The battle over the right to protest the Confederate monument continues in Graham.
Lawyers for the Alamance County NAACP and other antiracist protesters went before a federal judge on Thursday seeking a new temporary restraining order to prevent the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office from arresting people for protesting next to the Confederate monument on the grounds of the Historic Courthouse.
Elizabeth Haddix, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said told Triad City Beat expects a decision from US District Court Judge Catherine Eagles sometime early next week.
Four Alamance County NAACP members, including President Barrett Brown, were arrested and charged with impeding traffic on July 25 for standing next to the monument while holding signs. Brown said in a declaration filed on Wednesday that he planned to again peacefully protest the monument “in the next few days.”
The brief filed by the plaintiffs earlier in the week noted that they “wish to protest on the courthouse grounds this coming weekend. In light of the ongoing and irreparable harm they face — including as reflected in defendants’ recent arrests of peaceful protesters near the courthouse — plaintiffs respectfully request that this court enter a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against defendants’ policy, practice, and July 10 order banning protest at the courthouse grounds.”
Late Friday afternoon, the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office posted a notice on Facebook announcing the establishment of two “free speech zones” on the northwest and northeast corners of the courthouse, while restricting the area around the monument and steps on the north side of the building as a “law enforcement safety area for law enforcement only.”
Haddix said the notice underscores the need for the temporary restraining order.
“What the judge talked about in court yesterday is where you have large groups of people who are exhibiting threats to public safety, it’s acceptable to have a narrowly tailored restriction or response,” she said. “What Judge Eagles talked about in court yesterday is it’s clearly unconstitutional to have a blanket ban on a public forum as the county has had with respect to the courthouse grounds…. This post from the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office covers specifically the situation last weekend, which was a small, spontaneous demonstration of four individuals with no counter-protesters. Four NAACP members walked across the street with signs saying ‘Black lives matter’ and ‘White silence is violence.’ They all four got arrested for being in that space — the same space the sheriff is saying is prohibited. What if you’re not a protester and you’re a tourist and you want to cross the street and look at the placard to see what it says about this monument? Are you going to get arrested? No, you’re not. There is no clearer violation of the First Amendment than that. That is precisely what this temporary restraining order is about.”
Haddix added that she supports one provision of the notice that prohibits weapons in the protest area.
In a response filed on behalf of Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, members of the county commission and the county manager, lawyer William Hill argued that the ban on protesting next to the monument is justified by “the threats to the safety of the protesters and counter-protesters as well as the demonstrated damage caused in other locations,” citing “widespread property damage” during protests in Raleigh and Greensboro in late May and the toppling of a Confederate monument in Green Hill Cemetery in Greensboro in early July.
The motion filed on behalf of the county defendants also cited an “emotional reaction” by Brown, the NAACP president, although it remains unclear what about Brown’s act of civil disobedience was “emotional.”
Brown wrote in his declaration: “As soon as I arrived at the park, I saw the American flag at the Historic Courthouse at half-staff, and realized it was probably for John Lewis. I then noticed that the flag appeared to be at same level as the top of the monument. This led to me to think about how we in the Alamance branch of the NAACP and other social justice activists in our community have begged and pleaded with city and county leaders about the need to remove the Confederate monument because of its symbolism of government-sanctioned white supremacy and racial oppression.”
In a declaration of his own, Alamance County Sheriff Capt. David Sykes, commander of the patrol division, said he had read Brown’s declaration, adding, “The emotional response described by Mr. Brown is the exact type of response that the temporary closure is intended to deescalate. Had the emotional response of Mr. Brown occurred on the courthouse grounds, the presence of protesters and potentially counter-protesters would have significantly increased the tension. Due to the presence of the restricted area, the situation was able to be handled peacefully.”
Hill’s motion on behalf of the county defendants said that “without the temporary closure of the courthouse grounds to all protesters, there is a much higher risk of conflict,” adding that if one group of protesters gains access to the courthouse grounds, the opposing side will also demand access.
“It is this competition for access to the monument which escalates conflicts and leads to emotional reactions, such as the one described by Barrett Brown in his declaration,” the county defendants said. “Therefore, anything less than a total temporary ban on access to all groups will make the type of emotional reaction described by Mr. Brown all the more common. When both sides are having these types of emotional reactions in close quarters, there is a clear risk of harm.”
