The Rev. Walter Allison (left) and the Rev. Gregory Drumwright protest against racism in downtown Graham on July 4. (photo by Jordan Green)
A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city of Graham and the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office from enforcing the city’s restrictive protest ordinance against antiracist demonstrators involved in ongoing protests against the Confederate monument in front of the Historical Courthouse.
The order signed by US District Court Judge Catherine Eagles on Monday states that the Graham defendants and Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson “are hereby restrained from enforcing the ordinance and the ordinance shall have no force or effect pending further orders of the court.”
Judge Eagles’ order came after the defendants, including the Graham mayor, city council and police chief, filed a motion stating that they did not oppose the temporary restraining order, resulting in the cancellation of a hearing that had been scheduled for 11 a.m. in federal court in Greensboro. A joint motion filed by the plaintiffs and defendants also said Sheriff Johnson has agreed to refrain from enforcing the ordinance while the court decides a final settlement.
In issuing the order, Judge Eagles found that the plaintiffs met three requirements — that they’re likely to succeed on the merits of their case, that their clients would otherwise suffer irreparable injury, and suspending the ordinance serves a public interest.
“As the court finds plaintiffs likely to prevail on their First and Fourteenth Amendment claims, the court finds them likely to suffer irreparable injury as well,” Eagles wrote. “Plaintiffs’ injury is particularly imminent, and immediate preliminary injunctive relief is necessary because several plaintiffs state that they intend to protest in the near future.”
The Rev. Gregory Drumwright of Greensboro led a two-hour protest across the street from the Confederate monument on July 4, and announced a march co-led by Justice 4 the Next Generation, Alamance Alliance for Justice and Alamance Agents of Change from Burlington to Graham this coming Saturday.
Drumwright is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with the Alamance County NAACP and seven other individuals who have attempted to obtain permits to protest against the Confederate monument and racism or who plan to do so.
Elizabeth Haddix, a lawyer with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in Carrboro who represents the plaintiffs, said she was not surprised that the defendants agreed to the temporary restraining order.
“I think they’ve got good lawyers and a well-reputed attorney, a very smart person that I think knows that they know their permit ordinance is unconstitutional,” she told Triad City Beat. “I’m just surmising this was a way to not waste the court’s time on an argument on something that’s indefensible.”
The suspended ordinance prohibits a group demonstration — defined as “any assembly together or concert of action between two or more persons for the purpose of protesting any matter or making known any position or thought of the group or of attracting attention thereto” — without a permit, and requires a written application to be filed 24 hours in advance.
During the July 4 protest, protesters carried signs reading, “Take your knee of our neck,” “I don’t want to be a hashtag” and “We need justice for the next generation,” and chanted, “No justice, no peace; no racist police.” They chanted, “This is what democracy looks like,” and pointing across the street to the Confederate monument, which was surrounded by yellow police tape, they chanted, “This is what America looks like.”
The Rev. Walter Allison of Burlington, who wore a shirt saying “I can’t breathe,” said he has gone before the Alamance County Commission — a five-member, all-white, all-Republican body elected at large — to ask for the removal of the Confederate monument, adding, “They are indifferent to people of color here.”
One day, Allison said, he believes that the monument will come down, adding that there is a lot of momentum for racial justice in Graham and in Alamance County.
The rally drew mostly supportive honks from drivers circling the traffic circle around the Historical Courthouse.
But one man, who was visibly angry, approached antiracist protesters and got in their faces, yelling, “All lives matter.” Across the street, Alamance County sheriff’s deputies stationed next to the monument watched the exchange, but did not intervene.
Neo-Confederate self-styled monument “protectors,” who have in the past threatened and committed assaults against perceived opponents, maintained a low profile, although Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, or ACTBAC founder Gary Williamson staged with a group of monument supporters on the other side of the courthouse.
Terence Colin Dodd, a resident of Hillsborough who attended the July 4 protest in Graham, said he sees the federal court’s intervention as helpful in calming tensions.
“The sooner it gets into court, the sooner we can calm things down,” he said on July 4. “That way the police know their duties. When the Klan comes to Hillsborough to protest in front of the courthouse, they get police protection. They have an obligation to create a safe space for us to protest against racism here.”
Discussing plans for the march this coming Saturday with TCB, Drumwright invoked Wyatt Outlaw, a Black town commissioner and constable who was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in 1870 for standing up to white supremacist intimidation.
“We’re going to march to this courthouse,” Drumwright said. “We’re going take the same route that Wyatt Outlaw took when he traveled down North Main Street to be hung in this same space where this Confederate statue stands right now. We’re going to dignify his body being on the line for our bodies out here to demand justice for Alamance County, for justice around this monument.”
The parties will be federal court on July 20 as the plaintiffs seek a permanent injunction against the town protest ordinance. Haddix said the plaintiffs also want to enjoin the sheriff’s office from limiting access to the historic courthouse grounds. Sheriff’s deputies have typically encircled the courthouse and the monument, while antiracist protesters gathered across the street in Court Square.
“We’re concerned that the sheriff has roped off the area around the courthouse and around the monument,” Haddix said. “Although the county is allowing access to people to get into the courthouse, not allowing protesters — that is a content-based restriction,” she said. “They’re letting other people on the courthouse grounds. Why can’t people who have signs that say ‘Remove the Confederate monument’ or ‘Black lives matter’ or other messages that our clients are seeking to express on have access to that site? There’s no reason to exclude people who have that message.”
The historical courthouse “falls under the protection of the sheriff’s office,” spokesperson Byron Tucker told TCB, adding that anyone on the property when it’s closed or who is interfering with business there could potentially prompt enforcement action.
The presence of sheriff’s deputies around the monument and crackdowns on free speech by the city of Graham, including an emergency order that temporarily suspended the issuance of any protest permits for four days in late June, is apparently motivated by a belief that antiracist protesters will tear down the monument.
“There are reasonable time, place and manner restrictions that can be placed on the First Amendment,” Haddix said. “If there is reason to believe that a crime is about to be committed — if there is an imminent danger that a crime is going to be committed, the sheriff and police chief have some authority to take certain measures. That is not what has presented.
“What has presented is a lot of pro-Confederate demonstrators carrying weapons at the courthouse and having no consequences when there is a statute clearly prohibiting carrying dangerous weapons at a demonstration,” Haddix continued. “What is concerning for our clients is having tape around a monument that for all of our clients represents racist government speech and that they won’t enforce very clear statutes against carrying dangerous weapons at a demonstration.”