Clergy say Alamance sheriff agreed Graham Confederate monument should be moved
BY CARLI BROSSEAUNOVEMBER 25, 2020 12:06 PM, UPDATED 3 HOURS 58 MINUTES
March for criminal justice reform planned in Graham
In a recent closed-door meeting, Alamance County religious leaders say Sheriff Terry Johnson gave a straightforward disavowal of white supremacy and agreed that the Confederate monument in front of Graham’s historic courthouse should be moved.
“If this is true, why aren’t you saying this in public?” Rev. Randy Orwig remembers asking Johnson at the Nov. 5 meeting attended by more than a dozen clergy.
Getting the monument moved has been a major focus of Black Lives Matter protesters, who see the statue as a symbol of a racist social order in the present as well as the past.
In Alamance County, that’s the domain of the sheriff, who is widely viewed as the center of gravity in the county’s Republican power structure in addition to the monument’s most prominent defender.
His comments to clergy are a sign that within the small town of Graham, the seat of the conservative Alamance County, political calculations are shifting. The sheriff, once accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of some of the country’s worst racial profiling, is once again in the national spotlight and under siege by lawsuits alleging he has violated people’s fundamental rights. Well-worn tactics for keeping protesters away from Graham’s Court Square have been eroding under a steady stream of legal challenges.
Johnson has not responded to multiple requests for an interview from The News & Observer.
Most recently, he has been in an escalating back-and-forth with the Rev. Greg Drumwright, a Greensboro-based pastor who led the Oct. 31 march and other demonstrations against the monument and systemic racism throughout the summer and fall.
Deputies pepper-sprayed participants in a march to the polls Oct. 31 after spotting a gas can and generator that were not allowed to be on courthouse property under the terms of an event permit. A deputy confiscated the generator, leading to a melee in which a female officer ended up on the ground. Johnson announced in the local conservative newspaper last week that he was seeking a felony charge against Drumwright for that officer’s injury.
Also last week, Johnson’s deputies arrested five people following the abrupt end of a county Board of Commissioners meeting that several protesters had attended in the hopes of making public comments about the pepper-spray incident.
And his office distributed an audio clip from a community meeting held by social justice groups that, taken out of context, seemed to suggest that Drumwright was planning a riot. It’s clear in the full recording that Drumwright was explaining that another march was necessary because it’s a constructive way to channel anger without resorting to violence.
On Sunday, as workers hung Christmas lights among the surveillance cameras overlooking Court Square, Drumwright formally announced his next large public event, “Ready 4 Change Peaceful Protest for Criminal Justice Reform,” set for Nov. 29, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
During the press conference, Drumwright called the county’s release of his recorded comments an “attempt to foment division,” but said he stood by his words. “We are at war,” he said, echoing the audio snippet that the sheriff’s office distributed. “This has been playing out this entire summer, but it’s not located in this summer alone.” The war, Drumwright said, is the long fight against racism, and it doesn’t rely on militia tactics, chemical weapons, guns or knives.
NO PLACE FOR PROTEST
Although the cloud of pepper spray on Oct. 31 marked the only widespread use of chemical weapons in Graham in recent memory, social justice organizers in the community are familiar with displays of force.
“He’s just got a long pattern of criminalizing any kind of First Amendment freedom of expression that’s critical of him or any of his policies,” said Andrew Willis Garcés, an organizer with Siembra NC, a group that advocates for the rights of Latino people.
A march last year to protest the sheriff’s detention of immigrants in the county jail was met by officers in riot gear and a sound cannon, the Times-News reported.
At the beginning of this summer, when protesters took to the streets across the country to protest the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, demonstrations in Graham without official sanction were effectively banned. Sheriff’s patrol cars ringed the courthouse, and police officers were told to break up groups.
A federal lawsuit filed by civil rights groups has since forced Graham and Alamance County to reconsider their constraints on protest activity. That people can now protest in Graham without getting pre-approval from the police department constitutes progress, said Barrett Brown, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP who was himself arrested this summer.
Nevertheless, the Sheriff’s Office continues to remind protesters of its power. Dozens of people have been arrested on misdemeanor charges such as resisting, delaying or obstructing a law enforcement officer, and the office showed off a BearCat armored vehicle during at least two marches this summer. Deputies repeatedly appear in desert camouflage riot gear, though law enforcement best practices discourage provocative displays of military equipment.
“Showing up in riot gear communicates that you’re ready to fight,” Arizona State University professor Edward Maguire is quoted as saying in a 2018 report from the Police Executive Research Forum.
In the same report, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Samuel Dotson said, “you don’t defuse a situation by having a sniper on top of a BearCat.”
THE DE-ESCALATION DILEMMA
Many questions remain about what will happen during Drumwright’s march on Sunday.
Spokesmen for the city and county said Tuesday that they hadn’t heard anything from the pastor about his plans, however, the police chief has reached out to Drumwright asking for information.
Clergy at the Nov. 5 meeting with Johnson and the Graham police chief said they implored law enforcement leaders to focus more on de-escalation.
After the meeting, the Sheriff’s Office said on its Facebook page that it would:
- Proactively communicate with event organizers about plans
- Review procedures for balancing the safety of participants and officers
- Listen to feedback from the community
- Prioritize training on de-escalation, communication and other suggested subjects
- Participate in the Alamance County Citizen’s Public Safety Review Board
While Johnson has been meeting with select political influencers to justify the use of pepper spray on Oct. 31, he has been avoiding most reporters’ questions.
He did not allow questions at a press conference held on Nov. 2. Reporters were instructed to submit questions by email, but those have gone unanswered.
His office also has not responded to public records requests to release the videos and other material shared during his presentations nor video of the meeting with clergy as religious leaders have requested.
Other elected officials have also been quiet despite the protests being the talk of the town.
Mayor Jerry Peterman declined an interview request from The News & Observer, citing ongoing lawsuits against the city. Steve Carter, who will soon be the only county commissioner with past experience on the board, did not respond.
Amy Scott Galey, the board chair who was recently elected to the state Legislature, issued a statement via text message.
“With Guilford and Alamance counties both classified as red (critical) in Governor Cooper’s COVID-19 alert system, and with families asked to forgo traditional Thanksgiving group celebrations, it is poor timing to organize group demonstrations,” she wrote.
“While I support the First Amendment right of groups to protest, organizers should be sensitive to the immediate, legitimate, and data proven risks, which are significant,” the statement continued. “With minority communities being especially impacted by COVID-19, one would hope that event organizers would be responsible in deciding to defer group activities until the spread of the virus is under control.”
Violations of the governor’s masking order have been commonplace in Alamance County throughout the summer and fall, and top county officials have been among those flouting public health recommendations.
Commissioner Tim Sutton and County Attorney Clyde Albright have repeatedly attended indoor meetings without wearing a mask.
Johnson made headlines earlier this summer for declaring that he would not enforce the mask mandate and for a COVID-19 outbreak in the jail that infected 99 people. Inmates said they did not receive a mask until after the outbreak in August.
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