Thursday, April 18, 2024

Greg Doucette finds the spotlight in Silent Sam flap

Greg Doucette thrust himself into controversy by protesting the UNC System’s $2.5 million payment to a group honoring Confederate veterans that wanted possession of Chapel Hill’s Silent Sam monument.

By Mike MacMillan

Greg Doucette rolls up to a 2 p.m. meeting right on time, straddling two parking places with his burnt orange “hot lava” 2016 Toyota RAV4 SE. That’s no problem on this early April afternoon: Thanks to the COVID-19 virus, there are four cars in a lot that could easily hold 50.

It gives the impression that the Durham attorney is planning for a quick getaway, which may be the case. He’s angered more than a few people for his effort to reclaim a $2.5 million settlement paid by the University of North Carolina System to the Sons of Confederate Veterans for the controversial Silent Sam monument, which sat in a prominent UNC Chapel Hill site for more than a century. He mentions a hearing at the Chatham County courthouse in February where he represented an anti-Confederate protestor charged with misdemeanors related to the Silent Sam ruckus. As he returned to his car, a member of the veterans’ group parked his vehicle to block Doucette’s exit. The lawyer reached for his 9mm pistol, unsure what would happen next. Fortunately, another driver in the line backed up, giving him a work around.

Such is Doucette’s life these days, a curious mix of pro bono social justice work, lots of Twitter rants and a legal practice built mostly around small business disputes and defending low-level drug offenders. The commerce side is slow as the courts have been mostly closed. But the Silent Sam controversy rolls on, fueled by various decisions by the UNC System Board of Governors.

Doucette, 39, rents an office in the former Durham public library on East Main Street, next to First Presbyterian Church. It’s a remnant of an older Durham, set back from the street and built in a diminutive Greek revival style with six Ionic columns supporting a modest portico. Going in, you expect to find languidly turning ceiling fans and lawyers lolling around in seersucker suits. Atticus Finch would be right at home.

Doucette has a space in the front. He takes a seat behind his desk. To his right is a round conference table heaped with folders. The walls are covered with photos, diplomas and awards.

A native of Virginia Beach, Va., Doucette enrolled as an undergraduate at N.C. State University in 1998. Two years later, he ran out of money and dropped out. He was homeless for a time, sleeping in his car and spending some nights in the N.C. State library. He loaded trucks for UPS and eventually landed a job as an administrative assistant at the state bar. In 2005, he went back to school and began an ascent that saw him graduate from N.C. State and later, N.C. Central University’s law school.

That’s where his hyperactive sense of indignation developed, he says. While on outings around Durham, he recalls seeing how police treated his black classmates much differently than they treated him.

Doucette began his law practice by defending homeowners against foreclosure in eastern North Carolina. There was plenty of work during the years following the real estate crash, but it wasn’t especially remunerative at $150 a case. Defending people accused of drug offenses proved more lucrative. His practice was jump-started by the successful defense of a walk-in client, a N.C. Central student who described himself before the trial as “Durham’s weed man.” He became a great source of referrals, and Doucette’s practice added two assistants, who no longer work with him.

In his spare time, Doucette began representing individuals caught up in legal proceedings around the “Moral Monday” protests against Republican leadership at the Raleigh capitol building. He says he did a hundred such cases at no charge on behalf of people criticizing former Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP lawmakers. Doucette himself was a registered Republican until the day after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, when he changed to an independent status. “I’ve always been philosophically conservative. I have a very strong skepticism of the government,” he says.

His indignation went into overdrive when he learned that the UNC System offered a $2.5 million payment to the Confederate group last November to settle a lawsuit over the disposition of the Silent Sam statue. The bronze figure, donated to UNC by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913, sparked minimal criticism for generations until opposition to such monuments accelerated in recent years. Protestors toppled the statue in August 2018 and, five months later, former UNC Chancellor Carol Folt ordered the late-night, early-morning removal of its pedestal, hoping to avoid potential violence. She simultaneously resigned and is now president of the University of Southern California.

UNC issued a press release on the payment a day before Thanksgiving. Doucette helped blow the lid off that settlement by researched the legal record and posted a leaked email online from the head of the Confederate group bragging about outsmarting the UNC governors.

Less than a month after the Thanksgiving surprise, five UNC board members disclosed that the university had given the same group $74,999 to buy rights to the statue from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. One dollar more and the school would have required approval from N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein.

Doucette says the explanation offered — that the deal was made to keep the Confederate group from continually disrupting the campus — would only make sense if they had a history of protests. But they only protested once and that was after the statue was pulled down.

His theory is that the board and its attorneys essentially collaborated with the group to gin up a lawsuit that would allow Silent Sam to be removed from campus. UNC leaders say that isn’t true. A judge in February voided the settlement and ordered the money to be returned to UNC. The statue’s future remains unclear.

Doucette’s increasing profile owes much to his love for Twitter: He has issued more than 183,000 tweets and has about 31,500 followers. He has provided lots of information about the Silent Sam case, including offering some journalists a list of the Confederate group’s 27,000 members; none have published it. He’s also tweeted steady criticism of what he calls the “shamelessly corrupt” board of governors. D

urham’s left-leaning IndyWeek newspaper described his use of Twitter as “exhausting.”

The tweets have “probably been a net negative” for his legal practice, he says, noting that he warns clients seeking a jury trial that his online comments may disturb jurors. But his tweets have helped spotlight what he calls public corruption issues and raise money for favorite causes, including nearly $10,000 for a local food bank.

What’s next for Doucette? Social justice is an evergreen; there will always be new cases to pursue. Not so much marijuana defense, where the trend toward legalization threatens to undermine Doucette’s practice. COVID-19-related business litigation is one possibility, he says. Whatever happens, he has demonstrated his resourcefulness before. Don’t expect him to disappear.

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