But now it was the morning of the second march, and Brown sat on the porch, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes in his Nickelodeon pajamas and bracing himself for confrontation.
Half an hour earlier, 50 bikers had roared into downtown Marion, many with Confederate flags on their Harleys and pistols on their hips. Two hundred additional counterprotesters were assembling around the Confederate memorial on the courthouse lawn.
Scores of police officers from a dozen agencies had flooded the overwhelmingly white town of 6,000 near the Tennessee border.
“Rumor is there is a large group gathering at Walmart with a bunch of racist signs,” Police Chief John Clair texted Travon.
For more than a month, as protesters in thousands of cities and towns across America had demanded an end to police brutality and systemic racism, people in Marion had watched in admiration or anger.
As Confederate statues fell in Richmond and the rebel flag was banned from NASCAR races and stripped from the Mississippi state flag, some hoped that change would also come to this sleepy corner of Appalachia. Others dreaded it.
Now America’s culture war had arrived in the form of competing protests, held on the same July 3 afternoon, in the same town.
And at the center of it all was Travon, who in a few short months had gone from preparing for his high school track season to leading the largest civil rights march in Marion in a generation to being targeted with an apparent hate crime.
A friend pulled up in front of his house on Pearl Avenue to drop off a printout of his speech, which he’d spent three days writing. As Travon anxiously looked over it, another friend stopped by to talk about the protest route.
“From farmers to the Rite Aid, right?” asked the young white woman.
“Yeah, Rite Aid,” he replied, “but if they want to march some more, up to the Walmart, then back to the market.”
“That’ll be more instigating,” said the woman, whose black boyfriend had refused to come on the march.
“No, it’s not,” he said.
“You can die,” she said, half sarcastically. “It’s your life.”
'Get my daughter!'
Travon’s mother had been walking home late on the night of the first protest when she heard a boom.
It sounded like a gunshot. But when Briggette Thomas ran up Pearl Avenue, her sneakers slapping on asphalt covered in cigarette butts and crushed Mountain Dew cans, it looked as if her house was on fire.
Huge flames leaped from a burn barrel that had been sitting in her driveway.
“Get my daughter!” she shouted. “My daughter is in the house!”
Her neighbor, James Brown, ran across the street and began pounding on her door.
“Ray’Kia, come to the door,” he shouted. “Are you okay?”
It was only when Thomas arrived that she saw the cross.
It was propped against the barrel facing the house, and covered in cloth to help it burn. Something about it seemed familiar, but in the chaos she couldn’t quite place it.
After police arrived and put out the fire, she called Travon, who was spending the night with friends, but the teenager didn’t answer.
“Hey lmk u ok plz baby,” she wrote to him at 1:35 a.m. on June 14. “I walk to Joe’s like I always do came back home and some[one] lite a cross on fire in our yard.”
When Travon came home the next day, he saw the charred cross in the driveway, surrounded by police tape, and felt both sad and defiant.
When his family had moved to Marion seven years earlier from the majority-black city of Vicksburg, Miss., he’d been stunned by the Confederate flags on his block and the small noose left on the porch of their house when they moved in.
The protests were a chance for Marion to finally change, he felt. Instead, the cross burning showed just how stuck in the past it was.
Coming on the heels of the protest, the incident unnerved a town already on edge.
“I think the community was generally appalled,” said Chief Clair, who is white. “They were like, ‘Who in the world would have done something like this?’ ”
But for the 10 percent of Marion residents who are black, their shock was tempered by the area’s long history of racism. The Smyth County Courthouse grounds, where the Confederate statue now stood, had once been the site of slave auctions. And in 1893, a young black man was pulled from Marion’s jail and lynched after he was accused of attacking the wife of the county treasurer.
“Some of the lynchers brought a piece of the rope from the lynching to the editors of the Richmond Times-Dispatch,” said C.R. Gibbs, a historian and author of “Black, Copper, & Bright: The District of Columbia’s Black Civil War Regiment.” “They were proud of what they had done. This was terrorism, but terrorism with the purpose of making sure that black people stayed in their place.”
