Saturday, April 20, 2024

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Protesters wanted to be heard; their chants, slogans worked so well, commissioners couldn’t hear each other

The members of Alamance County’s governing board are used to having their own words resonate far and wide when they convene their semimonthly meetings in Graham.

But the board’s members were all but drowned out during their latest gathering on Monday by members of the public whose causes ranged from free speech and police reform to their desire to remove a Confederate memorial in Graham’s Court Square.

During that evening’s three-hour meeting, the county’s board of commissioners heard from nine area residents, who took advantage of the comment periods that bookend all of the board’s regular meetings. Rather than respond to these speakers directly, as has been their wont in the past, the commissioners generally held their tongues on the advice of Alamance County’s attorney, who had counseled silence in light of a pending lawsuit over protest restrictions in the city of Graham.

In the meantime, several dozen demonstrators fulminated outside the county’s headquarters, emboldened by a recent change in municipal policy that has lifted the aforementioned restrictions on protests. As the commissioners plodded through that evening’s agenda, the sound of speeches and chants broke in from the street below – punctuated by an occasional sound effect that resembled a police siren crossed with a slide whistle.

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The commotion outside of the county’s headquarters made the proceedings within the building hard for even some of the commissioners to follow. The crowd’s shouts of “No justice; no peace” could be distinctly heard in the board’s chambers. No less distracting was an oft-repeated cadence aimed at Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson: “Hey, hey; ho, ho,” this singsong declaration intoned; “Terry Johnson has got to go!”

Johnson, who was on hand during the meeting, ultimately piped up when the cacophony became overwhelming for some of the commissioners.

“The city of Graham gave them permission to do it,” the sheriff said matter-of-factly after commissioner Tim Sutton admitted that he couldn’t make out the conversation on the dais over the noise from the street.

The right to remain silent

By and large, the commissioners bore the ruckus outside with uncharacteristic stoicism. They showed the same patience with the speakers who addressed them inside, even when their remarks undermined the board’s standing rules and procedures for public comments.

The board’s forbearance was nevertheless put to the test by the very first speaker – Beulah Mitchell, who addressed the commissioners during the meeting’s first comment period, which is reserved for topics that appear on the meeting agenda.

Mitchell was one of two speakers who had availed themselves of a call-in option that the board has offered during the coronavirus pandemic. When she had signed up for her phone call, Mitchell had indicated that she planned to discuss meeting minutes that the commissioners were slated to rubberstamp during Monday’s proceedings. Yet, once she got on the horn, she called out certain commissioners over statements they made shortly before the death of George Floyd, whose murder at the hands of Minneapolis police has inspired mass demonstrations all over the globe.

Mitchell took commissioner Bill Lashley to task for suggesting a week before Floyd’s death that things had been better decades ago when police could just “beat the hell out of ” demonstrators.

“Lashley’s comments are a self-indictment of a racist police culture in which he was once a willing participant and continues to instigate,” she added. “Your more recent, feeble attempt to apologize,” she went on, addressing the commissioner directly, “simply layered on more injury. Resign immediately.” Mitchell also demanded the resignation of the board’s chairman Amy Scott Galey for “chuckling” in response to Lashley’s attempted bon mot and of commissioner Tim Sutton for endorsing a gettough approach to vandalism, which Sutton has strenuously insisted referred to issues in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina unrelated to the recent demonstrations. Although Galey allowed Mitchell to say her piece, she later acknowledged that the caller’s remarks were not really suited to the first comment period since they were only “purportedly related to agenda items.” The board’s chairman declared that she would enforce the board’s public comment policies more strictly during the second commend period – which had another nine speakers signed up to address various nonagenda items.

Galey insisted that she would abide by the board’s 3- minute quota for each speaker as well as the 30- minute limit that the commissioners had previously imposed on each of the two comment periods. She also warned that she planned to follow another policy that allows no more than three speakers on a particular topic during any one comment period.

“While I have been chair, I have interpreted that to be three speakers in support of a topic and three speakers who are opposed to a topic,” she said before she kicked off the second comment period. “If, as their comments develop, it appears that a person has not been forthright, I will ask that person to return to their seat, or discontinue that phone call if it’s a phone call. “The intention I have in enforcing the rules is that everybody is treated fairly and everybody is treated the same,” she added, “and if one person does not obey the rules, it possibly prevents other persons from being heard.”

