Photo: Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson looks on as deputies arrest protester Dionne Liles. (Anthony Crider)
In the wake of national protests over the death of George Floyd, the city of Graham and the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office enacted a protest ban focused on the Confederate monument and Historic Courthouse in the town center, prompting comparisons to Mississippi or Alabama during the early 1960s.
Those comparisons have hardly diminished since a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order striking down the protest ban.
Arrests have mounted as protests against the Confederate monument, institutionalized racism, police violence against Black people and the sheriff’s handling of COVID in the jail continued week after week, often attracting antagonism from pro-Confederate counter-protesters. Beginning with a handful at a time at small protests, they culminated on Oct. 31 when Graham police and Alamance sheriff’s deputies deployed pepper spray on hundreds of marchers, including children, elders and people with disabilities, then made dozens of arrests in the ensuing chaos. While the federal court order has narrowly protected the right to hold signs and chant while standing next to the Confederate monument, antiracist demonstrators and civil rights advocates charge that the police have continued to criminalize protest.
“I think the sheriff has made it clear that he does not want people to protest, to be out in the center of Graham protesting,” said Elizabeth Haddix, with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. “His actions have demonstrated that, the Graham police chief as well. I think the city council and the county commissioners have vocalized publicly that they do not like having these folks downtown demonstrating and protesting white supremacy, the Confederate monument and police brutality.”
Haddix is the lead attorney in a civil rights lawsuit representing plaintiffs who say they were prevented from exercising their First Amendment rights as well as their voting rights on Oct. 31.
An incomplete review of protest-related arrests in Graham by Triad City Beat yielded a conservative estimate of 70 charges from late June through November, sometimes with protesters being arrested and charged on multiple occasions. The vast majority of the charges against antiracist protesters are low-level misdemeanors for offenses like failure to disperse, disorderly conduct, resisting a public officer and second-degree trespassing. Charges against antiracists outnumber those issued to pro-Confederate counter-protesters roughly four to one, with the latter facing charges of simple assault, assault on a female, simple affray and disorderly conduct. Only a handful of charges have been dismissed, and none have gone to trial. Hearings have been delayed in part because courts shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic, with the vast majority of the cases scheduled for February and March.
In her Aug. 14 order, US District Court Judge Catherine Eagles described the plaintiffs as people who “regularly attempt to exercise their First Amendment rights to protest, assemble, and associate in Graham.” The judge described them as having “organized, engaged in, or attempted to organize or engage in protests against institutionalized racism, police violence against Black people, and the continued presence of a Confederate monument in front of the Alamance County Historic Courthouse.”
Judge Eagles found: “Protesters have attempted to protest on the courthouse grounds, but have been prevented from doing so on multiple occasions by sheriff’s deputies and physical impediments such as barricades put up by the county defendants. On multiple occasions throughout June and July and into August, the plaintiffs and other protesters have been explicitly threatened with arrest, or had access restricted, often upon implicit threat of arrest. Others have been arrested for coming too close to, but not on, the monument or flowerbed, or coming into the courthouse sidewalks or steps.”
In a previous order issued on Aug. 7, Eagles described early efforts to test the protest ban, including a woman who approached the courthouse with a protest sign on a Sunday in late June and was threatened with arrest by a Graham police officer if she did not leave the area, but was allowed to stay after she threw away her sign.
Another protester who took a stand next to the monument that weekend didn’t get as much latitude.
One day earlier, Matthew Edwards of Burlington had stood next to the Confederate monument holding a sign reading “Black lives matter.” As recounted by Tony Crider, an astrophysics professor at Elon University who regularly photographs protests, police grabbed Edwards’ sign and detained him, while ordering bystanders including Crider to leave the area. Two police officers forced Edwards to the ground as they placed him under arrest, and charged him with resisting a public officer and failure to disperse on command.
“What bothered me is when I left the jail, there was a truck outside, and these guys had wrapped up a Confederate flag,” Edwards told TCB. “The officer was laughing and chatting with them. He seemed to be giving them guidance on what they need 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.”