Clair, an Ohioan hired two years earlier, reassured black church leaders he had a team of detectives investigating the cross burning. They were joined by FBI agents, who began canvassing the ramshackle houses along Pearl Avenue.
As they worked, false rumors that the cross burning was a hoax spread online. Some even accused Travon of setting the fire.
Then, on June 26, authorities arrested a suspect.
It was James Brown, the white neighbor who’d run to help Travon’s family as the cross burned.
“I am still in shock,” Thomas said. “I just never thought this guy would have done this.”
The two families had once been close, she said. When Brown and his wife were looking for a place to rent two years ago, it was Thomas who’d helped them find the house right across the street from hers.
Brown’s kids went over to Travon’s to play basketball in the same driveway where the cross was burned.
About a year ago, the two families had a falling-out, Thomas said. What followed were months of nasty exchanges between the neighbors.
But it wasn’t until he was arrested that Thomas said she realized where she had seen cuts of cloth-covered wood like those used in the cross: in Brown’s workshop.
Federal prosecutors charged James Brown with criminal interference with fair housing — a civil rights violation — for burning the cross, and with making false statements.
Brown had told the FBI he was at home when he heard the boom and went to help, according to an affidavit in support of a search warrant. But a witness told agents he had gone outside after the explosion and saw Brown walking away from the fire.
Another witness said Brown had talked about burning a cross in front of Travon’s house and had confessed shortly after the incident, according to the FBI affidavit.
And a third witness said that when he asked Brown about the incident the next day, Brown laughed and called his neighbors the n-word.
Brown, who did not respond to requests for comment, was released on bond the next day. He has not been indicted or entered a plea.
“We ask the public to not rush to judgment before hearing all of the facts,” his attorney, public defender Monica Cliatt, said in an email.
After the incident, Travon had offered to sit down with whoever had targeted him. But he watched in disgust as his neighbor quietly returned home, as if nothing had happened.
Brown’s arrest did nothing to stem the abuse against Travon and his family. Counterprotesters falsely claimed his mother was a drug dealer. Ray’Kia was confronted by a stranger in the grocery store, who asked the 16-year-old if she was Travon’s sister and then pulled up his shirt to reveal a handgun. And on Facebook, people accused Travon of being a “terrorist” for calling in a hoax bomb threat to his high school when he was 15.
“It was a dumb decision,” he wrote online. “I’m just glad I got to keep attending school.”
He’d spent almost half his life in Marion. Now townspeople accused him online of being a “destructive outsider” and a “trouble maker.”
But as the day of the second protest drew nearer, the personal attacks gave way to something darker in Facebook groups with names like “Smyth County Militia” and “Virginia Patriots Group.”
“Shoot the bastards,” one Marion man wrote. “Sick of people trying to divide this country.”
“A man has to commit on this one,” wrote a local business owner. “I think it would be kill or be killed at some point.”
“A civil war is coming I can feel it,” another replied.
'Don't tell me that I'm racist'
The counterprotesters came from miles around to gather under the Confederate soldier, just as people had in 1903 when the statue was unveiled before an Independence Day crowd of 10,000.
This time there were about 300, listening to AC/DC and bluegrass music as children played with water pistols and a man advertised the real thing from a Rascal scooter with a sign that said: “Guns 4 Sale: No background check.”
When the statue went up, Virginia had just enacted its Jim Crow constitution. Now Confederate monuments were coming down, and people were worried Marion’s was next.
“If they throw a rope around it, I’m gonna punch them in the nose,” said Jerry Sheets, 67, sitting on the edge of the courthouse lawn in a Trump hat.
Confederate flags were everywhere: on shirts and hats, motorcycles and trucks. So were guns. There wasn’t a face mask to be seen, though a shirtless man walked Main Street with a python around his neck.
Two blocks away, Travon was handing out masks and water bottles at the farmers market as the Black Lives Matter crowd also swelled to around 300.
“Welcome to Racist, U.S.A.,” said a young white man, climbing out of a car wearing an unloaded pistol and a New Panther Initiative shirt.
