This piece was updated on Tuesday, Nov. 26 at 1:00 p.m.
The stacked black coffins with yellow lettering — “Never again is now” and “ICE out of Alamance” — along with dozens of people sitting in the middle of Maple Street in Graham on Sunday afternoon clearly outlined the aims of Never Again Action, a group comprised of American Jews who organized this past summer to respond to migrant detentions at the border and ICE deportations.
“Today many of us have come here as Jews linked with our immigrant brethren,” the group tweeted. “This is not an abstract sentiment. As we know too well, the forces of white supremacy are against them and against us.”
Off the street, hundreds more people, many of them undocumented, gathered on the lawn of the Center for Spiritual Living during the action co-hosted by Never Again Action with Siembra NC and Down Home NC.
Although none of the social media pages publicizing the event and none of the speakers referenced the Confederacy, Sheriff Terry Johnson had encircled the Confederate monument with squad cars and posted uniformed officers atop the roofs of the Alamance County Historical Courthouse and the Alamance County Detention Center.
For reasons that remain unclear, the police would not allow the immigrant protesters and Jewish allies to march, even on the sidewalk. Three years ago, I witnessed the Greensboro Police Department accommodate a group with a similar size that took to the streets to protest police brutality against people of color. Different cause, different jurisdiction, different era, I suppose.
A drone buzzed overhead as Graham police officers held a line against the protesters and State Troopers milled about.
The Never Again Action account tweeted, “They threaten us with sound cannons; we respond with singing. We’re praying with our feet and risking arrest in Alamance, NC. They’re monitoring us with drones; our ancestors are watching over us.”
A woman from Jewish Voice for Peace North Carolina told the group that many of her grandparents’ generation did not make it out of Nazi Germany. “Today,” she said, “we’re taking the direct action we wish more people had taken for our ancestors.”
A local man recording video on his phone up the street told an officer standing nearby: “If nobody else ain’t gonna do nothing about it, I reckon the people gonna do something about it.”
Getting no response from the officer, he continued with growing agitation: “They’re wanting to take this monument down!”
An organizer with League of the South, a white supremacist organization that advocates for a white ethno-state in the footprint of the old Confederacy, mingled in a nearby park with a group of locals gathering to observe the standoff. In addition to being racist, the League is also antisemitic. League founder and leader Michael Hill has described Jewish presence as a “pestilence” while insisting, “There must be no Jew influence in our new nation state.”
I joined Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University, behind a metal fence at the edge of the park, and all of us waited for the inevitable arrests.
“Down, down with deportation,” the protesters chanted. “Up, up with liberation.”
Among the locals standing with us on the sidelines, the most vocal were taking a hard, angry stance against the protesters, while any who might have been sympathetic or neutral were keeping quiet.
As the police brought out a long-range acoustic device threatening an ear-splitting audio assault, the protesters chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, these racist cops have got to go.”
“Put their asses in jail,” one bystander yelled.
“Get out of the way, and we’ll take care of ’em,” another said.
A teenage boy standing behind us, quipped, “Mustard gas would be nice, too.”
Just for reference, mustard gas is a chemical agent used in War World I that is banned as a weapon of war under the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.
Around this time, Squire had turned her phone to record the bystanders, and one of the men gave her a startled look. “Hey,” he said, “why are you videoing us?”
“You guys are saying some pretty awful stuff,” she replied. “He was talking about mustard gas.”
The same man pointed to a sign held by one of the protesters.
“What does it say about Jews?” he asked.
“Jews Against ICE,” Squire informed him.
He seemed caught off guard by the information and paused for a moment.
“Why are they against ICE?” he asked.
“I think they’re connecting the Holocaust to what ICE is doing now,” Squire told him. “They don’t want that to happen again.”
As officers moved into the group of peaceful protesters blocking the street, frog-marching them to a van to await transport to jail, and in one case dragging a woman who went limp by the arms, the bystanders laughed and jeered.
After nine voluntary arrests, the rest of the protesters had retreated back into the yard at the Center for Spiritual Living. They sang “Kumbaya.”
Despite the conclusion of the orderly arrests, the bystanders were not placated.
Pointing at the group assembled on the lawn, one woman admonished, “They’re breaking the law!”
For reasons that would seem to defy any practical consideration of public safety, two squads of police in riot gear marched down Maple Street to face off against the protesters, who continued to lawfully assemble in the yard at the Center for Spiritual Living.
“It’s about time,” the League of the South organizer enthused. “This is great.”
UPDATE: Byron Tucker, the public information officer for the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office, called me back and responded to my questions about security around the Confederate monument and the deployment of “officers trained in crowd control.”
Tucker said the sheriff’s office has been maintaining security around the Confederate monument, which is located on county property, “for quite some time because of the threats that other counties have seen.” He said that within the protest group on Sunday “there were folks that we were unsure of, and we chose to err on the side of caution.”
The decision to not allow protesters to march was made by the Graham Police Department, which has jurisdiction over the streets, Tucker said, adding that he believes if the organizers had applied for a permit they would have been allowed to march.
As for the sheriff’s deputies wearing helmets and protective padding, Tucker said, “We have officers trained in crowd control.” The sheriff’s office doesn’t use the term “riot gear,” but Tucker acknowledged the uniforms are designed to protect officers from being hit with “solid objects or liquid.” When I shared my observation that the situation appeared to be deescalating and that virtually all of the protesters appeared to be on private property when the “crowd control officers” arrived on the scene, Tucker responded: “We still had some people that were in the street because our folks had protective gear.” In response to my invitation to share any additional information that I may not have observed, Tucker said, “That’s not going to be intel that we’re going to share.”