Maya Little, the antiracist student leader at UNC-Chapel Hill, was found not guilty of assaulting an officer by an Orange County judge, who also dismissed a misdemeanor riot charge against her.
The charges stemmed from a Dec. 3, 2018 protest, when students and other antiracists angered by a proposal to return Silent Sam to campus confronted dozens of police officers securing the remnants of the monument.
The basis of the assault charge against Little was an allegation that she spit on an officer during a tense confrontation at a barricade, which Little denied.
The court heard testimony on March 8 from Capt. Tom Twiddy that he watched Little spit and from Officer Ray Oliver Jr. that he found a “loogie” on his glove, but neither officer was able to testify that they both saw Little spit and saw the discharge land on Oliver. After testimony establishing that Little had at one time spit on the ground in front of Oliver, Judge Lunsford Long concluded that if indeed Little spit on Oliver, it was not intentional, although he allowed for the possibility that all parties were telling the truth.
“I don’t believe you spit on that officer intentionally,” Lunsford told Little. “I believe you spit at him intentionally, and intended to show your contempt toward him, and that you don’t like him, and that you’re angry and upset. I don’t think you spit at him with the intent to hit him because you were too far away. If you wanted to you could have. You could have advanced toward him and spit right in his face, but you didn’t do that. So, although you spit at him with contempt, you did not assault him, and I find you not guilty.” Little could have faced 75 days in jail, if found guilty.
Prior to the alleged spitting incident, Capt. Twiddy and Officer Oliver, along with a third officer, Clark, had attempted to grab Little and pull her over the barricade to make an arrest on Twiddy’s order, but other antiracists grabbed her and pulled her from the officers’ grasp. Oliver and Twiddy testified that they heard Little give a command to “push,” which her lawyer, Scott Holmes, challenged. It was not clear from police body-camera video and news footage of the event screened by the prosecution that Little gave the command. The officers testified that protesters started pushing on the barricades and the officers had to push back, resulting in the barricades lifting a couple inches off the ground. The day after the protest, Oliver testified that he went to the magistrate’s office to take out charges against Little.
To prove the misdemeanor riot charge, the prosecution needed to present evidence not only that Little instigated the battle over the barricade, but also that the act created a public disturbance. After Holmes pointed out that no one was injured, Assistant District Attorney Billy Massengale obtained permission from the judge to amend the charging document to strike the phrase “resulted in injury to persons.” The amended charge required prosecutors to prove that the incident created “a clear and present danger for protesters to be injured or trapped between the barricades while others pushed from behind.”
In dismissing the charge, Long said, “From what I saw there was not a large crowd pushing. There was no danger of injury.”
Two days earlier, Orange County prosecutors dismissed charges against 31-year-old Mark Porlides, another graduate student, and the only other person arrested at the Dec. 3 protest. Porlides had been charged with resisting a public officer, assaulting an officer and attempted larceny, with the charging document stating that he attempted “to steal, take and carry away” UNC Police Officer RP Kay’s body-worn camera.
Porlides, who came to court on March 8 to support the other defendants, said when his lawyer subpoenaed the evidence, the first video turned over to him only showed him being led out of Graham Memorial Building in handcuffs. A second video obtained through discovery “showed the police rush upon me,” Porlides said. “It’s only 15 seconds. You can see me put my hands up and say, ‘I’m not resisting.’”
During her March 8 hearing, Little took the stand in her own defense. With video introduced into evidence showing intense anger among antiracist protesters, Holmes’ direct examination of his client both pre-empted any attempt by the prosecution to discredit Little by characterizing her as anti-police and raised the question of whether the charges against her were colored by bias, by attempting to establish a pattern of police harassment.
Video showed protesters chanting at officers surrounding the Silent Sam site: “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” They also chanted, “Back up, back up, we want freedom, freedom, freedom/ All these racist-ass cops, we don’t need ’em, need ’em, need ’em.” Little, who is 26, candidly acknowledged on the stand that she and others chanted, “Blue lives murder.”
“We saw the video, and it appears that some of your protest is not only about Silent Sam, but it’s also about the police,” Holmes said to Little. He asked her to tell the court “what your message or what your concerns about the police are.”
Little responded: “In every instance of Silent Sam protest, the police have always monitored and protected the monument. It’s also that the police have used violence against antiracist protesters.”