Sykes said in his declaration that he believes statements by antiracists and neo-Confederates “suggest a reasonable likelihood of violence and/or destruction of property if the two competing groups are allowed the occupy the same small location between the Confederate monument and the north entrance of the Historic Courthouse.”
In his declaration, Sykes alluded to a demand voiced on July 4 by a Black Lives Matter protester, who said, “Take it down or we’ll tear it down.” Sykes also referenced well-documented statements by neo-Confederates about their intentions to bring weapons to “defend” the monument.
Sykes said he was also aware of statements on social media saying, “It’s easier to shoot them when they’re all in one place,” and “threats on social media to hang the sheriff and burn down houses,” adding that the statements were passed along to the State Bureau of Investigation. Triad City Beat has not confirmed the veracity of claims, and Sykes did not return a voicemail message seeking documentary evidence.
“These statements are examples of why the temporary ban on protesting at the Historic Courthouse was implemented,” Sykes said in his declaration.
Intelligence gathering by the SBI fusion center
An attachment filed as an exhibit to support a declaration by Graham police Assistant Chief Kristi Cole on Thursday indicates that as early as June 24, the State Bureau of Investigation has been passing along intelligence on social media threats by neo-Confederates to the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office and the Graham Police Department. The Information Sharing and Analysis Center, or ISAAC, a “fusion center” administered by the SBI, functions as a clearinghouse for intelligence sharing among federal, state and local law enforcement.
In a June 24 email, Sgt. PE “Chip Cobb,” an ISAAC task force officer, informed colleagues at the sheriff’s office that while he was on vacation an intelligence analyst and an special agent at the SBI “have agreed to assist me while I am out to provide you information and keep an ‘eye’ on things.” Another email shows that the SBI intelligence analyst also passed information along to the Graham Police Department, along with the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office.
One of the social media posts referenced by Cole in her declaration shows a comment by an unidentified poster in response to a news article about the then-upcoming July 11 march led by the Rev. Gregory Drumwright that says, “Well shoot first ask questions later works for me if the POLICE can’t do shit. Fuck the judges too.”
Facebook posts obtained by TCB show monument supporters discussing how they might circumvent a weapons ban at the July 11 protest.
“They didn’t say anything about OC pepper or other non-lethals,” one poster wrote.
“I’ve heard a few people concerned about attending tomorrow because of no weapons due to state of emergency,” another wrote. “Get yourself a can of wasp spray.”
Haddix said those items would likely not be lawful, citing a state law against weapons at parades and demonstrations that defines a “dangerous weapon” to include an “object capable of inflicting serious bodily injury or death.”
Another poster suggested he was exempt from the weapons ban because he’s a member of law enforcement, writing in response to the “wasp spray” recommendation: “Or maybe my .45 and my LEO credentials.”
Haddix said there’s “no validity” to the notion that someone attending a protest in an off-duty capacity can ignore a weapons prohibition because they work in law enforcement.
The poster recommending pepper spray for the July 11 protest also said, “I am positive there will be people carrying concealed. So, we will be leaving it up to the individuals. I am going no matter what, and I will not be defense-less.”
Haddix said it’s “not true” that someone with a concealed-carry permit is exempt from a weapons ban at a protest.
During the protest, Haddix emailed a concern — that counter-demonstrators had long poles with flags attached — to Hill and Anthony Biller, respectively the lawyers representing the Alamance County and Graham defendants.
“These can (and have been) used as weapons,” Haddix wrote. The county defendants said in their filing that their lawyer “promptly notified law enforcement personnel on the ground.”
It’s not clear what, if any, action the two law enforcement agencies took in response to Haddix’s concern. Capt. Sykes said in his declaration that while he was not present at the July 11 protest, “I am informed that officers on the scene were made aware that the group organizing the protest was concerned about the presence of weapons among the counter-protesters. I am informed that the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office took these concerns very seriously and immediately investigated these reports.”
Haddix said law enforcement officials did take action on flagpoles as a potential weapon, just not against the neo-Confederates.
“They actually had a Black Lives Matter protester — they took away her pole that her flag was on,” she said, “but they did not take away any poles from the Confederates.”
Haddix said the defendants’ claims that restrictions on protests are designed to protest antiracists from neo-Confederate violence ring false.
“They’re claiming they’re trying to protect public safety,” she said. “I find that hard to believe because they’re letting these Confederate counter-protesters walk around with firearms — people with criminal records — we have pictures of it. For them to say their goal is to protect public safety, their track record doesn’t demonstrate that. Their track record says they want to protect the monument.”