Monday, April 15, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

City and county: beware “settling” with Halloween protesters


We didn’t have an opportunity to comment, editorially, on one of last week’s most significant stories, that of a proposal from the attorneys for 19 plaintiffs who claim to have been “injured” by police and sheriff’s officers during an October 31, 2020 march and rally in downtown Graham.

Much attention had focused on the use of pepper spray that day by law enforcement agencies – first by the police to make demonstrators get out of the roadway after the marchers arrived at the Historic Court House (and after they had paused in the street for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in tribute to George Floyd). Pepper spray was deployed by sheriff’s deputies and police when the rally was terminated by law enforcement who said protest organizer Rev. Gregory Drumwright’s permit had been rendered moot by the presence of gas cans and a gas-powered generator brought onto courthouse grounds, which they said was a clear violation of the terms of the permit that Drumwright himself had signed.

The crowd was ordered to disperse, and when they did not, pepper spray was used – law enforcement insisted it was directed at the ground, not in anyone’s face, but several photos of the event show at least one aerial spray. (The sheriff’s office insisted that occurred when a female deputy was knocked to the ground, which resulted in one of the charges against Drumwright.)

Now attorneys representing some 19 plaintiffs – 17 individuals and two activist organizations – want Graham and the county to fork over $351,500, which is, ostensibly, $18,500 for each plaintiff.

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This whole concept of paying that amount of money is preposterous, in our judgment, and we hope Graham’s city council and Alamance County commissioners will reject the idea.

That is, if they’re even given the opportunity.

We’re troubled by some scuttlebutt we’ve heard that insurance companies for the two governments may want to settle – potentially even without the concurrence of the respective governmental boards – as a means of lowering their “exposure” in the event the lawsuit continues.

Here’s why the governments need to insist on scrapping the settlement discussions altogether.

If either entity gives the money, they are only ensuring that they will face additional court action from the same plaintiffs (and especially the same attorneys) again.

In fact, the proof of that lesson should easily learned by the fact that last year both city and county decided to settle another derivative case from the same type folks; that time it was “only” $60,000 from each jurisdiction, again mostly handled by the same insurance folks who didn’t want to go to trial. Many of the plaintiffs and law firms just coincidentally are the same as in this newest settlement proposal.

Insurance companies don’t like to pay for attorney fees, much less if their client might lose and then face even stiffer fines or penalties. But the avoidance of legal fees is allegedly the driving force. It doesn’t take long to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, especially with all the delays and manipulations that the plaintiffs’ attorneys have been putting out.

So, with both jurisdictions having “paid up” last year, it only whet the plaintiffs’ appetite for an even larger settlement this time around.

The insurance companies may not care, but both political boards should recognize, that this is, at its core, a strictly political undertaking.

The lead plaintiff, Rev. Gregory Drumwright, is running for county commissioner in Guilford County. (At least he returned to his actual home area, instead of continually coming across the county line to cause a ruckus in Alamance County.)

Drumwright faces a May 17 primary with the incumbent Democrat he is attempting to oust.

So we have no doubt but that part of the urgency to settle is designed to assist him in his campaign.

Neither Graham nor the county should oblige. Regardless of what the insurance companies think.

Another strange provision is one that would require all criminal convictions against Drumwright and another protester (one of Drumwright’s right-hand men, Brenden Kee) be dropped. Keep in mind, the lawsuit is, at least ostensibly, a civil court issue. Both criminal defendants Drumwright and Kee are appealing their convictions in district court to Alamance County superior court as are several other defendants convicted last year of charges related to the October 31, 2020 protest.

(And, by the way, Drumwright’s sympathizers might at least want to observe that Drumwright doesn’t mind letting the district court convictions of all other defendants stand. He only cares to insist that the cases against himself and his right-hand man be dropped.)

Or, even more strange, if the district attorney won’t drop the cases, the proposed settlement would require that the sheriff is supposed to mandate that his officers not show up to provide testimony at the subsequent trial.

That is both absurd and probably illegal. Johnson would be violating his oath of office to try to restrict his deputies from testifying.

Another curious provision in the proposed settlement also has entirely political purposes.
Both Graham police chief Kristy Cole and Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson would be required under the proposed settlement, to meet, for at least one hour, with the group of plaintiffs.

Here’s where it gets even more curiouser: chief Cole can record her meeting, but sheriff Johnson would be prohibited from doing so at his.

Wonder why that distinction?

Ah, the calendar again: this time the sheriff’s own reelection. He’s on the ballot in November, facing a little-known Democratic challenger who moved to the county a year ago.

Plaintiffs could easily leave their meeting with Johnson, if he even agreed to attend, and make all sorts of outlandish claims of what Johnson said or did during the confab. We can only imagine the things they will claim the sheriff “admitted” during their meeting.

And Johnson would be without any recourse to disprove those false claims. Any attempt to show any context, or otherwise clarify or provide actual evidence of what he actually said would be impossible – because there would be no audio or video recording. They want to be sure the incumbent Republican sheriff is put at a disadvantage during the reelection season.

Another curious aspect of the proposed “settlement” is that the plaintiffs’ lawyer doesn’t yet – at least as of when he sent his latest demand – even have agreement from his clients on the proposed terms of a settlement.

At a minimum, the county and city should wait until all plaintiffs have decided; only then should any further discussions be considered.

And, just by the way, the attempt to classify these payments as for “personal injury,” so they could be interpreted as tax-exempt, is yet another insult and excess. First, no one sustained anything like “injuries” amounting to $18,500 each. How about a dollar, if they really must settle.

But even more absurd: the two organizations cannot possibly have sustained any physical injuries (real or imagined) from being pepper-sprayed, since they are inanimate organizations.

And if insurance companies are still insistent that the city and county proceed with some settlement, the jurisdictions should insist on a provision that bars all other claims arising out of the so-called “racial justice” marches, rallies, and demonstrations of 2020.

But we think any settlement is likely to engender even more litigation, with even more expense – that the insurance companies claim to want to avoid.

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