Voters in Wake and Mecklenburg counties turned out sheriffs who had enthusiastically pursued partnerships with federal immigration enforcement through 287(g) agreements, but in Alamance County they elected Sheriff Terry Johnson to a fifth term.
Alamance County earned a singularly notorious reputation for harsh and racist treatment of immigrants during its previous 287(g) partnership with Immigration Customs Enforcement, which ended in 2012, when the Obama Justice Department sued Sheriff Johnson for racial profiling. The federal trial produced evidence that Latinos were four to 10 times more likely to be citied in Alamance County traffic stops than non-Latinos, and that both sheriff’s deputies and federal agents in the Alamance County Jail used slurs like “wetback,” “beaner,” “taco” and “Mexicant.” On one occasion, a supervising detention officer sent subordinates a video game in which players shoot at people crossing a river who are labeled “Mexican nationalists,” “drug smugglers” and, in the case of women, “breeders.” A federal judge ultimately dismissed the case against Johnson, while calling the ethnic slurs “reprehensible.”
Far from shunning Johnson over his previous run-in with the federal government, the Department of Homeland Security under Trump has actively courted Johnson to sign a new 287(g) agreement. On Monday night, Sheriff Johnson had a spot on the agenda at the county commissioners meeting to talk about “current crime trends & increased calls for service.” Siembra NC and Down Home North Carolina mobilized about 40 members and supporters to tell commissioners they don’t want to see the jail turned into a de facto ICE holding facility.
Based on seemingly nothing, a rumor started circulating over the weekend that leftists would use the “No ICE Jail in Alamance” action as an opportunity to tear down the Confederate monument in front of the Historic Courthouse where the commissioners were meeting. Barry Brown, a member of the neo-Confederate group Taking Back Alamance County, or ACTBAC, who was convicted misdemeanor simple assault charge for punching an antiracist protester in Chapel Hill in late August, spread the rumor on his Facebook page on Nov. 16, adding, “My source is very reliable!”
Early Sunday morning, Michael Thompson, a local bail bondsman who is active with the Constitutional Patriots of North Carolina militia posted on his Facebook page: “Need as many as you can send to Graham NC on Monday night. Protesters expected to attempt a statue tear-down in downtown Graham and also expected to storm the Alamance detention center to protest against ICE.” Around noon on Monday, Thompson partially walked his statement back, writing, “We have heard no real threat of anything of anyone with this agenda [sic].” He asked monument supporters to not display flags and to “stay far into the shadows as possible.”
When I arrived at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, I found a half dozen antifascist activists, circling Court Square on foot, as clumps of Graham police officers periodically ordered them to “keep moving.” The antifascists, along with a group of official marshals dressed in orange vests, planned to escort the anti-ICE protesters from the courthouse to a meeting hall, and then to make sure they got back to their cars safely. The atmosphere outside the county commissioners meeting was electric with menace.
“Y’all better take y’all’s ass back home,” a man growled from a passing vehicle at the antifascists. Later, a man dressed in a Harley Davidson sweatshirt and a backwards cap approached the group, saying, “How you doing, you piece of shit? Where’s your badasses? I want your badasses.”
When Michael Thompson approached the antifascists, he extended a hand to greet Mitchell Fryer, an antifascist with a history of involvement with Redneck Revolt.
“We’re on different sides, but we’re cool with each other,” Thompson told a police officer who was moving in to intervene.
Asked about the rumored statue tear-down, Fryer told Thompson: “We have zero intention.”
“We thought this was gonna be a shitshow,” Thompson said.
Fryer said, “We want to keep this tamped down.”
Around 8:30 p.m., members of Siembra NC, Down Home North Carolina and their supporters stood up and walked out on Sheriff Johnson’s presentation. They marched two blocks north on North Main Street, chanting, “Fists up, ICE down!” joined by the official marshals and antifascists. The anti-ICE protesters converged in the second floor of the Cooperative, a hip co-working space with unfinished wood, for an alternative presentation on immigration enforcement.
“Now is the time we need to be organized more than ever,” Laura Garduño Garcia, an organizer with Siembra NC, told the majority Latinx group. “We are here to stay. This is our home, and we will protect one another.”
After the meeting, the marshals and antifascist activists escorted people back to their cars in pairs. An elderly African-American woman turned to one of the antifascists just before she got into her car.
“This is just the beginning, isn’t it?” she said.
It was hard to tell whether she saw a promise ahead or an abyss.