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NAACP, county reach settlement in one of 2020 protest lawsuits

A federal district court judge has signed off on a settlement that the local chapter of the NAACP has reached with Alamance County’s top-ranking leaders over the law enforcement response to the demonstrators who’ve repeatedly converged on the county’s historic courthouse during the past year.

Judge Catherine Eagles formally accepted this proposed resolution on Tuesday, effectively ending a months-long court battle that the NAACP’s local branch and various other plaintiffs have waged against the county regarding the right to demonstrate peacefully on the grounds of the courthouse in Graham.

This legal dispute grew out of a court action that the Alamance County NAACP originally filed against Graham’s municipal leaders in July after they imposed curfews and other restrictions on protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. The plaintiffs ultimately dropped their complaints after Graham’s city council repealed a long-standing permit requirement and, in effect, yielded the initiative for policing mass gatherings to the office of Alamance County’s sheriff.

Part of the original skirmishes between Black Lives Matter and other racial justice protesters involved the location for protests, who could be on courthouse grounds, did they need a permit, and whether law enforcement could keep opposing sides apart (here from pre-November when Black Lives Matter and Trump supporters brought their messages to the courthouse grounds).

The NAACP and its co-plaintiffs had already widened the scope of their lawsuit to include the sheriff and other county officials when Graham struck its municipal permit requirement in July of last year. Since then, the county’s top brass went from being mere co-defendants to the suit’s primary targets as the local sheriff’s office took an increasingly hard line against demonstrators on the grounds of the courthouse.

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The focal point for both the sheriff’s office and most of the demonstrators has been a century-old Confederate monument that stands at the northern approach to the courthouse. Supporters of racial equity have interpreted this longstanding landmark as veritable thumb to the nose of their most cherished ideals. Meanwhile, the sheriff and his associates have been eager to prevent deliberate damage to the monument as well as the prospect of violence between the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators who’ve faced off in its shadow.

The tug-of-war over the monument ultimately came to a head last summer when the office of Alamance County’s sheriff began to clamp down on demonstrators who congregated on the grounds of the courthouse. The sheriff’s office even arrested Barrett Brown, the president of the NAACP’s local chapter, for a spontaneous, one-person

Barrett Brown, above far left, holds up a “Black Lives Matter” sign by the Confederate monument on July 25, 2020 as law enforcement looks on.

demonstration next to the monument, which inspired three of the group’s other members to stage their own vigil, which likewise saw them hauled off to jail as a result.

In response to this crackdown on demonstrators, Eagles threatened to issue a preliminary injunction against the sheriff’s enforcement activities, which prompted the county to devise a new policy for demonstrations on the grounds of the courthouse. These ad hoc guidelines, which became the basis for a subsequent judicial order, explicitly permitted demonstrators in some areas like the steps of the courthouse and barred them from others, such as newly barricaded zone immediately surrounding the monument. The sheriff’s office also developed a permitting process for gatherings on the courthouse grounds.

The county’s concerns about gatherings on the courthouse grounds seemed to abate somewhat earlier this month when contractors installed a permanent eight-foot high-steel fence around the Confederate monument.

The NAACP and its co-plaintiffs ultimately reached an accommodation with the sheriff and his colleagues that’s spelled out in the agreement which the two sides jointly filed in federal court on Friday. The terms of this settlement incorporate certain aspects of the court order from August, such as the division of the courthouse grounds into areas permitted and off limits for demonstrators. The settlement also allows the county to establish “reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions” for the use of permitted areas. The defendants have also agreed that “any policies and practices” they adopt to regulate these gatherings “shall be promulgated, administered, applied, and enforced in a viewpoint- and content-neutral manner.”

The joint settlement retains the county’s use of permits to “reserve a space” on the courthouse grounds, although it explicitly notes that “permits are not required for expressive activity on the courthouse sidewalks, landings, and south entrance steps,” regardless of whether the courthouse is open for business. It requires demonstrators to obtain permits to gather in reserved parking spaces during business hours, and demands that they “always be obtained for protest on the north steps, the public parking spaces, the lawn, trees, and landscaping.”

In addition to these general guidelines, the joint settlement imposes two additional conditions on sheriff Terry Johnson. Under the terms of the agreement, Johnson must concede that “the use of ‘swear’ or ‘indecent’ words is protected under the First Amendment and is not lawful grounds for arrest, unless they meet the legal definition of ‘fighting words,’ even when such language is directed at law enforcement officers.” This concession speaks to the circumstances that surrounded the arrest of at least one demonstrator – Katie Cassette – who was taken into custody last summer for an alleged instance of disorderly conduct that, according to her arrest warrant, “consisted of [the word] F—.” Cassette’s charge was later dismissed by the local D.A.’s office after an assistant district attorney acknowledged that no crime had been committed in her case.

The text of the settlement notes that Johnson “has already instructed his deputies on the issue” of constitutionally-protected vulgarities. It also states that the sheriff has agreed to take part in “implicit racial bias and racial equity” training by September 24 of this year.

In a subsequent interview with The Alamance News, Johnson conceded that the public use of profane language isn’t illegal in and of itself.

“I don’t agree with that kind of language being used in public,” he added, “but [demonstrators] can use it if they want to. However, if used as a part of inciting a riot, for instance, it is still a crime.”

As for the other direct reference to him in the settlement, Johnson emphasized that “we’re already doing the bias training.”

The settlement agreement further stipulates that the two sides in this court case will negotiate a resolution of the plaintiffs’ claims for “reasonable attorneys fees and costs” at the defendants’ expense.

The NAACP’s partners in this settlement include: Tamara O. Kersey, Carleen Tenae Turner, Terence Colin Dodd, Destiny Clarke, Annie Simpson, Nerissa Rivera, Adam Rose, and Gregory Drumwright – the latter being the organizer of the ill-fated march to the polls in October. The other parties to the agreement include Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson, county manager Bryan Hagood, and county commissioners Pamela Thompson, Steve Carter, Bill Lashley, Craig Turner, Jr., and John Paisley Jr. Of the five county commissioners, only Carter was among the county’s original defendants – the other four having all taken office since November’s general election.

See other related recent news stories:

NAACP files newest lawsuit, this one to require moving Confederate monument: NAACP and others file lawsuit against county to have Confederate monument removed –

NAACP protesters charged with obstructing traffic weren’t even in the street, judge says in dismissing four cases:

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