Little testified that her message about police during the Silent Sam protests reflects a concern not only about campus law enforcement but all police.”
“Yes, I think there’s a lot of police brutality, and a lot of black people are murdered by police, and often those police officers get off in courts of law,” she said. “But specifically, when I’m at UNC protesting, I’ve seen police brutality against me and my friends.”
Pressed by Holmes to explain why officers felt the need to detain Little, Capt. Twiddy testified, “We’re not dealing with a passive group. We’re dealing with some people who can be dangerous. They’re not un-violent; they’re not pacifist. We’re talking about some people who would hurt our officers if they had the opportunity.”
Asked by Holmes about why she directed profanity at officers, Little testified, “I was scared, too. I tried to do my best to make them not touch me, not touch others.”
Little testified that Oliver had called her and other students “faggots” on multiple occasions, including Dec. 3. Oliver denied on the stand that he had done so. During Oliver’s testimony, Little tweeted, “He’s also called antiracist students ‘f&gs’ both in honor court and at the barricades. He is a piece of shit; I was just lettin’ him know.”
Also at issue in the trial was the police’s theft of a banner that protesters hung over the barricade. Protesters contend that the theft escalated the situation; police took the position it was a security issue because it prevented officers from seeing what protesters might be doing to the barricades. Little’s lawyer asked her about the message conveyed by the banner.
Judge Long interjected to question Little about her ideological beliefs.
“Did it say, ‘Against the state’?” he asked.
“It might have,” Little said. “It was an anarchist banner. I don’t think that’s under the court’s discretion.”
“Do you like an anarchist society?” Long asked.
Little responded, “I don’t like a society in which police can regularly beat and murder people, and get away with it.” Supporters filling three rows of seats in the courtroom snapped their fingers to show approval.
Little challenged the relevancy of the judge’s questions, arguing that the content of the banner should have no bearing on whether the police deem it necessary to remove it.
“That’s the First Amendment,” she said, laughing. “I know quite a bit about government, even if I don’t necessarily support this one.”
Responding to a comment by the judge about Somalia, Little said, “I don’t think Somalia is an anarchist society.”
During a separate trial of another antiracist protester earlier in the day, Judge Long also received a lesson on de-platforming.
Cammy Lee Morgan, 26, and Shannon McLaughlin, 25, both of Watauga County, were tried together. Morgan was charged with assault on Noel Fritsch, a political consultant who works for conservative candidates, and both were charged with resisting an officer during an Aug. 30, 2018 protest, also at the Silent Sam site. Long found the two defendants not guilty on all three charges.
Officer Glenn Powell testified that he had been assigned to an arrest team and stationed inside the barricade surrounding the remnants of Silent Sam. He said Fritsch spoke to an officer on the scene, and based on Fritsch’s complaint he crossed the barricade to arrest Morgan. He said was unable to get Morgan’s hands behind her back because she was attached to McLaughlin, and he shouted, “Arrest them all!” (A third protester, 23-year-old Mary Frances Rosen, accepted deferred prosecution in January.)
A Chapel Hill resident, Fritsch has worked on the campaigns of a number of far-right politicians, including Corey Stewart, a Confederate-friendly candidate for US Senate in Virginia; Paul Nehlen, an avid white nationalist who unsuccessfully attempted to replace US Rep. Paul Ryan in Wisconsin; and failed US Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama.
Fritsch received his first payroll check from the Nehlen campaign in July 2017, according to federal campaign records. During the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., Nehlen shared and reposted tweets by Richard Spencer and David Duke, respectively a marquee figure in the alt-right movement and a former Ku Klux Klan leader.
“I was not aware of all of his questionable tweet habits,” Fritsch told TCB.
By early December, Nehlen’s affinity with the alt-right had been widely reported, according to a story in the Washington Post. The story, which was posted on Dec. 27, states that by Dec. 11, media accounts had been published revealing that Nehlen had appeared on the “Fash the Nation” podcast and had shared and reposted memes such as the slogan “It’s okay to be white,” and had accused Ryan of wanting to “replace American whites with anti-white substandard foreign” workers. The Post reported that Breitbart Senior Editor-at-Large Joel Pollak, whose outlet had previously provided favorable coverage on the Nehlen campaign, tweeted on Dec. 27: “He’s gone off the deep end. We don’t support him. Haven’t covered him in months.” Fritsch received his final payment from the Nehlen campaign for “strategic consulting” the next day.