A month later, the president of the Alamance County NAACP would find himself under arrest for protesting in the exact same manner as Edwards.
Barrett Brown, a plaintiff in a separate federal lawsuit challenging the protest ban, recounted in a declaration to the court that he had arrived at a park catty-corner to the courthouse on July 25 to participate in a demonstration with other NAACP members and faith leaders. He said he saw the American flag at half-staff and realized it must have been lowered to honor John Lewis, the late congressman from Georgia who had endured racist violence while marching for civil rights in the 1960s. Brown noticed that the flag was at the same level as the top of the Confederate monument. He thought about how the Alamance County NAACP and other community activists had “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.” He thought about how the Alamance County Commission had limited the public comment section at a recent meeting because they knew people wanted to talk about removing the monument and reflected: “It is as if they have turned the board into a White Citizens Council.”
Then Brown picked up a “Black Lives Matter” sign out of a stack, walked across the street and stood on a concrete border next to the flowerbed surrounding the monument. Two Alamance County sheriff’s deputies quickly approached Brown and told him he could not be there. He said they accused him of standing in the middle of the street. The monument juts into the street, but traffic moves in a circular pattern around the monument, leaving ample space on either side — undercutting the officer’s assertion that Brown was standing in the middle of the street. The space next to the monument functions as a crosswalk and is protected from vehicular traffic by the monument itself.
Brown said a Black officer told him: “If you don’t move, I’ll have to detain you.” To which Brown replied, “Brother, do what you have to do. I am not moving.”
“Are you trying to get arrested?” the officer asked.
“No, I am trying to exercise my First Amendment rights to protest this monument,” Brown replied.
As the officer placed handcuffs on Brown and led him away, three other NAACP members — Noah Read, a Democratic member of the Alamance County Board of Elections; Rev. Walter Allison; and a woman named Amy Harrison — crossed the street to take his place. While they were hauled to jail together in a sheriff’s van, they sang “We Shall Overcome.”
Charges of resisting a public officer remain pending against the four NAACP members, along with Matthew Edwards and dozens of others.
Physical altercations, mask-less taunts and repeated arrests
By Aug. 15, the ban on protesting at the Confederate monument had been lifted by federal court order. It was a Sunday, and coalition of groups, including Siembra NC, Down Home NC and Forward Motion Alamance, had launched a “People’s Referendum” to collect votes on two matters: whether the Confederate monument should stay or go, and whether the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office should withdraw from the 287(g) federal immigration program. A small group of antiracists took advantage of the opportunity to stand beside the Confederate monument with signs and banners in what was, at last, a legally sanctioned protest. A group of neo-Confederates, some of whom were familiar from previous encounters in Graham as well as Pittsboro in neighboring Chatham County, also availed themselves of the court order to jockey for space around the monument.
Ashley Reed Batten, a Hillsborough resident who is white, held one end of a Black Lives Matter banner. She complained to Graham police Lt. Duane Flood about the potential for counter-protesters to use flagpoles attached to Confederate flags to assault antiracists. Her concern was well-founded: On June 26, a Stokes County resident named Tommy Dale Parnell had been arrested and charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious bodily injury for striking an antiracist with a hockey stick attached to a Confederate flag during a clash in Pittsboro.
“You want somebody to get fucked up,” Batten accused Flood, as shown in video obtained by TCB. “You’re waiting for a race war, aren’t you?”
“No,” Flood protested. “Graham’s ordinance got blocked. I can’t do anything about it.”
COVID, like Black Lives Matter and the Confederate monument, was a polarizing issued that added friction in the mix among antiracist protesters, neo-Confederate counter-protesters and law enforcement.
Counter-protesters, along with law enforcement officers including Sheriff Johnson, were flouting the social etiquette of wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID. The counter-protesters seemed to use their indifference as a weapon against the COVID-conscious antiracists.
