Another defendant who was arrested at a racial justice protest in downtown Graham last year was found guilty this week of misdemeanor failure to disperse on command and disorderly conduct. [See related stories in this edition.]
Maurice Wells, Jr., 34, black male, of 10 Aspen Drive, Apartment A, Greensboro, was arrested July 11, 2020, following a “March for Justice & Community” in downtown Graham that eventually culminated in a dispute over the bell that, since 1999, had been located in the center of Sesquicentenial Park. The march was the first of several conducted in Graham by Rev. Gregory Drumwright of Greensboro.
After counter-protesters – apparently Confederate sympathizers – repeatedly, intermittently rang the bell, as several speeches were being made to the marchers, who eventually decided to take their turn at ringing it, according to Wells’ attorneys Brian L. Crawford of the Sanford Holshouser law firm and Elizabeth Haddix of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Haddix said that the counter-protesters rang the bell repeatedly throughout the event, as speakers addressed supporters who had marched to downtown Graham that afternoon.
Wells was among the group – he was dancing, laughing, and singing “You can ring my bell,” the bridge in the 1970s disco song by Anita Ward, according to testimony given Wednesday.
Wells pleaded not guilty to both charges, which are Class 2 misdemeanors.
After the event concluded around 3:00 p.m., Wells was among the group of marchers – broadly characterized as “Black Lives Matter” activists – who had gathered in the park by the bell, Haddix described Wednesday afternoon for retired visiting judge Lunsford Long, III of Orange County, who has agreed to hear all of the cases related to the 2020 protests in downtown Graham.
Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson was the first to take the stand in Wells’ trial this week and testified that he had told Wells – as well as two counter-protesters whom he identified as Gary Williamson, Sr. and Gary Williamson, Jr. – to leave that afternoon.
“I said, ‘Please leave; the permit has ended; you’re only causing problems and costing taxpayers money.”
Johnson testified while others began to leave the scene, Wells had remained, “standing on a sort of platform where the bell was.
“He was saying, ‘F— this and M—F you,” the sheriff testified, recounting how he originally had gone back to his office when he was summoned back to bring the increasingly unruly crowd under control. “The Williamsons were trying to come forward, and we were trying to keep them back.’” Johnson testified that he had warned both the Williamsons and Wells that they’d be arrested if they didn’t disperse.
Haddix argued that Johnson had unfairly showed partiality to the Williamsons that day, at one point putting his hand on Gary Williamson, Jr.’s shoulder, almost to comfort or to soothe him, as she described it. “That type of discretion is not permitted,” she contended during the trial. “Law enforcement must be impartial.”
Johnson insisted he was trying to keep the two groups separate. He reiterated during his testimony that he had told Wells, “‘Son, it ended at 3:00 [p.m.] Y’all need to disperse.’ I said ‘you’re going to jail if y’all don’t leave.’ He said, ‘Take me to f—ing jail.’”
The sheriff said he was happy to oblige.
Haddix pressed Johnson about whether the Williamsons had been arrested that day; the sheriff confirmed that neither the father nor the son had been charged.
“That’s been. . . answered; now move on,” Long told Haddix.
Alamance County sheriff’s detective Kenneth Brown later testified that Wells was arrested that afternoon – not for his foul language – but for what he perceived as actions intended to incite violence. He described the scene in Sesquicentenial Park that afternoon as “chaotic,” with both sides (BLM protesters and Confederate counter-protesters) yelling and screaming at each other. Wells was told repeatedly to stop ringing the bell, and each time, he apologized, but went back and did it again, Brown testified.
Pamela Chestek, a lawyer in Raleigh who also works as a legal observer through a program that the National Lawyers Guild sponsors, testified that she had been in Graham that afternoon to observe the march and document any potential violations of protesters’ First Amendment rights. Chestek said she took notes and recorded video.
Chestek confirmed under oath that she had heard shouting back and forth, and later observed a man being led away in handcuffs, but didn’t necessarily assume it was an arrest. She confirmed during questioning by Haddix that she had observed Wells near the bell, singing, “you can ring my bell,” which Wells’ defense attorney characterized as “making of fun of the fact that this bell had become a contentious [thing], and he was kind of having fun with it.”
Chestek and another witness called by Haddix, Lindsay Ayling, both testified that they had not seen Wells engage in any violence that afternoon. Nor had they seen any kind of violence erupt – before, during, or after Wells’ arrest, though Chestek acknowledged she’d heard him “use profanity a number of times.”
However, the legal observer said she didn’t see the sheriff speaking to Wells prior to the arrest.
For her part, Ayling insisted during her testimony that she’d personally heard an officer saying that Wells was being arrested because of his language. She said she had been standing beside Wells for 10 to 15 minutes before he was arrested. “I never heard [sheriff Johnson] or anyone give an order to disperse. I never heard Wells say or do anything that was violent.”
Even so, Haddix pointed out, profanity is protected under the First Amendment – and is even to be expected, when people on opposing sides of a contentious issue come together. She summarized that the state had failed to show that law enforcement ever issued a dispersal order, adding, “There is no order to disperse that we can hear” in any of the video footage of the encounter that was presented at trial Wednesday. “There should be because there are moments in this video that you can hear people talking and singing and laughing.”
Haddix also contended that the state – referring to the assistant district attorney, Kevin Harrison, who is prosecuting all of the 2020 protest cases – had failed to show that Wells’ actions met the elements of disorderly conduct as it’s defined by state law.
Long twice denied two motions to dismiss, concluding that the “sheriff saw what he did, heard what he did, perceived what he did…Do you not believe an order to disperse can be given to just a few people? I believe it can.”
The judge found Wells guilty of failure to disperse and disorderly conduct, ordering him to pay a $100 fine and court costs. Haddix gave verbal notice of her client’s intent to appeal the verdict.