Southern discomfort

In the end, Galey didn’t follow through on her threat despite the repetitiveness of the speakers, who were chiefly preoccupied with the nearby Confederate monument.

Six of the eight speakers who took part in the second comment period ultimately called on the commissioners to remove this memorial, which is topped with the statue of a boyish-looking soldier in Rebel regalia.

Rochelle Ford, a professor who recently joined the faculty at Elon University, contrasted the lingering presence of this memorial to people “who fought to maintain the institution of slavery” with the virtual non-existence of similar tributes to another less-than-savory episode in another nation’s history.

“There are no statues in Germany, commissioners, representing the Nazis,” Ford observed.

A number of speakers objected to the memorial as a potential threat to public safety – echoing a plea that Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood had made to the commissioners during one round of dueling demonstrations over the monument.

“Nothing good for the people of this community could come from an eruption of violence whether at the hands of civilians or law enforcement,” Elon alderman Quinn Ray said when he got his turn at the podium. “Commissioners, you must choose,” he added before borrowing some of the exact words that Hagood had used in his ultimately futile appeal to the commissioners to let him relocate the memorial. “One path leads to two outcomes – either deadly force or disgrace. The other path involves setting aside lazy us versus them [narratives]…This is now an issue of public safety.”

Amy Cooper, a self-described mother of five, began her own remarks by sharing her chagrin over the death of Jaquyn Light, a black man who was fatally shot by a black police officer in Graham during a late-night attempt to serve an arrest warrant [See separate story this edition]. Yet, Cooper eventually meandered into the same subject area that a majority of the other speakers had occupied.

“I’m ashamed that there is even a debate about removing a statue that has been described by multiple media outlets as a lightning rod for violence,” she said in reference to the Confederate memorial. “If such a big problem can be fixed by something like moving a statue to a secure location, why wouldn’t it be done…The sooner we begin to make plans to relocate the statue, the sooner we can begin healing.”

Cooper also voiced her distress over the drastically different treatment that she felt law enforcement officials have doled out to critics and supporters of the memorial when they’ve gathered in Court Square. This same gripe was aired by other speakers who, likewise, urged the commissioners to remove the memorial.

Rebels with a cause

Several speakers also alluded to the Burlington-based group Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County (ACTBAC), which has organized a number of rallies in support of the Confederate monument. Originally formed in 2015 to oppose the conversion of an area church into a mosque, ACTBAC was soon designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Although the left-leaning law center has since dropped ACTBAC from its roster of hate groups, the organization’s erstwhile designation was still fresh on the minds of public speakers like Meg Williams.

During her remarks to the commissioners, Williams recalled one recent demonstration against police brutality that she said also drew aficionados of ACTBAC who were bent on terrorizing the “peaceful” protesters.

“What we saw was abhorrent,” she recounted. “NeoConfederates were crowded in the streets and on the sidewalks, boasting their support of a known racist, waving flags synonymous with the institution of slavery, sporting shirts branding them members of ACTBAC, which as you know the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled a hate group in 2017…hurling insults simply for being there, openly carrying weapons, which does not feel peaceful when the owners of those weapons are referring to you as target practice.”

Williams insisted that the law enforcement officials who were on hand did nothing about the provocations of these “Neo-Confederates” although she contended that they quickly dispersed the anti-brutality demonstrators as they gathered in Court Square. It is also unclear when Williams reportedly saw Confederate sympathizers toting guns. During the most recent mass gathering on July 11, both demonstrators and counter demonstrators were forbidden to have firearms, whether concealed or openly displayed, under the terms of an emergency declaration that Graham’s mayor Jerry Peterman had issued.

Equally uneasy about the apparently disparate treatment was Carey Griffin, who complained that a Graham police officer had ordered antiracism demonstrators to disperse on June 4.

Carey Griffin
Carey Griffin

“Fifteen days later,” Griffin continued, “Neo-Confederates gathered in Court Square, many armed, and were not made to disperse for hours even after they assaulted two people. Commissioners do you not consider this a double standard? [Griffin made no mention of two Rebel sympathizers who were arrested for assaulting or violently confronting two people at a demonstration on June 20.]