Another video of the same demonstration records an antiracist named Lindsay Ayling questioning Johnson on why he’s not wearing a mask. A mask-less woman named Elizabeth Baird can be seen in the video advancing on Ayling and then saying, “You are in my personal space, so back off, now. Back off. Six feet, bitch.” When Ayling asked for her name, Baird moved closer, getting right up in her face.
When two other antiracist protesters raised objections to the way Ayling was being treated, Johnson can be seen in the video walking over to address them. “She was the one who started it,” Johnson said, apparently referring to Ayling. Then Johnson admonished the antiracist protesters: “Calm down.”
The sheriff’s handling of the situation fits a pattern seen over the summer: On at least two other occasions, Johnson has been observed ignoring escalations by right-wing counter-protesters and then moving in quickly when antiracist protesters express displeasure at the provocations, telling them to “calm down” and directly or implicitly threatening them with arrest.
Batten also berated Lt. Flood for not wearing a mask, and Flood told her there was no law requiring him to wear one.
“Cooper said, ‘Wear a mask,’” Batten insisted.
As she turned to walk away from the officer, Steve Marley, a fixture at protests in Graham who carried a Confederate flag, addressed Batten.
“Do you think we listen to what Cooper says?” he said.
The two got into an argument about whether Marley’s flag had brushed Batten, and Batten told him: “If you touch me with that goddamn stick again, I’m going to beat you with it.”
A couple minutes later, an unidentified woman with a large vertical sign moved in front of Batten — within a foot, she said.
“Bitch, the law says six feet,” Batten told her. “If you don’t put it between us, I will.”
“Well, do it,” the woman replied.
As Flood moved in, Batten told him: “Tell her to get six feet back or I’ll knock her six feet back.”
“I’m not telling anybody to get six feet back,” Flood said. “If you put your hands on anybody, you’re going to jail.”
Then, he reached for her hands and cuffed them behind her back as pro-Confederate counter-protesters cheered. Batten said the arrest took place immediately after she told Flood to put on a mask, but the words are inaudible in the video.
Batten was charged with disorderly conduct. She said her charging document alleges she “told the citizens of Graham I would kick their asses.”
In December, the Alamance County District Attorney’s office informed Batten’s lawyer that the charge was dismissed.
District Attorney Sean Boone told TCB that Batten’s charge was dismissed because “the charged conduct does not constitute a crime.”
The district attorney also dismissed an assault charge against Carey Kirk Griffin, a white antiracist activist who lives in Alamance County. The coalition behind the People’s Referendum organized a press conference on the steps of the Historic Courthouse on Aug. 17 and planned to present the results to the county commission. Two counter-protesters blocked the press conference with their bodies and Confederate flag, Griffin recalled.
“This isn’t a protest,” she told them. “This is a press conference. Can you please respect the press conference?”
Griffin squared off with one of the counter-protesters, Elaine Stuart. Griffin said she calculated that if she could keep Stuart occupied, the news cameras would remain focused on the speakers. While a representative of Siembra NC was speaking, a video provided by Griffin clearly shows Stuart shoving her.
Griffin said Lt. Flood asked her if she wanted to press charges against Stuart, and Griffin said she did. When Flood spoke to Stuart, the other woman made a counter accusation, and both women wound up with assault charges. The district attorney ultimately dismissed charges against both Griffin and Stuart. Griffin said the location of the hearing was changed without notice, and she was denied the opportunity to provide testimony in support of the charge against Stuart.
“After evaluating the case we determined there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove the case in court, and we decided to cut them loose,” District Attorney Boone said.
Griffin still faces charges from two additional arrests. She was charged with resisting a public officer when she ran across the street when she observed that six or seven deputies were surrounding a Black protester named Avery Harvey during a Sept. 26 march in Graham. Harvey and Griffin’s arrests took place during a commotion when a neo-Confederate counter-protester assaulted an antiracist protester and police arrested another Black protester. And on Nov. 16, Griffin was arrested again when she went to the jail to support protesters who had been arrested during an Alamance County Commissioners meeting.
