FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — They hadn’t seen each other since the day one attacked the other, and now it was nine months later, and they were approaching a county courthouse to face each other for the second time in their lives. First came John Franklin McGraw, 79, who goes by “Quick Draw McGraw” and spends his days in a cowboy hat and leather boots with two-inch heels because, he says, “a cowboy can’t be 5-foot-8.” Then came Rakeem Lamar Jones, 27, a man in skinny jeans who has long dreadlocks and tattoos up and down his arms.
McGraw sat in the front row, and Jones found an open seat in the back. The last time they saw each other, McGraw was elbowing Jones in the face at a Donald Trump rally, one of the first moments of violence in what would become a historically contentious presidential campaign. After Jones was pulled up from the ground by county sheriffs and escorted out of the coliseum and the rally was over, McGraw went even further. “We don’t know if he’s ISIS. We don’t know who he is,” he said. “The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”
But it was another thing he said that both men have also been thinking about since that day: “We know he’s not acting like an American.”
Nine months later, with so many things settled — the rallies done, the election over, Trump the winner — one of the questions that remained in their minds was what it means to be an American.
McGraw voted for Trump. Jones voted for Hillary Clinton.
McGraw is white. Jones is black.
If they have anything in common, it’s that both live in the same place, but Fayetteville is an increasingly polarized city in a polarized state in a polarized country, and they live in different parts. Now, hoping this hearing would perhaps bring some clarity, they wait for it to begin.
Five days before the hearing, Jones was cradling a phone against his ear and typing another pizza order into a computer. “Rakeem!” his manager yelled as two pizzas were slid into a carry case and placed beside him at the front counter. “You’re out!”
Working the counter, he makes $7.35 an hour. On deliveries, it goes down to $4.25 an hour, but there’s always the chance for a big tip, and he hustled the pizzas to a faded Mitsubishi sedan with a cracked windshield. He’d bought it earlier in 2016 for $1,600 — most of his savings — when McGraw’s attack at the Trump rally left him feeling unsafe riding the city bus. What if McGraw was serious about killing him? Considering the way the election had gone, what if a white-supremacist group decided to try something? Where he comes from, a rough neighborhood in northwest Fayetteville, threats are sometimes carried out. A few of his friends were murdered when he was younger, and two years before, someone shot up his aunt’s trailer, killing his 3-year-old cousin sleeping inside. So in the days after the rally, he quit his job after the company’s name was published, stopped taking the bus, bought a car and found a new job in a different part of town delivering pizzas.
He put on a rap song and turned it up. He passed a neighborhood — tall pines, wide lawns and two-story brick houses — that characterizes one part of Fayetteville, a city that is 42 percent black and 46 percent white and anchors a county that went 56 percent for Clinton and 40 percent for Trump. The part he has lived in is mostly trailer parks and corner stores, and if he can ever make enough money at the pizza shop, he’d like to live in a neighborhood like this one, even though he has come to see it as Donald Trump’s America, an America where more and more he feels as if he doesn’t belong.
He pulled into a gated complex, got out with the pizzas and saw a large red truck with plates that said: “Kill ’em all. Let God sort ’em out.”
“It’s Fayetteville,” he said. “That’s the mentality.”
There was a time when he thought differently, not just about Fayetteville but about America as well. He knew there were racists in his country and community, but he also trusted that its people were tolerant of diversity and wouldn’t vilify someone who went to a Trump rally and yelled out some words of protest. But since that night, he has thought about race constantly. He has thought about it when he has delivered pizzas to houses with Trump yard signs. He has thought about how he must look walking up to the door with his dreadlocks and tattoos, at times wondering whether he’d be welcomed if he weren’t holding a pizza.
A pizza now extended in front of him, he knocked on a second-floor door, and when a woman and a small boy answered, he smiled.
“How you doing, ma’am?” he asked, then looked at the child. “How you doing little man? You hungry?”
“We’re starving,” the woman said.
He handed the pizzas to the boy — “Be careful with that. It’s hot.” — collected a $2 tip from the woman and walked to his car, feeling pleased. “Hey, it adds up at the end of the night,” he said. He headed back to the shop, where he saw his next delivery was a large order of 15 pizzas. There had been a delay in getting the food ready for delivery, and when he grabbed the pizzas and hurried back out to his car, he knew he would be significantly late. In the car, he thought he recognized the address so he called ahead to make sure he was heading to the correct place.
“Is that a church?” he asked into the phone. “All right, ma’am. Yeah, I’ve delivered to this place before.”
By the time he got there, the pizzas were 30 minutes late. Balancing all 15 of them against the wall with one hand, he opened the front door with the other and saw a children’s party inside. He set the pizzas down on a counter as a man talking on a cellphone came up to him.