Travon had helped found the anti-racism group during a week of protests in Johnson City, Tenn., in early June before organizing the first march in Marion. But today the teenager eschewed the New Panthers’ shirt for the tight blue jumpsuit he’d worn in the first protest.
A lot had changed since then. He’d quit his job at Hardee’s after managers complained about his protesting. And he’d lost friends, some of whom had blocked him on Facebook or messaged him to keep quiet.
But he’d found a sense of purpose — and a following. A fellow protester had sent him a megaphone in the mail, and now he held it as supporters gave him hugs and high-fives.
“As you can imagine, these past few weeks have been stressful,” Travon began nervously, seeming every bit the 17-year-old as he thanked people for checking on him and his family without ever mentioning the cross burning.
But he found his voice as soon as he stopped reading.
“This is our chance, young people,” he shouted. “Y’all complain about the laws? Go change those laws. You don’t have to destroy anything. You don’t have to tear down statues.”
Clair told Travon that officers were ready, and the teenager led the marchers out of the farmers market and into town, shouting “No Justice, No Peace.”
They hadn’t made it a block before counterprotesters began screaming at them. Young men Travon’s age waved Confederate flags on the sidewalk. As the march passed the Hardee’s, a line of counterprotesters stood in the parking lot, scowling and smoking.
After a mile, he guided the marchers off the highway — which was named after Robert E. Lee — and into the Rite Aid parking lot for a water break. But as Thomas wiped her son’s sweaty face with a towel, pickup trucks flying Confederate flags began pulling into the parking lot across the street.
Protesters poured across the highway to confront them, and police scrambled to keep the two sides apart as half a dozen heated arguments erupted.
“Don’t tell me that I’m racist,” a 45-year-old white woman shouted.
“This is about the system that is racist,” shouted back a 25-year-old black protester.
As the two sides edged closer and closer, Travon worried violence would break out.
“Let’s go,” the teenager said, taking the megaphone and urging the crowd up the hill. As Travon led a chant of “Black Lives Matter,” the counterprotesters shouted “All Lives Matter” after them.
The march passed through a valley of parking lots. On one side, 20 bikers revved their engines to drown out the protesters. On the other, dozens of counterprotesters shouted and jeered.
Looking up, Travon recognized a few of his high school classmates.
At the end of the parking lot, a pickup revved its engine at protesters as a young white woman in cowboy boots shrilly shouted, “White Lives Matter.”
“Keep it moving,” Travon yelled, putting himself between the two groups. “We didn’t come out here to argue. We came out here to raise awareness.’’
There was food and water waiting for them at Walmart, but also more confrontation. As protesters sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a man in a tie-dyed shirt told them to “go back to Africa.”
“Is you done?” Travon shouted into his megaphone. “Is you finished?”
The march back into Marion was quieter, but the reason became clear when they arrived downtown: Counterprotesters were waiting for them on the other side of a police barricade.
The protesters knelt silently in remembrance of George Floyd, whose May 25 death had sparked nationwide demonstrations, as their opponents screamed.
“We stand for law enforcement,” one shouted.
“We stand for America,” said another.
When protesters began to talk back, Travon turned and shushed them. He knelt near the front, his right fist raised to the air.
“It’s great to see you praying,” someone taunted.
After more than eight minutes — the amount of time a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck — the protesters stood.
“Antifa sucks,” someone shouted from the other side of Main Street, where Travon could see several classmates and their parents.
“We ain’t antifa,” a protester answered.
“Go home,” a counterprotester called out.
“We are home,” came the reply.
“We came because y’all burned a cross in our brother’s yard,” said a New Panther. “A 17-year-old boy.”
And then Travon began shouting “I love you” across the divide, and soon all the protesters were shouting it and the faces opposite them were momentarily quiet and confused.
Back at the farmers market, the protesters pulled the teenager into the middle of a dance circle. A Smyth County sheriff’s officer shook his hand. So did Chief Clair, who said not a single person had been arrested.
“You did great,” Thomas told her son as she hugged him. “I’m proud of you.”
The sun was setting as he walked along Pearl Avenue, past his neighbor’s Confederate flags and up his driveway, where the scorch marks on the pavement were nearly gone.