On Aug. 17, the same night that Griffin and Stuart were charged, a deputy also arrested Meg Williams in the middle of the county commission meeting while she was attempting to address representatives of UPS to encourage them to factor the Confederate monument into their decision to invest $262 million in a new distribution center in Mebane. Williams is charged with disruption of an official meeting and resisting public officer.
Boone said he has assigned all the protest-related cases to Assistant District Attorney Kevin Harrison.
“As much as possible, we want to make sure they are reviewed and evaluated by one person in a consistent manner,” Boone said. “It just seems like it’s more efficient to do it as a body of cases.”
Boone said his office will closely evaluate the cases to determine whether the charges are constitutionally sound.
“We want to make sure that in any situation, we’re able to articulate whether this would survive constitutional muster,” he said. “There are disorderly conduct charges. You also have failure to disperse, resisting an officer, disrupting public meetings, trespassing. Generally speaking, there’s something more than verbal expression.”
More arrests at jail protest
On Sept. 8, a Tuesday morning, a small group of about 20 protesters carried 99 black balloons from the Historic Courthouse, where the county commission was meeting, to the jail. Many of the participants were veterans of protests against the Confederate monument.
“There were 99 confirmed [COVID-19] cases at the jail,” recalled Katherine Cassette, a Graham resident who participated in the protest with her husband Nic. “We were really appalled at that, and wanted to show Alamance County things they could do differently. A lot of our demands came from Orange County, which had a lower count. Instead of arresting people for traffic violations or minor civil disobedience, they would write them a ticket. They weren’t bringing them in the jail. That kept their numbers low.”
When they reached the jail, inmates began banging on the windows. The protesters shouted towards them: “We see you. We love you.”
The arrests began almost immediately.
Katherine said her husband, who is Black, had been trying to maintain some distance from the other protesters to protect himself from exposure to COVID, and was standing on a sidewalk approaching the jail. The deputies told Nic: “Get back!”
“He’s like, ‘I am on the sidewalk,’” recalled Katherine, who is white. “And then he realizes, Oh, they mean get away from the jail. He was right near the building.”
Katherine said a friend described Nic as “sashaying across the parking lot,” and she said he moved in a diagonal course because he didn’t want to get too close to the other protesters.
“I don’t know if the sheriffs thought he was mocking or going too slow,” she said. “They started trying to surround him. My husband was confused. He was like, You’re impeding me.”
Video posted by WFMY News 2 shows two deputies grabbing Nic’s arms and attempting to force them behind his back, and then throwing him down in the parking lot. Katherine said Nic’s pants ripped and his knees were swollen where he was pushed down. His glasses were also knocked off.
Nic Cassette is charged with second-degree trespass, resisting a public officer and misdemeanor riot.
Katherine rushed over and picked up Nic’s glasses. She said she wanted to hand them to a deputy because her husband wouldn’t be able to see without them, but the deputies yelled, “Get back, get back.”
The other protesters had moved into the parking lot and were shouting, “Let him go, let him go.”
Video obtained by TCB shows a Dionne Liles, a Black protester, walking around the area where Nic Cassette was being detained and pumping a sign in the air. Deputies began pushing the protesters, including Liles, out of the parking lot. Liles retreated, walking backwards while still facing the deputy with her sign. Then he ripped the sign from her hands and placed her under arrest. Liles is charged with second-degree trespass, resisting a public officer and assault on a government official.
The next person to be arrested was Maggie Blunk. As shown in the WFMY video, Blunk stood on a public sidewalk along the street, speaking into a megaphone.
“People are going to die because of you,” she said, speaking in the direction of the jail.
Deputies wrested the megaphone from her hands and jerked her hands behind her back to place her under arrest. She is charged with disorderly conduct and resisting a public officer.
Recalling the incident, Blunk made it clear the activists were not committing civil disobedience. Arrests were not part of their plan.
