ROCKY MOUNT, Va. — A photograph of two local police officers popped up on Bridgette Craighead’s cellphone after a long day at her beauty shop. The two men peering out at her from the selfie image had befriended her while on duty at a Black Lives Matter protest she led months before. They stood beside her and held her homemade signs that read “Silence is Violence” and “No Justice. No Peace.”
Now, there they were, proudly posing inside the nation’s Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection — amid a mob of people, many bearing symbols of white supremacy as they sought to overturn the presidential election to keep Donald Trump in power.
What happened next is inflaming a culture war in this southwest Virginia town of 5,000 people, a microcosm of the schisms across America as explosive disagreements over the election, race and the role of police are fracturing relationships between relatives, friends and neighbors.
People are quarreling over who was treated with kid gloves — Black Lives Matter protesters or the largely White throng that stormed the U.S. Capitol. They are arguing over the fairness of the presidential election and whether the former president should still be in office. And there’s a simmering standoff between activists such as Craighead who see this as the moment to redress injustices, and those who believe the activists are fomenting racial tensions by pushing too hard and too fast. Some see no need for change, no problem to be solved.
Minutes after receiving the photo of the officers in a private Facebook message three days after the riot, Craighead, who is Black and the mother of a young son, made it public on her own page.
“I can’t believe someone I trusted was a part of that animalistic behavior at the CAPITOL!!” wrote Craighead, who is 30.
Jeff Bailey, who is White and has an auto-detailing shop kitty-corner from Craighead’s beauty shop, reposted the photo the next day with his own message, directed at the two officers.
“Glad to see someone with a backbone in our town of Rocky Mount! Keep standing up for yourselves and us and we stand with and for you!!!” said Bailey, who — like Craighead — was born and raised in Rocky Mount, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
People in the community jumped in, taking sides. Some said the officers betrayed their sworn oaths and should be fired. Others said they understood why Thomas “T.J.” Robertson and Jacob Fracker were at the Capitol that day and wanted them to remain on the job.
As the online fighting ensued, Craighead staged a protest with about a dozen people outside a town council meeting, calling on its members to fire Robertson and Fracker. Her group was met by counterprotesters, several wearing sweatshirts and other gear with symbols of a far-right, anti-government militia-style group called the Three Percenters.
Bailey didn’t attend, but he launched his own counterprotest.
He lined a fence at his business — the one facing Craighead’s beauty shop — with a row of flags, including a pro-police Blue Lives Matter flag and a Trump flag, which still flap in the breeze in Rocky Mount’s historic downtown.
“They are ex-military,” Bailey, 47, said of the officers. “They were taught to fight for their country against any enemy, foreign or domestic. The election was stolen. They did what they were taught to do. Bridgette shouldn’t stick her nose in other people’s business. These are family men.”
The town of Rocky Mount, which is the seat of Franklin County, placed Robertson and Fracker on paid leave a day after Craighead posted the photo, then fired them two weeks later. They are two of five sworn law enforcement officers charged by the U.S. attorney’s office with breaching the Capitol, and among 36 former and current service members who have been charged. Fracker was with the Marine Corps and served in Afghanistan. Robertson was with the Army and served in Iraq.
Both declined to comment, citing their pending court case on federal charges, which include one count each of “knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority” and one count each of “violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds.”
In Facebook posts, Robertson and Fracker said they did nothing wrong and did not engage in any acts of violence. Capitol Police officers invited them in, they said, and offered them water.
“They were part of something where people died,” Craighead said in an interview. “They were at our Black Lives Matter protest to make sure it was peaceful, but then they joined in something that was anything but peaceful. It felt like a slap in the face.”
She understands that her protests and social media posts have pushed to the surface racial and political tensions that have long gripped Rocky Mount — a three-hour drive from Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy.
“They hate me for it,” Craighead said. “They think I’m stirring things up, that there weren’t any issues until I brought them up. They are there. They don’t want to see them.”
It was video last year of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck as Floyd cried for his mother that prompted some Black people, like Craighead, to start speaking anew about injustices they saw in Rocky Mount.
It made many in the community uncomfortable, including some older Black residents who feared a backlash.
Macarthur McGhee, 52, who is Black and has spent his life in Rocky Mount, said rumors started to spread that White people were planning to “snatch up” Black children if things didn’t “settle down.”
It reminded him of when he was at Franklin County High School in the late ’70s. The original television series about slavery, “Roots,” had just come out, he said, and White students started freely calling Black students the “N word.” Back then, he said, they didn’t fight it. They waited for it to pass, believing the racial strife would subside more quickly if they held their tongues.
That’s not what has happened this time around.
“I don’t want to see a race war,” McGhee said, standing in a parking lot that separates Craighead’s and Bailey’s shops. “I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Craighead led the town’s first Black Lives Matter protest last June, a week after the video went viral of Chauvin hunched over Floyd’s body.
It was held at the farmers market, and Robertson and Fracker were captured on video and in photos dancing with her, holding up her homemade protest signs in what seemed like a show of unity.
Some people honked their car horns in support as they passed by. Others rolled down their windows and glared. But with the officers and her 4-year-old son, Bronsyn, beside her, Craighead saw a new future for herself, the town and the region.
“I felt like Franklin County was an example of how the world needs to be,” she said. “For me, this was epic.”
A few weeks after Craighead’s first rally, the sole Black member of the local school board saw her effort to ban students from wearing clothing with displays of the Confederate flag renewed by a new White board member. Penny Blue had tried and failed to pass the ban in 2019.
