A Black Lives Matter protester says Stewart County Sheriff’s Office in Tennessee liked Facebook comments threatening and accusing him of vandalism.
Kalub Steptoe stood outside the county courthouse last week with a sign that read, “Black Lives Matter Made U Say It,” on one side and, “No Justice No Peace” on the other. He said he peacefully protested for a couple of hours before going home. That night, two individuals spray-painted a Confederate monument at Fort Donelson National Battlefield in Stewart County.
Steptoe said he woke up the next morning and saw pictures of the vandalism on Facebook. The monument was covered with phrases like, ‘End White Silence’ and, ‘Racism Lives Here.’ Steptoe said he was accused of the vandalism on social media by Stewart County residents and people outside the county.
“I was accused all day on Facebook by residents and people outside of that town that I had to have been the one that did it, the only one that was standing there holding the sign,” Steptoe said.
The National Park Service is investigating the vandalism and released the surveillance footage that showed two people wearing hoodies and a backpack.
Steptoe said someone on Facebook commented that he had a backpack while he was protesting. He said he wasn’t wearing a backpack and did not have one in the vicinity.
“But the police department went ahead and liked that and then when I had let someone know and then they went and checked the original source, the police department had retracted those likes,” he said. “I guess they got wind because my brothers and everybody were upset and I guess they got wind that we were talking about them liking the comments so they retracted those likes.”
Abagale Oldham is from Stewart County and said the sheriff’s office liked a Facebook comment about having a “private meeting” with the people who vandalized the monument.
The author of the comment later in the thread said he would “let everyone who wants to take a turn ‘teaching’ them [the vandalizers] after I get done” and felt “like a stoning is too good for them.”
Steptoe said he thinks the reason why people were so quick to connect him to the vandalism is because he is black and was holding the black lives matter sign, and the incident happened the same day he protested.
“I hate that it happened that day too. Because it happened that day, it took away from my message and then all of the attention got turned towards this. It’s just upsetting,” he said.
Dover Police Department Chief Dennis Honholt in a Facebook post cautioned people against jumping to conclusions in the Fort Donelson vandalism.
“I would like to caution everyone NOT to jump to conclusions. Hopefully we can all think of examples in the past where emotion has pushed people to make an assumption that was incorrect. True investigation operates on the collection of facts, which is why opinion, hearsay, or conjecture are not used or admissible as evidence. This act has clearly sparked emotion and was without a doubt, a cowardly thing to do but it is not cause for people to turn on each other or make baseless accusations.”
Honholt said the post was made at the request of the National Park Service and was a response to the “general climate of society today where every time something comes out on social media people start throwing in opinions.”
Honholt said he had seen some comments accusing Steptoe of vandalising the statue. He said he did not review very many of the comments and had not, at the time, seen any comments regarding Steptoe. He said the comments were brought to his attention shortly after he made the post.
Honholt said he wanted to caution people against racing to conclusions because “unfortunately with social media people can be somewhat damaged just by an accusation.”
“It’s been my experience that many people often times hiding behind fake identities, it’s a good way to target somebody that has nothing to do with anything and right now, I’ll tell you right up front, we have--and as far as I know the National Park Service has--no reason to believe he had anything to do with it or anybody else who may or may not have been pointed out on there,” Honholt said.
Honholt said he does not believe that the vandalism has caused division in the community.
“I can’t speak for anywhere else. Nationwide there appears there’s a lot of division but here in Dover, everybody’s pretty much the same as they were the day before and the day before that,” he said. “Everybody kind of minds their own business and goes through day-to-day activities.”
Steptoe said he suspects someone vandalised the statue to discredit him.
“It’s just upsetting because I think it’s really just because I’m black and I think they… I think somebody did it to basically just set me up. Just to say look: this is what they bring when they come here and they do this and they hold their signs up. And this is what people were saying and they’re bringing this to our town. Keep it out of our town. You’re in the wrong place,” he said.
Steptoe said when black people speak up, others try to deflect from their message and “brush racism under the rug.”
“It’s like, ‘Oh, here comes the looting and here comes all this.’ And that’s not fair because we’re not doing that and this is a prime example of why because I come to a town and hold up a sign,” he said.
Steptoe said there’s a distinction between how he was treated while protesting for ‘Black Lives Matter’ and how James Hart, a man who carries a ‘Equal Rights For Whites’ sign, is treated.
“People allow him to go stand out there and they don’t make an uproar about it but the moment that I come out there with my black lives matter sign, this is what happens...this guy’s stood out here for years and the police protect him, let nobody say anything to him. But then I have to explain myself and have to explain why I’m standing out there and why did I do this. ‘Do you really have a reason to go out there and stand with this sign?’ and it’s like, do you ask him these questions? I don’t think they do,” he said.
Steptoe said he had to fight for his right to say ‘Black Lives Matter.’ He said people didn’t want him there.
“They didn’t want me to show that message and they didn’t want their kids to have to see that and explain why is he is doing that...They’re trying so hard to get me to stay away from them,” he said.
Steptoe said people would stop and cuss at him while he was protesting. He said the police saw what was happening and didn’t do anything. He said a couple of police took pictures of him and watched.
“They didn’t come in and try to stop those people from yelling and cussing at me...There were a couple people there that would honk their horn at the people and make them leave. It had to end up being a couple of citizens to move them out of the way and not the police,” he said.
Steptoe tried to organize another protest in front of the courthouse. In the event description on Facebook, he wrote the event would be a “100% PEACEFUL PROTEST.” He said he called Stewart County Mayor Robin Brandon for the rules on organizing the protest.
“Basically he was like ‘Well, I’m not for sure on that’ and ‘It’s up to the sheriff’s department’ and basically he was telling me what I needed to put on the signs and the signs needed to say ‘peaceful’,” Steptoe said.
Steptoe said Brandon also denied there being racism in the county and questioned him about the vandalism.
“He started asking me questions like if I had anything to do with it or do I know anybody that did it? Are these rumors true? And all this. Every time I talked to him he kept asking those questions.”
Steptoe said he saw that the Stewart County Sheriff’s Office was “liking comments that were threats against me and also comments that were accusing me” on the day of the scheduled protest. He said he doesn’t feel safe in the county.
“To see them liking the threatening comments, like hanging and waterboarding and all kinds of stuff. I don’t feel safe. I feel like they would let someone come to sweep me off of that corner and take me away and wouldn’t say anything,” he said.
Steptoe said people, including himself, get harassed by police when driving through Stewart County. He said he’s been pulled over and accused of being a drug lord. When going through trial in the county, Steptoe said his lawyers told him to “cut his hair and look less black” because “they would use that against me.”
Steptoe lives in Clarksville, Tennessee but went to school and has family in Stewart County. He said racism lies in the county and the first time he was exposed to racism was “in this town.” He said he went to protest in Dover because there are people just like him there that are “going through this just like I am.”
“We have to focus on the small towns too because they’re part of our justice system, they’re part of our kids growing up,” Steptoe said. “They get into the school system, everything, they’re teaching our kids stuff like this. And they try to keep it out of their town. They try to keep our movement out of our town so it doesn’t get exposed and they can keep doing what they’re doing in their smalltown.”
WKMS has reached out to Stewart County Sheriff’s Office for comment but has not received a response.