“I think the most upsetting part is we had family members of folks who were incarcerated and dealing with the COVID outbreak who were going to share statements,” she said. “We had a balloon for every person in the jail with COVID. People were going to share those stories. The message really got lost once all the arrests started. I guess that’s a big regret. I really wish the family member had gotten to speak so people could understand what was happening inside, and how bad it was in there.”
Later, Katherine Cassette said she watched deputies load her husband in a van. She was concerned because she didn’t understand why they would transport him in a van since the jail was right across the parking lot. As other protesters loudly and sometimes profanely expressed their dismay, Cassette eventually reached her breaking point.
“You’re going to risk giving him COVID for walking on a fucking parking lot?” she said, addressing the line of deputies. “Fuck y’all.”
One of the deputies made a beeline towards her, grabbed her and pulled her into the parking lot. She was charged with disorderly conduct.
The district attorney dismissed Katherine Cassette’s charge last month, but it’s little consolation to her, with charges still pending on her husband.
“My charge was totally bogus, even if I did get convicted of saying ‘fuck’ in Graham,” Katherine Cassette said. “I wasn’t worried about it. It would be a badge of honor. It’s not serious. But for my husband, it’s already super hard to go on an airplane. He gets randomly selected for security checks. I’m trying to imagine him going through life with a misdemeanor riot conviction.”
Following the arrests, observers saw another person cross the jail parking lot, adding to their suspicions that the space limitation were closely linked to the protesters’ message. Steve Marley, the neo-Confederate counter-protester who had verbally sparred with Ashley Batten on Aug. 15, sauntered across the parking lot and made friendly small talk with one of the deputies.
“How somebody can be trespassing in a public parking lot is really questionable to me,” said Jamie Paulen, an attorney who frequently attends many of the protests in Graham. “The sheriff’s office basically said, ‘You can’t come in this parking lot.’ Steve Marley walks through and high-fives the police. So, it’s not like nobody can walk through the parking lot.”
Avery Harvey, a Black resident of Graham, had planned to register to vote on Oct. 31 — the last day it was possible to do so — and cast his ballot during early voting, but instead he wound up getting arrested. A member of People For Change, a local activist group, Harvey was well known to local officers, and had been arrested at least once before while protesting.
After Graham police deployed the first round of pepper spray, Harvey escorted another protester who had been hit by the chemical irritant across the street from the courthouse grounds to the Verdict restaurant, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of protesters by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Harvey ordered some food for himself and then stepped out on the sidewalk to wait for his order.
Mitchell Fryer, a white antiracist activist who was filming with a cell phone and body camera, told TCB they had been standing on the sidewalk speaking to police officers and counter-protesters for a couple minutes before Harvey stepped out of the restaurant. But Graham police Officer E. Jordan and another unidentified officer turned their attention to Harvey and told him to move to the “designated area.”
Video recorded by Fryer shows Harvey turning to walk away and saying, “I’m going to go get my food.” At that moment, Officer Jordan moved in behind Harvey, grabbed his arms and hustled him over to a clump of officers to take him into custody, charging him with resisting a public officer.
Faith Cook, also from Graham, was later arrested for singing “We’re ready for change” through a megaphone as protesters gathered outside the jail to protest the arrests. She was charged with misdemeanor riot.
Haddix said the police officers’ actions, including pepper-spraying peaceful protesters to clear the streets, have created the context for them to criminalize protest.
“There are criminal statutes that define what a riot is and what a public disturbance is,” she said. “The reason we have those laws in place that describe the conditions under which a law enforcement officer can order someone to leave is to prevent what happened on Oct. 31: making a decision on their own subjective feelings about the content of what people are saying during a demonstration. The Constitution, the First Amendment protects against content-based discrimination. This sheriff and this police chief don’t like the message. They don’t like having a bunch of Black people in the street demanding justice. They create a situation where they can control people’s movement. That’s unlawful.”
Haddix said the government is alleging that the jail support rally on Oct. 31 was an incitement for people inside the jail to riot.