“There is always a tipping point,” Blue said in an interview from a booth inside the Hub restaurant, a few yards from a boarded-up hole in the back wall through which Black residents once were required to pick up food orders.
“This tipping point was George Floyd,” she continued. “That’s the spark, and things have taken off. We are in the moment. And, as always, the power structure is going to try to maintain that power.”
The school board voted 6 to 0 in favor of the Confederate flag dress-code ban in early June, with two members abstaining.
At the same time, down the street at the Franklin County Board of Supervisors, a debate was raging over a citizens’ petition that sought to remove a Confederate statue in front of the downtown county courthouse.
Aaron Hodges — founder of a local militia-style group that had started to show up at Black Lives Matter events in town — addressed the supervisors a week after the school board vote, saying he was there to “give you guys more of a warning.”
Hodges said he was seeing “a lot of mistakes being made.”
“If you keep giving in and if you keep feeding the beast, when it comes for you, don’t complain,” Hodges said. “Me and my people, we are going to be just fine. If you want to keep on doing this, you go right ahead giving in.”
Hodges, who was in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps with Fracker in high school, did not respond to requests for comment.
Craighead held several protests in front of the statue of the Confederate soldier with dozens joining in each time. Again came the sounds of horns honked in support, as well as glares — and this time epithets.
In late July, county supervisors said that before they took a public stand on the Confederate monument, they would ask county voters to weigh in. They placed a referendum on the November ballot in a county where about 8 percent of registered voters are Black. (Voter registration among Black people in Rocky Mount is higher, about 22 percent.)
The results — in both the county and Rocky Mount — were not close.
Two-thirds said they wanted to keep the statue at the courthouse.
Two-thirds wanted Trump to remain president.
In the final months of the presidential campaign, Jackie and Chris Fields started flying three flags on the 20-foot-tall pole in the front yard of their home in Rocky Mount.
An American flag at the top, followed by a Trump flag and then a Confederate flag.
A Rocky Mount police officer came by Jackie’s job at the Dollar General, located next door to their home, and told her the flags have “caused a lot of controversy in this town” and were making the family a target.
The couple worried that Craighead and other Black Lives Matter members might protest in front of their home, but the two sides never talked, and no faceoff ever happened. To Chris Fields, the Confederate flag is about having “Southern pride.” He does not equate it with the Confederacy’s fight to preserve slavery.
The Fieldses say they are confused about why — more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War — abolishing Confederate symbols from public buildings has become a hot-button issue in their small town. They understand why the officers’ presence in the Capitol on Jan. 6 is politically charged but do not see why it is also racially charged.
Regardless, they believe the younger generation is responsible for making it so.
“People like Bridgette Craighead are making the divide,” Jackie said. “People around here just want to get along. These younger people, they are so wrapped up in social media, they are taking it too far.”
Joe Stanley, a White local activist who secured the photo of Robertson and Fracker that Craighead ultimately posted, said the reason people are bucking Craighead’s and Blue’s efforts is the same today as it was generations ago, when Macarthur McGhee said he and his Black classmates let insults pass in the hope that racial strife would subside.
To explain, he sings lines from a song, “Mississippi Goddam,” by the singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone: “All I want is equality/ For my sister my brother my people and me … I don’t trust you any more/ You keep on saying, ‘Go slow!’”
As he sings, Stanley is driving by Franklin County High School, now free of Confederate symbols. Yet an unloaded 9mm gun is in the back seat of his beat-up BMW, a weapon given to him by a friend for protection about a month ago. He’s received veiled threats in response to public records requests he’s filed with the town government and the police department.
“They tell you, it will happen in all due time,” he said. “If it’s meant to happen, it will happen. Don’t rush. Don’t stir things up. They try to encourage you to not make waves, to not try to achieve the change.”
Yet neither the pace of change nor the need for it finds agreement here.
The Fieldses and Bailey said they don’t believe racism exists in Rocky Mount. Racial and political tensions would subside, they say — if Craighead would stop “stirring things up.”
“She had no reason to jump on those officers. She should have just left them alone,” said Bailey, who has concluded that Robertson and Fracker should not have entered the Capitol, but who also believes that they should not have been fired until the federal case is resolved. The two have pleaded not guilty, and no trial date has been set.
“She’s a troublemaker,” he said. “If people like her would stop talking about racism, there wouldn’t be any racism.”
Craighead is not slowing down, not going silent. She has her eye on much more for herself and her young son, whose safety she worries about if Rocky Mount does not change.
She walked to Bailey’s auto-detailing shop recently to talk about their dueling Facebook posts, but they failed to reach any common ground. They both acknowledge the encounter quickly devolved into an argument over who was to blame for the strain between the two of them, for a conflict that has bled out into the town. After a few minutes, Craighead walked away.
Bailey thinks it’s about his flags: “She wants to have a voice in this community. Well, those flags are my voice. I get to have a voice, too.”
Craighead said the flags are not the issue.
“What bothered me was when he went on Facebook and said I was a cop hater and I was a veteran hater. That is what got under my skin,” she said. “I support and love all my officers and military veterans. What I don’t support is what happened on January 6th.”
A few Saturdays ago, standing in front of her beauty shop as Bailey looked on from his flag-lined fence, Craighead gathered enough signatures to get on the ballot: She’s announced a run for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. She acknowledges that some may see her as just some “small-town cosmetologist” and may believe her effort is “a joke.”
“I know protesting wasn’t going to cut it. In order to really create change, I have to be in there, inside the walls where all the laws are being written,” she said. “I want to make sure that the laws are for everyone. Not for the benefit of some people and the suppression of others. I want to make sure they are fair for my son.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.