On social media, a theory persists about North Carolina power outage

While police have not identified suspects nor provided a motive for the “targeted attacks” on two energy substations in North Carolina over the weekend, one theory has quickly taken hold on social media: The outages were intended to shut down a drag performance.

The theory, which sprouted up almost immediately after the power went out in Moore County around 8:15 p.m. on Saturday, came after weeks of threats and hours of protests from far-right activists against the “Downtown Divas” drag show set to take place at Sunrise Theater that night. And it was seemingly buoyed by a cryptic post from a vehement opponent of drag performances.

Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields has said a motive for the attack — which initially plunged 45,000 people into darkness — is still undetermined as local authorities and the FBI investigate. But he has not ruled out a possible connection.

“We are looking at everything right now,” Fields said Monday. “There’s absolutely nothing off the table. We’re investigating all leads. We have cooperation from federal and state law enforcement agencies that are assisting us with this and there’s no stone that we’re leaving unturned.”

In the meantime, speculation continues.

A cryptic post

“The power is out in Moore County and I know why,” Emily Rainey wrote on her Facebook page less than an hour after the electricity failed. Fields has said a suspect or suspects drove up to two Duke Energy power substations after breaching a gate in one station, and opened fire, disabling them and resulting in a blackout that could last through Thursday.

Rainey, a former U.S. Army psychological operations officer, who left the military while under investigation for leading a group of people from North Carolina to the Capitol on Jan 6, 2021, has been a vocal opponent of drag shows in the state. 

In a follow-up post, along with a photograph of the Sunrise Theater, she wrote: “God will not be mocked.”

Rainey did not respond to a request for comment.

Her post has been shared on Facebook more than 200 times and generated nearly 2,000 comments since it was made. Screenshots of it also circulated on Twitter, where they generated outrage and fueled the theory that the drag show — which Rainey, a day before, had called on people to protest — and the power outage were connected.

“I 100% believe that this was motivated by anti LGBTQ animus,” said Charlotte Clymer, an LGBTQ activist who shared Rainey’s initial post on Twitter and eventually wrote a blog post about it and the outage. Clymer said she very quickly “put together the dots.” 

Clymer said a friend whose parents live in Moore County reached out after the outage and told her they believed it was connected to the protests surrounding the drag show. They told her the climate had been tense in the area and also gave her names of people who were outspoken opponents of the show, including Rainey. 

After power outages, the streets of downtown Southern Pines are empty and dark, Dec. 4, 2022. Dt southern pines 05
The streets are empty and dark after power outages in downtown Southern Pines, N.C., on Sunday.Taylor Shook / USA Today Network

Clymer saw Rainey’s posts and began speaking with other people in Moore County, she said. 

“Everyone in the community knew this was going on there and the queer community was very well aware of this. When the power went out, even the attendees of the drag show had a feeling that this was an anti-LGBTQ thing,” she said. 

“What’s abundantly clear is that these substations were destroyed by firearms, and it just happened to be at the time that the drag show would occur, and it just happened that the person who was leading the protests against the drag show quite literally implied that it was due to the drag show being protested and that this violent action took place to cancel the drag show,” she said. “This is much more than a coincidence,” she said. 

The speculation comes less than a month after a gunman opened fire in the LGBTQ-friendly Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing five people and injuring more than a dozen others. A motive in that shooting remains unclear.

The Department of Homeland Security, in a terrorism advisory bulletin issued Nov. 30, raised concerns about potential threats to the LGBTQ, Jewish and migrant communities from violent extremists in the country. The bulletin said some extremists have been inspired by recent attacks, including the shooting at Club Q.

“There are a couple of layers here. The first one is the the larger layer that’s going on in the country, there has been a drastic increase in anti LGBTQ and specifically anti trans violence and discrimination all year from state legislatures to federal Republican officials, to conservative groups who seemed to tirelessly go after LGBTQ people, but specifically trans people,” Clymer said. “And because they think drag queens are trans — they kind of conflate the two — drag queens have become this focal point for propaganda that seems to imply or seems to state outright that they’re grooming children or are essentially preying on children.”

That has catalyzed protests by “well armed” groups like the Proud Boys who will “show up to drag shows and that basically exercises a direct action of intimidation against attendees. So much so that many shows have been canceled,” Clymer said.

After Clymer posted her theory, she said others began reacting with the same suspicions.

On her Facebook page, Rainey said she was questioned by law enforcement. 

“Sorry they wasted their time. I told them that God works in mysterious ways and is responsible for the outage. I used the opportunity to tell them about the immoral drag show and the blasphemies screamed by its supporters.”

At a news conference Sunday, Fields said Rainey’s posts were “false,” and that authorities spoke with her and determined her social posts to be not credible, according to WRAL–TV. 

“I would ask that our citizens try to be as patient as possible. We’re working literally around the clock to solve this and until we’re able to report back to the public, I would ask that they not assume anything,” Fields said in an interview Monday.

Jared Holt, a political extremism expert at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, also cautioned against drawing conclusions too soon. 

“LGBTQ communities are certainly valid and have more than enough reason to fear that they will be the target of harassment, violence or worse in today’s social climate,” he said. “But by jumping ahead and making these assertions on something that is deadly serious like attacking critical infrastructures, I’m concerned about instilling fear into a community that is already on edge when the facts are uncertain. We’re drawing all kinds of lines between dots, but ultimately, none of that is hard proof. It’s circumstantial.”

Weeks of threats

The “Downtown Divas” drag show had been the target of protests and criticism by far-right activists for weeks, according to the Fayetteville Observer. 

Naomi Dix, a Durham-based drag artist, produced and hosted the show and said for weeks she got death threats and backlash from right-wing Christian groups about the show. Dix said Rainey was also part of those threats. 

Kevin Dietzel, executive director of Sunrise Theater, said the venue was also targeted on social media and with phone calls. 

“It was mostly people implying rather than outright stating anything on social media. We had a few phone calls with people using slurs or just heavy breathing,” he said. Much of the backlash came when the event was advertised as an all-ages show, he said, so the venue raised the age limit to 18.

“For many that seemed like enough but we still had some planning to protest and some coming to counter protest,” he said.

On the day of the show, protesters and counter protestors gathered outside of the theater with about 40 members of Rainey’s faction meeting 200 counter protestors, according to the Fayetteville Observer. 

Dietzel said both the protest and counter-protest were peaceful, and that police kept the situation under control.

About an hour after the show began the power went out but Dix said she kept it going another 45 minutes with audience members illuminating the theater with cellphone lights. After that, she made the decision to cancel the rest of the show to “ensure everyone’s safety” during the outage. 

Both Dietzel and Dix said they cannot speculate as to whether there is a connection between the power station attacks and the show. 

“An investigation is being held right now and I have no doubt that the queer community and that the residents of Moore County will hold those who are responsible for that attack responsible,” Dix said. 

Dix added, however, that she wouldn’t be surprised if the attack ended up being connected to the show.

“It would not surprise me if anything was geared or focused on creating issues for the queer community. I’m not going to say specifically for the drag show because we are more than just a drag show, we are a community of people, so it would not surprise me if the attack was focused on the queer community.”

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