound and that had chivalry” is gone, he said. The killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by police in Minnesota was something many people in Franklin County could agree should be protested. But when Black activists’ demands moved closer to home last summer, to a Confederate statue in Rocky Mount, the county seat, a hostility took hold among the county’s white residents. First erected in the early 20th century, the monument to the Confederate dead looked over residents from its perch in front of the courthouse. The county was so attached to it that when a driver accidentally plowed into it in 2007, the Jubal Early Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy scrambled to erect a new one. It was dedicated in 2010, with people dressed as Confederate soldiers and Southern belles. Early, whose name is on the statue, was a lawyer, a Civil War general and a Franklin County native who became one of the foremost proponents of the Lost Cause ideology that the war was not about slavery, but a noble fight for states’ rights. Penny Blue watched in wonder as the fight unfolded. A history buff with a master’s degree who had a career outside the state for 25 years, Blue returned and began volunteering at the National Park Service monument to the county’s most famous son, Booker T. Washington. A Black woman who is 61, she has spent hours dressed as Washington’s mother talking to people about the Civil War. “If you ask the average white person in Franklin County what the Civil War was about, they would not tell you it’s about slavery,” she said. When Blue hears people say that those who went to Washington on Jan. 6 had been radicalized, she scoffs. “They learn this from birth,” she said. In the weeks after the election, a quiet anger descended like snow. The county had overwhelmingly chosen Trump, and the fact that he was not the one about to be inaugurated put people in a bad mood. One person who was angry was Robertson, who stood by Trump’s false claims that the election had been stolen. By mid-December, he was posting on Facebook about armed rebellion. Fracker and Robertson have been fired. They were released on bail pending trial. On Feb. 25, they pleaded not guilty to federal charges of obstruction of an official proceeding, and violent entry and disorderly conduct on video before a federal judge. Fracker’s lawyer asked that his client get his guns back. The judge said he was “disinclined” to grant the request. If convicted, the men could face more than 10 years in prison. In January, Blue bought a gun. She believes that the country is at the beginning of something. The old order is starting to crack. Franklin County has made progress: In December, it got its first Black school superintendent. In February, a departing member of the Town Council was replaced by an African American man. This month, Craighead, now 30, announced a run for a seat in Virginia’s Statehouse. But many in the county fervently believe that the election was stolen. Blue sees that as another Lost Cause narrative. White people, she said, are mourning more than just an election. They believe they are losing the right to determine what version of America is out there in the world. And that, she said, has never gone well for Black people in Franklin County. “History tells me we are in a very dangerous time,” she said. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company