“Black lives matter!” they chanted. Then, “Wyatt Outlaw!” Followed by, “Justice for George Floyd!”
The three chants by about 55 people who took part in a spirited protest in downtown Graham on Wednesday evening succinctly tied together the legacy of white supremacy from the 1870 lynching of Outlaw, a Black constable and town commissioners, to the police killing of George Floyd 150 years later in Minneapolis, which sparked a global rebellion against racism.
The multiracial protest group received several friendly honks from motorists rounding the traffic circle at Court Square, the quaint commercial area surrounding the Alamance County Historic Courthouse and the 30-foot Confederate monument that dominates its north side.
Building on their momentum, the protesters began cheering every car that passed, friendly or not, and the parade of cars returned the energy in a pageant of honking horns, fists raised in solidarity, defiant revving engines and occasional middle fingers. Supportive honks from a garbage truck and a pavement marking truck elicited particular gratification.
The protest came as a surprise to many, including the organizer, after the mayor declared a state of emergency over the previous weekend, suspending applications and effectively imposing a ban on protesting. The protest ban was publicized on Facebook by the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office on June 26 in a public advisory stating that no permits to protest would be issued in Graham “for the foreseeable future” and “any groups attempting to protest without a permit” would be “in violating and subject to arrest.” The ACLU of North Carolina responded the same day in a tweet reading, “You can’t do that. Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson is in violation of the Constitution and needs to retract this order immediately.”
Gina Cazares, a Graham resident, already had an application pending, and after the mayor lifted the state of emergency, she received notification on Tuesday evening that her protest had been approved, giving her 24 hours to publicize the event. Cazares said she had taken part in earlier gatherings in which people wore black clothing to signal their opposition to racism, but largely refrained from chanting or carrying signs so they would not be in violation of an ordinance that requires permits for protests of two or more people.
“Growing up here since I was 5 years old, it’s time we change,” Cazares said in an interview after the protest. “I did want to talk about Wyatt Outlaw, and acknowledge what happened to him right here. And in publicizing the Black Lives Matter movement, I wanted to publicize that Graham has a diverse population of Black and Brown people, as well as white people.”
Cazares said she hopes to see continuing momentum for people to protest racism in Graham and Alamance County.
“Being a female Mexican lady, I hope someone else will see they can do it, too,” she said.
While Cazares said she was glad to have the opportunity to provide an opportunity for people to express their views in a safe environment, she is critical of Graham protest ordinance.
“The process really does violate the right of free assembly,” she said. “It limits the amount of time you have to get the word out and get press coverage. The hoops I had to jump through and the compromises I had to make were ridiculous.”
Two people who ran afoul of the protest ban were back on Tuesday to continue protesting.
Following the imposition of the protest ban, Matthew Edwards of Burlington held a sign reading “Black Lives Matter” next to the Confederate monument on June 27. Photographer Tony Crider reported that Graham police grabbed Edwards’ sign and arrested him, while ordering everyone else including media, to leave. Two police officers forced Edwards to the ground as they placed him under arrest. He faces misdemeanor charges of resisting a public officer and fail to disperse on command.
On Wednesday evening, Edwards joined the protest, holding a sign reading, “Destroy Hateful Heritage.”
Edwards was one of several protesters with antiracist messages who said the police enforcement of the protest ban appears to have been unequal.
“What bothered me is when I left jail there was a truck outside, and they had wrapped up the Confederate flag,” Edwards said. “The officer was laughing and chatting with them. He seemed to be giving them guidance on what they needed to do to stay. Me, they just said, ‘We’re not doing this,’ and they snatched my sign and threw me down on the ground.”
In another incident, on Monday, a video published by the News & Observer shows Graham police Sgt. RS King threatening Theresa Draughn of Burlington with arrest for loitering after she tucked a sign reading “There are no white people in the Bible” under her minivan windshield wipers, and also threatening two reporters who were on the scene with arrest.
Draughn complained about King’s treatment of her to Lt. JD Flood at the Wednesday protest. Flood responded that there was some miscommunication, and King had not aware that the state of emergency had been lifted on Monday evening because he was just coming on shift.
Other protesters asked why monument supporters were allowed to display the Confederate and Gadsden flags in their truck bed during the state of emergency while antiracists were arrested or threatened with arrest for holding signs.
“I can tell you, what we have been doing when we see it — because we’re just trying to keep peace — because I had some pull up here this weekend,” Flood said, “and I was going to ’em [and saying,] ‘Look, if you’re down here to patronize the businesses, that’s one thing, but if you’re down here just because you’re gonna sit here with your flags, in order to keep the peace, we need you to put your flags away.”
Although the crowd was racially mixed on Wednesday, white protesters made up a plurality. Some of them said racism discourages Black residents of Graham from protesting.
Melanie Mitchell, who is white, said her mixed-race children overhead a passerby shout the N-word at them at a previous protest.
“I tell them I just don’t want them out here,” said Mitchell, who held a sign reading “White silence is violence.” “I’ll fight for them. Like their dad, I don’t want him out here. White privilege is real. If I get pulled over and he gets pulled over, it’s going to go two different ways. If you get pulled over in Graham, I won’t say it’s a death warrant, but you don’t know how it’s going to go.”
In addition to George Floyd, the protesters called the names of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman in Louisville, Ky. who was killed by police during a no-knock raid, and Elijah McClain, a Black man who died of cardiac arrest after police in Aurora, Colo. put him in a chokehold and paramedics injected him with the sedative ketamine. They held signs reading “No more racism/No mas racismo,” and “Wyatt Outlaw 1870,” and chanted, “We want justice, we want peace,” and, “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”
Few of the signs and chants addressed the Confederate monument, but it loomed across the street from the protest, and there’s little doubt that those who joined Wednesday’s protest want it gone. On Monday, a host of community leaders, including Burlington Mayor Ian Baltutis and representatives of Elon University and Cone Health, called for the relocation of the monument. The five-member Alamance County Commission has signaled they have no intention of taking action on the matter.
The five seats on the commission, which are all elected at large, are currently filled by five white Republicans. Dreama Caldwell, who joined the protest on Wednesday, is part of a slate of Democrats vying for three of the seats that are up for election this year. Caldwell, who is Black, said she’s sympathetic to the people who say they want to pay homage to their Confederate ancestors who died in battle.
“What I disagree with is that it’s in front of a public building,” she said. “If it was with a statue of Wyatt Outlaw and the Saponi Indians, whose land was stolen, maybe that would be another thing. But I think it belongs in a place like a cemetery or a battleground, where people can go pay homage.”
Caldwell emphasized that relocating the monument is not the end game.
“Knowing what I know about Wyatt Outlaw, he was lynched in a tree that is at the site where the monument is now,” she said. “It’s a reminder that it’s bigger than a statue. It’s evidence that we have work to do with the legacy of white supremacy.”