CARRBORO — The town of Carrboro rejected the state elections director's request Thursday to remove Black Lives Matter flags from the Town Hall early voting site.
The Carrboro Town Council held an emergency meeting Thursday morning to discuss a legal matter.
"This is really important," Mayor Lydia Lavelle said on the Zoom call before asking for a motion to close the virtual meeting to the public.
She did not disclose the specific reason for closing the meeting before asking viewers to sign off.
But Thursday afternoon, town spokesperson Catherine Lazorko confirmed the meeting was about the flags — and that they're staying up.
"After consulting with the town attorney, the Mayor and Town Council have chosen to leave the flags in place," Lazorko wrote in an email.
The council voted unanimously on July 14 to fly the Black Lives Matter flags, she wrote, and they were first flown on July 20.
Some poll workers, voters uncomfortable, says GOP chair
Waddy Davis, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, said Thursday he had received 15 to 18 written complaints about the flags and many more by word of mouth.
Town Hall is an early voting site, he said, and some poll workers have been reluctant to staff the site.
"Sometimes a voter comes over there and says, 'I'm not comfortable with that,' " Davis said. "'Why aren't they American flags?' "
Kerwin Pittman, a social justice advocate in Raleigh who helped put up a Black Lives Matter billboard near a Confederate flag in Pittsboro, called the decision "disturbing but not surprising."
"When a Black Lives Matter banner is flying, it is saying if Black lives do not matter, then all lives cannot matter," he said Thursday. "This right here just speaks to the racial climate that we're in."
Davis added that Republican poll workers have put up with swearing and middle fingers in Carrboro and that the banners are seen as overtly partisan.
"It's not welcoming to a lot of people, to my side," he said. "Black lives matter, of course. Every life matters. Your life matters."
Flags hang inside early voting buffer zone
In a letter emailed to the town Thursday, the executive director of the State Board of Elections said the board had received a couple of emailed complaints about the flags, which hang inside the early voting buffer zone at 301 W. Main St.
One of those complaints, which the board forwarded to The N&O, noted that the four flags were past a sign banning electioneering. They incite political division and do not belong on a government building, according to the letter.
The writer said upon seeing the flags, he questioned whether his vote would be fairly counted at the site and chose to go to another early voting site instead.
But there were more complaints, the state Board of Elections director told the town Thursday.
"After receiving word today from the General Counsel for the Republican Party that there were numerous additional complaints, we feel we must formally request you must remove these flags for the duration of the early voting period," Karen Brinson Bell wrote in her letter.
"The flags are attached to the front of the one-stop site and therefore could be interpreted as an official endorsement by the board of elections in favor of a particular movement," Brinson Bell wrote.
"As Executive Director of the State Board and the state's chief elections official, I take seriously the complaint of any voter who may be offended by the presence of that symbol when exercising their right to vote. I know you, too, care about the sensibilities of all of the voters in Orange County," Brinson Bell wrote.
The N&O called and left messages for Lavelle at N.C. Central University, where she is a law professor, Mayor Pro Tem Barbara Foushee and Town Manager David Andrews after Thursday's meeting but was not able to speak with any of them as of 5 p.m. Thursday.
Working for racial equity, reparations
In its Carrboro Courier blog, the town said in September it has worked to address systemic racism and injustice, including reworking its town code for gender-neutral language and racial equity.
"It is essential that we center, elevate and honor the voices and experiences of Black people and other people of color," the town said.
On Oct. 20 the Town Council passed a resolution supporting federal reparations to help eliminate the racial wealth gap.
The resolution apologized for the town's participation in and sanctioning of the enslavement of Black people, and for "its abominable history of unjustly empowering white supremacists and even naming its town after one, and enforcement of segregation and its accompanying discriminatory practices."
The council also continues talking about changing the town's name or officially choosing someone other than Julian Carr to honor with the existing name, such as Alabama civil rights activist Johnnie Carr, The N&O has reported.
Julian Carr ran a local mill and brought electricity to the town, but may be best known now for a speech he gave at the dedication of the Silent Sam Confederate statue at UNC. In it, he described an incident soon after the Civil War, in which he said he horse-whipped a "negro wench" who had insulted a white woman in the street, "until her skirts hung in shreds."