Fritsch had accompanied Big League Politics Editor Patrick Howley on two previous occasions when he tried to corner UNC Chapel Hill assistant professor Dwayne Dixon and accused him in an ambush video of complicity in the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville — a logically strained argument embraced by white supremacists to deflect responsibility. Howley accused Dixon of assaulting him when he and Fritsch attempted to interview him on the night of Silent Sam’s toppling. During a November 2018 trial resulting in the dismissal of the charge, Howley described Fritsch as a “friend” and “photographer for Big League Politics.”
The day after Morgan and McLaughlin’s Aug. 30, 2018 arrests, Powell testified, Fritsch appeared at the campus public safety building and submitted a written statement alleging that Morgan had spit on him and swatted away his camera phone. But Powell testified under cross-examination that the 48-minute Facebook Live stream posted on Fritsch’s page doesn’t show that. While the video evidence didn’t substantiate Fritsch’s written complaint, Powell characterized Morgan blocking Fritsch against the barricade as assault “because a reasonable person would fear for their well-being.”
Fritsch did not show up to testify, although Assistant District Attorney Blake Courlang said he received a subpoena.
Paul Ditz, Morgan and McLaughlin’s lawyer, asked Powell if he found Fritsch to be credible.
“Anyone who approaches an officer to report something I consider to be credible at face value,” Powell testified.
Antiracist activists involved in the struggle to remove Silent Sam contend they have not been accorded the same treatment. Margaret Maurer, a graduate student who stood in a line in front of Silent Sam on the night the statue was toppled, told TCB the police refused to take her statement when she reported that a man named Oscar Levine charged her and shoved her in the chest. Stephen Pedroza, another antiracist student who witnessed the incident, also attempted to report it to the police; he reported the incident to TCB less than 30 minutes after it occurred. Maurer told members of the UNC Board of Governors about the alleged assault in January. And two days after the toppling of Silent Sam, Tim Osborne, also a graduate student, told TCB that he yelled that a neo-Confederate activist had a knife while making eye contact with officers, but they didn’t respond.
Fritsch’s Facebook Live video from Aug. 30, 2018 shows Morgan disrupting an interview with a HuffPost reporter and blocking his camera phone with a colorful scarf while verbally abusing him for about five minutes.
“I think the whole hubbub about the monument is less about slavery and more about the suppression of free speech,” Fritsch tells the reporter in his video.
“Honestly, it is about slavery, and you need to go,” Morgan interjects.
When Fritsch accuses antiracists of violence, Morgan says, “So, slavery’s not violence, but the fact that you can’t spit your bullshit is violence?”
At one point, she says, “When you celebrate slavery you should be six feet under. Bye. Kill yourself. Actually kill yourself. I want people who celebrate slavery to die, yes…. I believe you should kill yourself. Go home. You think about it every night, don’t you?”
Earlier in the evening, students and other antiracist allies had held a “dance party” as a counter-protest against a “Silent Sam Twilight Service” organized by the neo-Confederate group Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, or ACTBAC. A member of ACTBAC had punched an antiracist in the face five days earlier, and the event was attended by three North Carolina men who brought shields and sticks to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. a year earlier. One, Manuel Luxton, is known for sharing violent and anti-Semitic memes on Gab, a social-media platform favored by the alt-right.
Morgan testified that she came “to show solidarity with other antiracists and to claim that space as an antiracist space.”
Morgan said she recognized Fritsch as “a far-right live-streamer who was formerly employed by Breitbart.” (In fact, it was Howley who was formerly employed by Breitbart News Network.)
“They’re known for following antiracists around, saying first and last names, and calling them ‘antifa thugs,’” Morgan said of Fritsch and his friends. “What they do is called ‘doxxing.’ And it leads to people being targeted and sometimes physically attacked. There was a plethora of comments against me by Noel Fritsch’s followers. I believe in de-platforming fascists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. I want to disrupt white supremacist speech so it’s not normalized.”
“You weren’t very nice to Mr. Fritsch, were you?” Ditz asked his client.
“I didn’t threaten him,” Morgan responded. “I was interested in talking about how that statue was a celebration of slavery. I wanted to talk about Julian Carr’s dedication speech, and how that statue was dedicated by a KKK supporter who bragged about brutalizing a black woman.”