“I’m on the phone with your manager right now. We need to talk over here,” the man said, and Jones followed him into another room where they were alone. “You should have been here 30 minutes ago,” he told Jones as the manager listened. “I’m not happy right now.”
“I understand,” Jones said, as the man said to the manager, “He called, I don’t know, maybe 20 minutes ago, saying he was lost.”
“I never said I was lost,” Jones said quietly.
“You were asking my wife where we were.”
“I was making sure it was this church.”
“That makes me feel like you were lost,” he said. Jones looked straight ahead and was silent as the man spoke again to the manager. “We were planning on giving him a nice large tip, but based on the situation that we got going on here, we’re just going to pay for the pizza,” he said. “And I’m saying all of this in front of him.”
He hung up and gave Jones $100. The bill for the pizza was $98. Jones put the money in his pocket as the man pointed at the back door. “Exit out this door out here,” he said.
Another $2 tip. He started back to the pizza shop.
“That’s my America,” Jones said.
Three days before the hearing, John McGraw was waiting for his attorney to call to talk about what could happen in court. “He told me he’d call today,” McGraw said. He sat alone in his workshop down a dirt road just outside Fayetteville and glanced at a sheet of paper where he had written all he was going to be doing that day:
“1) 38 39 Belt, Jim”
“2) Wrist Band (Evans)”
“3) Son’s Belt 33 1/4”
This is how McGraw earns income beyond his Social Security checks, making leather belts, leather wristbands and gun holsters that he sells at gun shows and flea markets. He looked around the cramped shop, which contained nearly everything he owned. A pile of unfinished leather strips. A collection of nine black powder rifles, replicas of the sort used in the Revolutionary and Civil wars. A miniature Confederate flag and a sign that says: “You can’t have my country. You can’t have my guns. And I don’t want your handouts.” He spends most of his days in this shop and his nights sleeping in a small trailer parked just outside, the latest phase in a life in which he married and divorced three times, had children he hasn’t seen in 30 years, worked as a ranch hand and horse trainer in Texas, sold leather work and was now living alone, rarely greeting guests beyond a neighbor’s dog that sometimes comes by.
Out came two strips of belt leather. He settled each onto his workbench and rubbed beeswax into them until they darkened and turned shiny. “Other belts aren’t done like this,” he said. “They’re not hand-rubbed. But when I make a belt, it’s made for life.”
At times he has looked at the belts that some people wear, noticing the cheap buckles, the fraying ends, the fake leather, and wondered how someone could buy a belt like that. And lately, it has not just been that question, but a lot of questions he has been having about the changes in the country. Gay marriage. How is that now legal? Baltimore and Ferguson. How could people burn down those buildings and shut down the roads? A Trump rally. How could someone think it was okay to shout obscenities and boo a man running for president? Decency. What happened to decency? And on the night of March 9, when he saw Jones shouting at Trump and others, he got up from his chair as Jones was passing, threw an elbow, and now he was regretting it not only because he was arrested the next day, but because the other person acting indecently was him.
He looked at his flip phone, saw he hadn’t missed any calls from his attorney, and finished the first belt.
Why, he has often asked himself, did he act the way he did? How could he have suspected Jones was a terrorist? He had never considered himself a bigot or a hateful person — far from it — and now, thinking about what happened, as he does every day, he clenched his jaw and shook his head. He said he had never been so humiliated in his life. All the newspaper articles, television clips and political ads suggesting he was a racist. But sometimes he felt he was the one who was actually the victim of racism. This wouldn’t have been news, he thought, if Jones had been white or he had been black. His case wouldn’t have dragged on for nine months. He wouldn’t have been kicked out of his fast-draw shooting club because he didn’t reflect its values. People wouldn’t be baiting him into racial arguments at the flea market.
He finished the second belt, placed it in a plastic bag and zipped it closed.
“Maybe I’m too defensive. Maybe I’ve lived too long,” he said. “Years back, maybe I should have just been put down like a trained dog you can’t have in public.”
Since the rally, a friend of his named Ed Hood had tried many times to talk to McGraw about his defensiveness.
“We’ve been talking about this since March,” Hood told him one time when McGraw was again talking about why he had elbowed Jones. “There’s somebody with an attitude that can make you angry enough that you might want to fight them. But don’t do it. You got to let the talk go by you.”
“Eddie, I had a fear of what might happen next,” McGraw said. “I didn’t know what would mushroom. I didn’t know where it would go.”
“Yeah, that was your interpretation,” Hood said.
“If I had run into Jones on the street, I would have said, ‘Go on home, boy, before you get yourself hurt.’ I wouldn’t have hit him,” McGraw said. “But under the circumstances.”
