It was a mixed bag for three defendants who were arrested during a series of racial justice protests held in downtown Graham during the second half of 2020 and appeared in Alamance County district court Wednesday: one was found guilty https://alamancenews.com/second-oct-31-protester-found-guilty-of-failing-to-disperse-when-deputies-ordered-end-to-rally/;
one was found not guilty; and another case involving a protester who was charged with resisting arrest was dismissed outright https://alamancenews.com/one-charge-from-halloween-day-protest-dismissed-outright/.
Retired visiting district court judge William (“Lunsford”) Long, III of Orange County – who has agreed to preside over all of the hearings for defendants charged during protests in Graham last year – declared Matthew Broderick Edwards, 28, white male, of 693 Haw
River Hopedale Road in Burlington, not guilty this week of misdemeanor resisting a public officer and failure to disperse on command.
Protester not guilty of June 27, 2020 charges
Alamance County assistant district attorney Kevin Harrison, who has been assigned to handle all of the 2020 protest cases, argued this week that the two Graham police officers who arrested Edwards during a protest in downtown Graham on Saturday, June 27, 2020 were simply carrying out the orders they had been given: to instruct any protesters to leave the area and to arrest those who refused.
Edwards was charged with misdemeanor resisting a public officer and failing to disperse on command for failing to leave the area, as he had been instructed, according to his arrest warrant.
Adam Nicholson – then a Graham police officer who has since left the force and is now employed as an accountant – testified Wednesday that Graham mayor Jerry Peterman had issued a State of Emergency for the city, effective June 25, and imposed a citywide curfew of 8:00 p.m. “due to the potential civil unrest.” He said there had been a protest in downtown Graham the previous weekend, on June 20, that had turned violent, which Nicholson indicated was why he and other Graham police officers had been instructed to clear the area.
Nicholson, however, acknowledged under cross-examination by Edwards’ attorney, Thomas Gregory (“T. Greg) Doucette of Durham, that he had not observed any “unruly conduct” by the defendant prior to his arrest.
Nicholson and Graham police corporal Scott Neudecker, who had also been assigned to patrol downtown, both recalled on the witness stand the events immediately before Edwards’ arrest: he had been standing on the sidewalk on the northeast corner of Court Square, waving a cardboard sign and yelling, when Nicholson approached and instructed Edwards to leave the area.
Neudecker said this week that Edwards been standing near a group of several other protesters who also had gathered at the northeast corner of Court Square. After they were ordered to disperse, “Several did; the defendant did not,” Neudecker recalled.
“He was basically antagonizing me by getting louder and louder,” Nicholson testified. “I know I said, ‘bye – you’ve got to leave; you can’t stay here.’ [Edwards] said, ‘This is unconstitutional; you can’t do this.’ I was trying to give people an opportunity to listen” and comply with the order to disperse, the former Graham police officer elaborated.
At the time, the city of Graham had an ordinance requiring a permit to protest, Nicholson pointed out this week. “I took the poster out of his hand and said, ‘you’re under arrest,’” he testified. “He said, ‘No I’m not,” and he squared up on me,” he said, rising from his seat on the witness stand to demonstrate a physical stance that resembled a fighting position.
Doucette later pointed out that the ordinance, which required a permit for any protest or demonstration involving two or more people, has been repealed. U.S. District Court judge Catherine Eagles initially granted a temporary restraining order in mid-July 2020 that blocked enforcement of the city’s ordinance, in response to a lawsuit filed earlier that month, contending that the city’s ordinance violated rights to free speech, assembly, and other freedoms that are guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
The following month, Eagles granted an injunction that prohibits any blanket prohibitions of all protests – beyond “reasonable” limits on the time, place, and manner – in areas that are considered “traditional public forums” for the expression of free speech or airing of grievances, such as public sidewalks.
Edwards later testified that, at the time he was approached by Graham police on June 27, he believed it was his constitutional right to be there. He said he had come to downtown Graham around 8:00 a.m. that Saturday morning and had been at the northeast corner of Court Square by himself for two to three hours before several other protesters gathered nearby. “I’m involved in protesting,” Edwards said Wednesday, recalling that he had come to Graham a week earlier “to celebrate Juneteenth.”
Edwards acknowledged, under cross-examination by Harrison, that he had tried, unsuccessfully, to organize a group to march from the Confederate monument on the north side of the Historic Court House in Graham to a similar site in Raleigh. “I couldn’t get anybody to go,” he said.
“We weren’t together,” Edwards said, referring to a handful of other protesters who eventually gravitated in his direction later that day.
“We were still maintaining social-distancing; we would converse. There were other people that drove by and gave the bird [to whom he hollered out], ‘God bless you.”
Edwards said he was born in Charlotte but grew up in Graham and went to Southern High School, later serving three years as a military police officer while in the U.S. Army. After he got out of the Army, he worked as a security officer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but now “does restoration, fire damage, mold – things like that,” Edwards told the judge.
“I drank the tea growing up,” Edwards recalled Wednesday. “I was like, ‘oh, it’s Southern heritage.’” His time in the Army exposed him to other points of view and eventually led him to believe that supporting symbols of the Confederacy – such as the monument that has stood at the north entrance to Alamance County’s Historic Court House since 1914 – is little more than veiled racism, Edwards said.
At the time of his arrest, Edwards said, he believed the order to disperse was unlawful. “I think, if it’s an unlawful order, it’s your duty to stand up for your constitutional rights,” he testified. “I conducted myself in a peaceful manner. I said to them, ‘just because I support Black Lives Matter, it doesn’t mean I hate them.’ I felt like it was my right to be there.”
Doucette characterized the federal lawsuit that ultimately led to the repeal of Graham’s permit ordinance as the crux of his argument. “Where this took place was a street corner – a traditional public forum,” he argued. “There is nothing that limits peacefully holding a sign in the middle of the day.”
Long turned to the assistant D.A. and said: “Mr. Harrison, I have a problem with this case, Mr. Harrison; I am surprised you are proceeding with it.”
Harrison countered, “I understand it, after the fact, after hearing the full testimony, but they [the Graham police officers] were doing what they believed their job to be when they took him into custody. I think finding three people gathered together, communicating the same message – they had reason to believe [there was a violation].”
Long nonetheless immediately found Edwards not guilty of the charge.
OTHER COVERAGE OF PROTEST TRIALS, MOTIONS, ACTIONS:
One felony charge against Rev. Drumwright dropped by D.A., another by unwillingness of grand jury to return a “true bill”: https://alamancenews.com/d-a-s-office-dismisses-both-felony-charges-against-organizer-of-halloween-march-rally/
One charge from Oct. 31 rally dismissed outright: https://alamancenews.com/one-charge-from-halloween-day-protest-dismissed-outright/
One found guilty for failing to disperse from Oct. 31 rally: https://alamancenews.com/second-oct-31-protester-found-guilty-of-failing-to-disperse-when-deputies-ordered-end-to-rally/