About five minutes after Morgan began disrupting Fritsch’s interview, a group of police officers began moving towards her. In response, Morgan yelled, “Puppy pile!”
“It means you’re getting piled on by cops,” Morgan told Judge Long. “You’re about to get piled on. It’s a way for other people to film that interaction and just keep eyes on you so that if you get beat or otherwise really hurt that there’s some witnesses to that.”
Judge Long told the prosecutor he found it implausible that Morgan resisted.
“All she did was stand there and get latched on to,” he said.
Still, Ditz attempted to contextualize his client’s wariness of the police, eliciting testimony from her that she had been pepper-sprayed earlier in the evening.
“I saw a group of those people coming straight at me in a very aggressive manner, and I immediately said, ‘No, no,’ like four or five times,” Morgan testified about her arrest. “It’s very alarming to see a group of people armed to the teeth coming at you in a very aggressive, fast manner.”
Like Little, Morgan said she had both specific and general reasons for being afraid of the police, testifying that they have a historic pattern “of beating people, killing people, killing people who have their backs running, specifically black folks. There’s a lot of reason for all kinds of people to be incredibly afraid of the police.”
In dismissing charges all charges against Morgan and McLaughlin, Judge Long told Morgan: “I don’t believe you’re guilty of a criminal offense. I do think rude, uncivilized, angry behavior is probably counterproductive to your cause.”
Earlier in the week, prosecutors dismissed a charge against antiracist protester Alexander Joustra, 20, who had been accused of injury to a flag owned by an unknown neo-Confederate activist on Aug. 25, 2018.
“The removal of Silent Sam was a victory, but like pulling weeds from a garden, we must pull up the root if we truly wish to flourish,” Joustra said in a prepared statement. “That hateful monument was a symbol, a message to a marginalized community that said, ‘You are not equal, you are not seen, you are not heard, and you never will be.’ They were wrong.”
Joustra vowed “to continue to work to stamp out the institutionalized inequality that so many are faced with each day” and “to continue to stand against a system that blatantly defends bigotry and hatred.”
“We will continue to fight, and when we look back, we will know that we stood on the right side of history,” he said.
Judge Long concluded court on just after 5 p.m. on March 8 by finding Brandon Alexander Webb, a 27-year-old warehouse worker from Richmond, Va., guilty of misdemeanor riot for allegedly setting off a smoke bomb at a Sept. 8 rally. Chapel Hill Police investigator J. Orbich, who observed the rally in plain clothes, testified that he heard a fuse burning and then watched Webb throw the device into a crowd as police escorted a group of neo-Confederates pursued by antiracists and journalists out of the area. (Later, police detonated a smoke device of their own to disperse antiracist protesters after rushing out of Graham Memorial Building and arresting seven other people.) Orbich said he called UNC Police Sgt. Jacob Kornegay to tell him what he saw, and about 30 minutes later police arrested Webb.
Capt. Twiddy testified that neither the smoke device deployed by the police nor the one set off by a protester caused any injury.
But Judge Long quashed any discussion of whether setting off a smoke bomb justified a misdemeanor riot charge against a protester.
“I don’t have any doubt that throwing of a smoke bomb is a violation of the statute; it’s a question of identity,” he said.
“I think when you throw a smoke bomb into a crowd of neo-Confederates, you’re asking for trouble,” he added. “I think that is likely to lead to fighting and other violence.”
Webb took the stand and denied throwing the smoke bomb, telling the judge he “was very confused” when officers pushed him to the ground and then stood him up and walked him into Graham Memorial Building, where the police were staging and processing arrestees.
The court also heard testimony from James Sadler, a doctoral student in education at UNC-Chapel Hill. Sadler testified that he saw an unidentified person who was not Webb throw the smoke bomb at the retreating neo-Confederates.
“I can a hundred percent say that I remember seeing the person that I saw throw the smoke device milling in the crowd after the arrest of who I understand is Mr. Webb,” Sadler testified.
In spite of Sadler’s testimony, Judge Long said he found that the state had met the burden of proving Webb’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
“In my judgement, Officer Orbich is not mistaken,” Long said. “I believe him absolutely. I have seen him in court many years, and he is an honest, ethical, upstanding, fair-minded officer. I find him guilty.”
Webb received a prayer for judgement, meaning he accepts guilt without penalty, but will not be able to appeal the verdict.
Asked for comment outside the courthouse, he said, “F*** cops.”