“That public behavior is disappointing to you?”
“Yes, it is.”
“That people don’t act more orderly?”
“It’s a disgrace. . . . It was a situation way beyond decency.”
“It’s a misunderstanding is what it is.”
He now picked up the next thing on his to-do list, a leather band. He etched the name “Evans” into it and carved an intricate pattern. He painted the border in a rich red and put down his brush. “That’s a right cute little wristband,” he said.
He looked at his phone again. His attorney still hadn’t called. He looked at his list. All done. He looked at the clock. His day still had six more hours to go.
On the day of the court hearing, Jones and McGraw drove through a town that in the nine months since the Trump rally has found little public agreement over who was ultimately the true victim that night. They walked into a courtroom that was already filling with dozens of people — some black, some white, some supporters of McGraw, others Jones.
McGraw took off his cowboy hat and leather jacket, and as he was sitting in the first row, a man in a suit in front of the bench said “Quick Draw McGraw!” People around him began to laugh, and a bailiff said “Quick Draw!” and McGraw shifted in his seat and didn’t say anything. Jones took an open spot in the back, and neither one reacted to the other until the judge called the case. Jones stood, walked to the prosecutor’s table and clasped his hands behind his back. McGraw stood a few feet away at the defendant’s table. He was facing two misdemeanor charges of assault and battery and disorderly conduct. McGraw looked ashen and a little dazed, and when the judge asked how he would plead, his attorney said no contest as McGraw lowered his gaze.
“Does the victim wish to be heard?” the judge asked Jones.
Jones, who had yet to look at McGraw, thought for moment. “From the beginning, it even took place in front of the sheriffs, the way it was handled wasn’t right. He was allowed to go home,” he said. “I know he is not going to receive jail time, but at the same time I have a friend who is facing five years for what was, at the root of it, a fight. I just don’t understand that. I don’t agree.”
McGraw, who had looked at Jones the entire time he spoke, now glanced at the judge, who asked McGraw’s attorney whether he had anything to say.
“It needs to be stated by my client through me that Mr. McGraw’s actions were not racially motivated,” the lawyer said. McGraw shook his head. People in the audience began to chuckle and smirk at one another. “He wants the country and the United States to know it had nothing to do with race,” he continued, “and that this country needs to heal as it relates to racial tensions that have been generated as a result of this case.”
Jones listened and asked whether he could say more. “Not one time throughout this whole six months have I mentioned race,” he said. The crowd went silent. “As far as race, it’s not my concern. I got hit by a man, period.”
The judge asked McGraw whether he wanted to say something, too. “I’m extremely sorry this happened,” McGraw said, and when the judge told him to explain it to Jones, not him, he turned to Jones and took a step toward him. It was the closest they’d been to each other since the rally.
“This was between two men. You know what you did. And I know what I did. I’m not going to say you were wrong or I was wrong,” McGraw said. “You and I both know what occurred, and I hate it worse than anything else in the world.” He stepped closer to Jones and raised a finger. “We got caught up in a political mess today,” he said. His jaw began to tremble. “And you and me, we got to heal our country.”
“All right, man,” Jones said after a moment. He reached out to pat McGraw on the shoulder, and he seemed surprised by the contact. He put out his hand. Jones grasped it, and, as a few claps in the audience grew into an applause, the two men embraced.
The sentence McGraw received was one year probation, and after the judge was done and the case was over, McGraw had one more thing to say to Jones. “We’ve got to stick together,” he quietly told Jones. “We can’t let them come between us.” Then he walked toward a side exit and put on his cowboy hat, and Jones went in another direction, toward a friend who had been with him the night of the rally.
“It was a slap in the face, man,” the friend, Ronnie Rouse, told Jones. “What messed me up here was the guy didn’t apologize.”
“Yeah,” Jones said and nodded his head. “Yeah.”
“If it was me? Ninety days, five-year probation, $1,000 fine. It’s crazy,” Rouse said, and a few minutes later, standing outside with Jones, he looked back at the courthouse. “He really believes in how he acted. He’s just a stubborn old man.”
“It’s real life,” Jones said. “What you see is what you get.”
What he got when he returned to the trailer park that day were outraged messages and online comments. As news spread, more people started calling him a sellout for forgiving McGraw. They told him he was wrong to shake his hand, that he was wrong to hug him. But he had spent nine months thinking about McGraw and the Trump rally and believed, with the election weeks past, it was time to let it go. So when McGraw, now in his own trailer, unexpectedly phoned him the next day to see how he was doing and to thank him for his decency, Jones listened awhile and told him he appreciated the call.