“ACTBAC, once identified as a hate group, continues to occupy Graham in an effort to preserve THEIR Southern heritage and THEIR monument,” Griffin added. “We continue to show up peacefully while white supremacists have assaulted others and posted their threats on social media against this movement. This has become a public safety issue. Relocation is the only answer for the Confederate monument…I recognize the monument is just one symptom of the deep-seeded racism in Alamance County. But until the statute is moved, we as a community cannot begin to repair the bigger issues – that black and brown lives and disproportionately policed, killed, and jailed over their white counterparts. Yes, right here in Alamance County.”

The portrayal of ACTBAC as bloodthirsty white nationalists doesn’t entirely square with the group’s actual record during mass gatherings in front of the courthouse. Even the Southern Poverty Law Center found little to support such a characterization when it profiled the group in 2017.

In its account of one rally that spring, the law center noted that ACTBAC had distanced itself from its roots as a small-scale revolt over a new mosque in Burlington. The center acknowledged that the group has since “abandoned the overtly anti-Muslim rhetoric it championed” and has “scrubbed” its Facebook page “of the most inflammatory material against Muslims.”

“ACTBAC NC presently resides firmly in the ‘flagger’ camp of the Neo-Confederate community,” the center concludes, “who concern themselves mostly with ‘heritage violations,’ and who fundraise to install flag poles with the Confederate Battle Flag (CBF) and other flags of the Confederacy.”

ACTBAC’s focus on the preservation of symbols may explain why the law center has dropped the organization from its catalog of hate groups in North Carolina.

More of the same

The commissioners also heard some remarks on Monday that didn’t specifically address either the Confederate monument or the demonstrations in Court Square, but which nevertheless touched on the same general themes.

Quencyln Ellison, a 35-year resident of Alamance County, shared some general observations about “racist actions” that she said have been perpetrated more openly lately – even by some of the county commissioners.

Meanwhile, Dreama Caldwell, a Democratic contender for the board of commissioners, admonished the board’s current all-Republican membership to be more attentive to their constituents.

“As a board, you have failed to make a statement on what’s going on in the community, and it leads us to believe that you just don’t care,” she told the commissioners. “I ask that you take the time to listen to the residents and see how they feel…I implore you to listen not to defend a position. But to listen…If any of you did not want to have this kind of input from the citizens, then why did you become public servants?”

The only remarks that deviated from the general tenor of Monday’s public comments came from Michael Graves, a civil rights advocate who has worked closely with local law enforcement officials on a number of issues. Graves, who addressed the commissioners by phone on Monday, defended the sheriff and his subordinates after he heard several other speakers denounce their alleged indifference to people of color. Graves nevertheless made it clear that he himself is in favor of the Confederate monument’s removal.

“What I have asked the commissioners is if we can respectfully remove the statue to a Civil War museum,” he said. “That would be acceptable for any reasonable person.”

Graves added that, however, that his push to relocate the monument hit a brick wall when he was instructed to work things out with its most fervent admirers.

“I was told I have to work with ACTBAC which is a known hate group that thinks I’m a second class citizen,” he added. “That is insulting to me.”

‘Let us speak’

In spite of their shared interests, Graves was the only public speaker whose remarks met with jeers rather than applause from an overflow room, where county officials had corralled expectant speakers and other audience members. Graves may have owed this hostile reception, in part, to his opening remarks, which not only defended the sheriff but tut-tutted other speakers on factual inaccuracies, such as an erroneous statement that Jaquyn Light had been “shot in the back.”

The rest of the speakers not only warmed the overflow crowd; they were also cheered by the protesters, who were apparently watching a live stream of the meeting that the county had broadcast on YouTube. Ironically enough, given their continuous remonstrations during the meeting, the protesters could be heard chanting “let us speak” as the second comment period drew to a close.

The presence of demonstrators outside the county’s headquarters also raised some concerns for the sheriff, who instructed his deputies to escort the commissioners to their cars after the meeting. These designated escorts shepherded most of the board members out of the building immediately after Galey brought down the gavel, although the demonstrators were already long gone by then.

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