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; one was found not guilty; and another case involving a protester who was charged with resisting arrest was 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 found Rion Kelly Thompson, 23, black male, of 611 Atwater Street in Greensboro,
guilty of misdemeanor failure to disperse on command during a march and rally in downtown Graham on Halloween day that ended with pepper spray.
Both defendants who were charged October 31 with failure to disperse and whose cases have been heard so far have been found guilty.
In addition to Thompson, Regis Kishon Green, 28, black male, of 4600 University Drive, Apartment 302, Durham was found guilty last month of misdemeanor failure to disperse on command, for failing to leave the grounds of the Historic Court House as instructed on October 31; a sentencing hearing in that case remains pending. Also pending are hearings for another 20 defendants who were arrested the same day on similar charges, based on Alamance County court files.
Halloween day march and rally
Two of the three cases that Long heard Wednesday involved arrests made during the “I Am Change Legacy March to the Polls” in downtown Graham on October 31.
Attorney Meredith Cairo said Wednesday that she was “standing in” for Thompson’s attorney, Emily Gibson of Gibson Law in Wake County. Over the course of an hour and a half Wednesday afternoon, Long heard testimony from Alamance County sheriff’s deputies Pete Triolo and Jason Cannady. Neither deputy said he had been directly involved in the defendant’s arrest; both had been assigned to work as part of a special response team and were stationed inside the Historic Court House, where they were able to observe the chain of events around the time of Thompson’s arrest that afternoon.
Reiterating similar testimony he had given during Green’s trial last month, Triolo recalled Wednesday that he had been instructed to give the command to disperse shortly after 1:00 p.m. on October 31, following the discovery of two gas can and a running gas-powered generator that had been concealed inside a cloth wagon.
While both he and Cannady testified Wednesday that the tenor of the event changed markedly following the discovery of the gas cans and generator, which had been prohibited under the terms of a facilities use permit that Rev. Gregory Drumwright of Greensboro been granted for his march and rally.
Two airborne uses of pepper spray could be observed, one here, which the sheriff’s office insisted occurred after a female officer was assaulted. She also sprayed into the air as she fell.
A scuffle started after deputies went to confiscate the gas cans and generator and a deputy, later identified as corporal Barbara Tomey of the Alamance County sheriff’s office, was assaulted, Triolo recalled on the witness stand.
Almost immediately, the atmosphere shifted from being peaceful, though “definitely anti-law enforcement but not antagonistic” to “extremely volatile, ever-changing, combative,” as Triolo described the October 31 march and rally.
Both Triolo and Cannady acknowledged on the witness stand that Thompson was not involved in any way with the scuffle, or the alleged assault on the female deputy.
For his part, Cannady testified that he had been assigned to the special response team that day and remained on standby inside the Historic Court House “just in case the event deteriorated.”
Cairo played for the judge a 6-minute video from the event, with audio in which Drumwright can be heard, singing in unison with the marchers, “We’re ready, we’re ready – we’re ready for change,” before telling the crowd, “We didn’t come here to cause no trouble,” after recounting the lynching of Wyatt Outlaw, a constable and the first black Graham commissioner, at the hands of Ku Klux Klan sympathizers in downtown Graham in February 1870.
Thompson later testified that law enforcement first used pepper fog to get the crowd out of the roadway after they paused and kneeled 8 minutes and 46 in memory of George Floyd, who was killed while in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, 2020.
Cairo argued that, in order to prove Thompson guilty of the charge, the state had to prove the elements of the crime, which include that a law enforcement officer had reason to believe that a riot, or disorderly conduct by three or more persons, was occurring.
“Mr. Thompson is being charged with failing to disperse,” Cairo contended. “Under the elements of [the statute], he must’ve been engaged in disorderly conduct or a riot.” Instead, she said, citing a prior ruling, he was being charged with violating the permitting process, which he also had no involvement in, Cairo said.
Long twice denied two separate motions to dismiss that Cairo had made, concluding that three warnings had been given for the crowd to disperse, and the defendant failed to comply.
“I think he’s guilty. I don’t think he’s a criminal – he’s a very nice man.”
– district court judge william lunsford Long, III
Thompson also testified Wednesday that two deputies had “bum-rushed him” apparently trying to get to the generator on the Court House grounds, in the same general area as the stage that Drumwright had set up. “They didn’t care that people were standing there, and that created a dysfunction within the situation,” he said. Prior to his arrest, Thompson had joined several others on the stage as a show of support, he explained.
Though Thompson said the female deputy had fallen while trying to get to the generator, he too acknowledged that the tone changed immediately afterward. “It changed from being very peaceful – there was a pepper spray that had already happened – [to] creating an atmosphere that was confrontational,” he testified
.“This was civil disobedience,” Cairo said in closing, after the judge denied her second motion to dismiss the charge. “They were just kneeling; they were practicing their First Amendment rights. I am challenging the fact that this wasn’t a lawful command.” Those people who had been involved with the permitting process and who violated its terms should’ve been taken aside, instead of casting blame on the entire group, she said.
“I think he’s guilty,” Long concluded, adding, “I don’t think he’s a criminal – he’s a very nice man.” The judge offered to enter a prayer for judgment, meaning that the charge would be dismissed within a year, providing that Thompson isn’t charged with a similar offense during that period.
Cairo rejected that offer, telling the judge her client preferred to appeal.
Long sentenced Thompson to five days in jail – which he then suspended – and ordered him to complete unsupervised probation and pay a fine and court costs.
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 protester found not guilty for earlier (June) protest: https://alamancenews.com/protester-from-earlier-june-rally-found-not-guilty/