“What’s the ‘do’ for?” a young black woman asked.
Council member Christopher Davis, 47, an African American Army veteran and pastor, noted the mix of black and white residents in the city: “I want to keep people together, number one, and move us forward.”
The activists pressed for a better answer. Davis grew frustrated.
“You guys want everything,” he said. “You guys want the world to capitulate.”
Fayetteville is the birthplace of George Floyd, whose May 25 death in the custody of Minneapolis police ignited national protests over police abuse and long-standing racial inequities. It is adjacent to Fort Bragg, whose naming in honor of a Confederate general is now spurring conflict in Washington.
And as protests have continued here, the city has also become home to a clash between the urgent demands of younger activists pushing for swift change and the careful pragmatism of their elders, conditioned by decades spent deliberately nudging Fayetteville and its residents to transform.
It is a generational and cultural division more than a racial one, seen elsewhere in recent weeks in places such as Atlanta, where African American Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms tore into young protesters and they responded by ignoring her pleas to stand down.
The divisions are not always predictable. In Fayetteville, many young activists have cared little about renaming Fort Bragg or what the city does with the Market House — even as a diverse coalition calls for it to be torn down — but they have become particularly incensed over the words painted on the street around the structure, which they say symbolize the overcautiousness of a council not wanting to offend.
The activists see their elected leaders, especially those who are black, as timid in the face of this historic moment, unnecessarily compromising on matters as simple but meaningful as a three-word slogan. They’re tired of words that to them sound empty, like “unity” and “task force.”
“Something that I have learned is that everybody who is African American is not truly African American,” said Myahtaeyarra Warren, 22, one of the black activists questioning council members in the parking lot. “A lot of people think: ‘Okay, well you’re black, so let me vote for you.’ Or, ‘Oh, you’re a Democrat, so let me vote for you.’ Or, ‘Oh, you’re black and a Democrat, that makes it even better.’ But I think we need to pay close attention not just to skin color but the things that they’re saying.”
Many of the older black elected officials see the demands of youth as contrary to the realities of a city tenuously balanced in matters of race. Up until late last year, the Fayetteville City Council was half white and half black in a city of 210,000 where about 42 percent of residents are black, 38 percent are white and 12 percent are Latino. Following the November election, the nonpartisan council now has just two white members — and eight black ones. To them, that progress confirms their more careful strategy.
Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin, the second African American to lead the city and a member of the council, said the activists don’t understand the need to avoid division.
“You have these kids that show up in the street demanding change in a system, and they point to the fact that you have this leadership, but systematic change will take a while,” said Colvin, 47. “The system will take some time to change. People’s hearts can’t be changed by us changing laws.”
Although the city and surrounding Cumberland County overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, many registered Democrats describe themselves as moderates or conservative Democrats. No Democratic candidate has yet to receive as many votes in the county as Barack Obama did in 2012. This year, North Carolina is a target for both President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, who hopes to flip the state Trump won in 2016.
Five days after Floyd was killed, hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown Fayetteville, which is dominated by the Market House. The two-story structure was constructed in 1832 with an open-air market on the ground floor and an enclosed town hall above. A placard near the market reads: “Occasionally, estate sales of small numbers of slaves occurred here.”
City officials have long been sensitive to its presence, and every time there is a national discussion about systemic racism, Fayetteville resumes its debate about what to do with the structure. A few years ago, the city removed the Market House from its logo and most of its marketing materials, and it is now removing it from the city’s seal.
At the protest, a few people lighted a small fire in the Market House that caused some damage. The mayor said he knew that his community would have to once again discuss what to do with the Market House — but now was not the time.
“It was very sensitive, and the last thing that I want to do is inflame any emotions on either side of that,” said Colvin, whose grandmother told him that his great-great-grandfather was sold at the Market House. “So I’ve intentionally kind of held that conversation until some of that died down.”
But then more than 120,000 people signed a petition calling for the demolition of the Market House. A diverse coalition of local religious leaders signed a letter calling for the same — forcing the formal conversation. The council has organized a review committee to study the issue and provide a recommendation.
“We’ll have to at some point try to come up with a compromise, a solution that doesn’t cause a divide in our community for several years,” Colvin said. “It’s going to be very difficult, and we have to be very strategic with how we do it.”
In late June, two weeks after thousands gathered to mourn Floyd at a memorial service in nearby Raeford, N.C., the council met and took up the question of painting messages of solidarity in yellow paint on downtown streets, as many larger cities have done.
While some members wanted to paint “Black Lives Matter,” others advocated for less-charged phrases like: “Equality now,” “End racism,” “One nation, one people” and “Choose love.”
Council member Johnny Dawkins, the only white man on the council and the son of Fayetteville’s longest-serving mayor, said he couldn’t vote for “Black Lives Matter.” He said he believes the organization was founded by Marxists. Yet, he said, the council needed “to show some type of willingness to acknowledge across this city that black lives matter.”
“I’m a praying man, so I prayed on it, and it came to me that I could say ‘Black lives do matter’ or ‘Black lives must matter,’ ” said Dawkins, 61, who plans to vote for Trump a second time this fall.
Davis, the black veteran and pastor, agreed with Dawkins’s reservations.
“I feel uncomfortable saying ‘Black lives matter,’ ” Davis said at the meeting. “I am down for ‘Black lives do matter.’ . . . I am upset that unity is not a part of what we’re doing because at the end of the day, we’re a city that’s half one and half the other.” (He did not respond to later requests for comment.)
Several other black members said that while they would prefer “Black Lives Matter” — which was also the preference of leaders of the downtown district — they didn’t have a problem with adding “do.” That wording was approved unanimously.
Council member Tisha Waddell, who is black, said she was “amenable” to others’ desires to “delineate from the movement.”
“I hope that we will make this move, and we will move on,” said Waddell, 41.
Council member Shakeyla Ingram, a 29-year-old black woman elected in November, had been pushing for “Black Lives Matter” behind the scenes and didn’t understand why her fellow members were falling in line behind the “do” option. She debated voting against the watered-down expression.
“But then I said: ‘Do’ means something. . . . When you say ‘Black lives do matter,’ you emphasize that, you make sure that it has meaning,” she said after the meeting. “So that’s why I was able to support it.”
It was late in the night when members walked to the parking lot, where a few activists were waiting. Ingram and Davis stopped to answer questions while armed police officers watched.
After their conversation about the wording to be painted near the Market House, Mario Benavente, a 30-year-old Latino law school student, asked Davis how council members could stand by as the police arrested protesters for failing to disperse — throwing into the legal system more people of color, including the black activist standing next to him.
“When a police officer asks you to leave an area, you have to obey,” Davis said.
“So Rosa Parks should have gotten up?” Benavente responded.
Davis countered that Martin Luther King Jr. “got arrested for his cause.”
Benavente noted that back then, King “had the worse kind of representatives elected, he had the worst kinds of juries, worse kind of judges — we don’t live in that age anymore.”
“You need law, order, and you need a smooth hand to transition this,” Davis said. “I’m not for breaking the law. I’m not going to support that.”
The conversation turned to police reforms. Davis said that the city’s police department is already better than most and that change takes time.
“Policy ain’t like a microwave — I know a lot of you are microwave kids. I’m 47, okay? It don’t happen overnight,” he said. “It takes time to develop policy, it takes time to vet policy.”
As the activists pushed him to say how much time, a heavy rain ended the conversation.
A week later, volunteers painted the words on the circular roadway that surrounds the Market House: “Black lives do matter.”