“It’s hard to imagine how people standing on the sidewalk, holding signs and singing songs is a riot,” Haddix said.
In all, 23 people, including march leader Rev. Gregory Drumwright and a reporter with the Alamance News, were arrested during the Oct. 31 protest, in which Graham police and Alamance County sheriff’s deputies deployed three rounds of pepper spray and eventually drove protesters away from the Historic Courthouse.
Almost three weeks after the Oct. 31 protest, Sheriff Johnson brought new charges against Drumwright for felony assault against a law enforcement officer and felony obstructing justice for his role when activists refused to heed deputies’ order to disperse. A montage of video and images released by the sheriff’s office shows a deputy falling to the ground as officers were shutting down the event, and a photo of bruises on her arm.
Drumwright has insisted he is innocent of the charges and has vowed to fight them. The pastor-activist said in a Nov. 19 press release that the Graham Police Department and Alamance County Sheriff’s Office “have worked desperately to find ways to criminalize peaceful protesters and community organizers.”
Many of those arrested have expressed a desire to seek civil remedies through the courts for violation of their Constitutional rights.
“The arrests that happened were, we believe, unlawful arrests,” Haddix said. “They were further suppression of people’s rights. Because of the way the criminal justice system works, those cases will have to be resolved first before we can address the way those folks’ civil rights were violated with those arrests. When the police created chaos and started arresting people for responding in the best way they knew how, that further violated their rights.”
Multiple phone calls to the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office and the Graham Police Department went unreturned for this story.
Haddix said she is disappointed that Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein have taken no action against the Graham police and Alamance County Sheriff’s Office.
“They have substantial investigatory power, and they have substantial prosecutorial power,” she said. “If you look at the statute that defines where there’s civil rights violations or violations of any provision, it says that the state attorney general can get involved. I certainly think this would be a good time to exercise that authority.”
Cooper and Stein told TCB through representatives that they disagree with the position that they hold any authority to investigate or prosecute civil rights violations, while deflecting responsibility to the US Justice Department.
“The governor has been clear that the events surrounding the march to the polls in Alamance were unacceptable,” Dory MacMillan, Cooper’s press secretary, said in an email. “A civil rights investigation can be ordered by federal justice officials, not the governor’s office.”
Laura Brewer, the communications director for the NC Justice Department, said Stein “is monitoring this situation closely.” She added, “There is ongoing private federal civil rights litigation related to this matter. USDOJ has authority under federal law to investigate any civil rights complaints and may be a good source.”
Under President Obama in 2010, the US Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation into the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office, eventually finding that deputies racially profiled Latinx drivers and that the sheriff and other agency leaders “foster[ed] a culture of bias by using anti-Latino epithets,” among other violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The sheriff’s office reached a settlement agreement with the US Justice Department in 2016, after a federal judge ruled against the US government, while calling the “epithets and slurs” used by sheriff’s officers “abhorrent.”
Calls and email to the US Justice Department seeking comment on whether the agency will investigate potential civil rights violations based on the Oct. 31 pepper-spraying incident have gone unreturned. Functioning under the leadership of an acting head following the abrupt departure of former Attorney General William Barr, the Justice Department has two weeks left before a new president takes office and the sitting president desperately solicits accomplices in his bid to hang on to power.
One of the hardest parts of the police repression in Graham, said Katherine Cassette — one of those arrested during the Sept. 8 protest — is that it is, at least in some sense, effective.
She brought her son with her for Oct. 31 march. It never crossed her mind that police would pepper-spray them.
“My 8-year-old who experienced pepper spray, he said, ‘I don’t want to be a police officer, now,’” Cassette recalled. “He said, ‘I thought they were supposed to protect us.’ That was an incredible lesson. He also said, ‘I’m never marching with you again.’ That broke my heart. I wanted it to be an experience where your heart swelled. He did not get that experience. He’s terrified. He’s turned off from the right to assemble.”