Activists score victory in North Carolina hotbed of racism -- thanks to a visiting judge
Nicholas Cassette outside the Alamance County Detention Center. Credit: Anthony Crider

A North Carolina judge has dismissed a misdemeanor rioting charge against a 35-year-old Black man whose forcible arrest during a protest against COVID conditions at a local jail last September led to additional arrests as activists reacted in anger and astonishment.

The warrant alleged that by trespassing outside the Alamance County Detention Center and refusing the commands of officers, Nicholas Cassette incited "further unruly activity from a crowd of protestors who increasingly became disorderly."

Judge Lunsford Long, a visiting judge from neighboring Orange County, said during the trial on Wednesday that he found it difficult to believe that Cassette sought his own arrest.

Long also dismissed a charge of second-degree trespassing after hearing testimony that the time elapsed between the initial order to leave the area and when sheriff's deputies took Cassette to the ground was less than 30 seconds, but found him guilty of resisting an officer because he sought to take a different path than the one intended by the officers. The judge called it "another de minimis case of resistance."

Cassette, a local artist, illustrator and musician, had been trailing behind a group of roughly 15 activists on Sept. 9 as they marched a couple blocks from a government building where the county board of commissioners was meeting that day to the jail because, as he testified, he wanted to maintain proper social distancing to avoid exposure to COVID. Cassette carried a single black balloon representative of one of the 99 COVID cases that had been reported in the jail at that time.

When the marchers reached the jail, Cassette broke from the larger group, walking across the parking lot and then along a sidewalk in front of the sheriff's office. A sheriff's deputy ordered Cassette to "go back to the sidewalk." Cassette testified that he was initially confused because he already was on a sidewalk, but quickly realized the deputy meant the sidewalk across the parking lot that runs along the street. Two deputies grabbed him, and Cassette testified they were pushing and pulling him in slightly different directions. He said he gestured that he wanted to leave by a diagonal path where there were fewer people.

"He just ignored us and tried to push and walk past us," Deputy J. Adams testified. Adams acknowledged to Judge Long that he tripped Cassette after Cassette tried to jerk away from the officers. One of the deputies dropped his keys, and Cassette testified that he had to move his head to avoid having his face pressed into them. His glasses were also knocked off his face.

The arrest caused a commotion, as other protesters who had been leaving the parking lot turned around and started moving closer to see what was happening, while chanting, "Let him go." Subsequently, three other protesters — including Nicholas Cassette's wife, Katherine — were arrested. The prosecutor dismissed a disorderly conduct charge against Katherine Cassette before her case went to trial. In an earlier trial, Long found Dionne Liles not guilty of assaulting an officer, but guilty of second-degree trespass and resisting. He found protest organizer Magdalene Blunk guilty of disorderly conduct and resisting.

The prosecutor and deputies who testified in the trial also argued that Nicholas Cassette's conduct was inciting a disturbance by the people housed in the jail, but the charging document makes no mention of it.

Protesters chanted, "We see you, we love you," which has become a standard component of Black Lives Matter rallies across the country when they come into the vicinity of detention facilities. Deputies testified that people inside the jail responded by banging on the windows. Cassette testified that during the brief period when he encountered the deputies he had no awareness of any reaction from people inside the jail.

Cassette said after the trial on Wednesday that he is relieved to have the rioting charge dismissed.

"We were there to encourage safety and accountability," he said. "Rioting is the last thing we'd want to see. It was not just the safety of the people in the jail that we were concerned about, but also the people who work there."

Graham, the seat of government in Alamance County, was the site of almost daily protests following the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd. Opposition to a Confederate monument erected in front of the Historical Courthouse in downtown Graham during the Jim Crow era was the focal point of many of the Black Lives Matter protests, along with COVID conditions in the jail, voting rights, and heavy-handed tactics by law enforcement. Dozens of antiracist protesters and right-wing counter-protesters were arrested and charged during the protests, which culminated in an Oct. 31 march to the polls that was disrupted when police deployed pepper fogger.

Of 80 misdemeanor charges against antiracists arrested in Graham last year — mainly failure to disperse, impeding traffic and resisting — about a quarter have been dismissed while seven have resulted in not-guilty verdicts, according to an analysis by Raw Story. Eleven charges, including one for weapons at parades, have yielded guilty verdicts, while more than half are still pending.

Additionally, Rev. Greg Drumwright, who organized the ill-fated Oct. 31 march to the polls, faces a felony charge of assault on a law enforcement officer. An indictment alleges that Drumwright's actions caused an officer to fall resulting in bruising on her arm during a scuffle when deputies attempted to remove a gas generator that was being used to power the sound system at the rally.

Neo-Confederate counter-protesters who regularly heckled Black Lives Matter protesters have received about a dozen charges. Two have been convicted of assault on a female and disorderly conduct, respectively, while five other charges have been dismissed and four are still pending.

The Alamance County District Attorney's office is also prosecuting Tomas Murawski, a reporter for the weekly newspaper the Alamance News, for resisting an officer stemming from his arrest while he was covering the Oct. 31 march.

The North Carolina NAACP filed a lawsuit against Alamance County on Tuesday, demanding removal of the Confederate monument on the basis that it poses a threat to public safety.

In another case decided on Wednesday, Judge Long found Lee Vaughn guilty of assault and battery against a neo-Confederate counter-protester. Vaughn, who regularly photographed protests in Graham last year, was documenting a nighttime gathering on Sept. 4 to protest an incident in which a 52-year-old white woman had swerved her vehicle at two 12-year-old girls, who are Black at Latinx. (The woman later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon.)

An antiracist protester named Courtney Dempsey, who was wearing a headlamp, got in front of a neo-Confederate counter-protester named Steven Marley to prevent him from filming the rally with his phone. Dempsey testified that Marley attempted to grab the headlamp off their head; according to Marley's account, he held up his hand to block the light so he could see where he was going. Whatever the case, the scene erupted in chaos. In a previous interview with Raw Story, Vaughn said he stepped in between Marley and Dempsey, and said, "You're not going to assault a female in front of me."

Vaughn told Raw Story that Marley punched him in the face, and that he hit Marley back in self-defense.

About seven minutes prior to the altercation with Dempsey and Vaughn, Marley struck another antiracist protester, Leesa Pauling. Marley was previously convicted of assault on a female in that incident.

Vaughn's lawyer submitted cell phone video into evidence that recorded him speaking to a police officer as he was taken into custody. "He hit a woman in the face, and he hit me in the face," Vaughn can be heard saying. "What was I supposed to do?"

Judge Long rejected an argument by Vaughn's lawyer that he was acting in self-defense.

"I don't think this is self-defense," Long said. "I think it's retribution." Vaughn is appealing the verdict.

On Wednesday, the prosecutor also dismissed charges against two defendants who were arrested for failure to disperse during the Oct. 31 march to the polls.

Kelly Skahan told Raw Story she had volunteered with the North Carolina Democratic Party as a poll observer at polling places in North Carolina every Saturday in October. On Oct. 31, she was in Graham monitoring the march as it passed near the Confederate monument.

Skahan said the Oct. 31 march was her first experience being pepper-sprayed and arrested. Samson Asiyanbi of New York City was also charged with failure to disperse during the march.

Skahan said she flew from Seattle for her trial on Wednesday. Instead of trying the cases, Assistant District Attorney Kevin Harrison voluntarily dismissed them, noting on their paperwork: "Interest of justice; defendant finally vacating area at time of arrest."