Prosecutor slammed for bringing case against North Carolina man who defied unconstitutional protest ban
Matthew Edwards protests against a Confederate monument in defiance of a protest ban in Graham, NC that was later found to be unconstitutional by a federal judge. (Photo by Anthony Crider)

Matthew Edwards was arrested last summer standing on a sidewalk and holding a "Black Lives Matter" sign in defiance of a protest ban in Graham, NC. On Wednesday, a judge found him not guilty of resisting an officer and failure to disperse on command.

Edwards, a 28-year-old restoration professional who repairs fire-damaged buildings, had claimed a spot on the sidewalk across the street from a Confederate monument on a Saturday morning in late June 2020. The monument stands sentry at the entrance of the Historic Courthouse in the center of Graham and has long been a source of tension in surrounding Alamance County, once a hub of the textile industry that is undergoing a demographic shift with a rapidly growing Latinx population and an influx of new residents from the nearby cities of Raleigh and Durham. Edwards held up a sign reading "Black Lives Matter" on one side, and "Destroy hateful heritage" on the other, as passing drivers gave him the middle finger and yelled "Trump!" Others who were sympathetic to his message, at least one who brought her own sign, stood beside Edwards.

Graham police officers confiscated Edwards' sign and forced him to the ground, causing onlookers to react with stunned disbelief, and officers ordered them to disperse, according to photographer Anthony Crider.

Arrest of Matthew Edwards in Graham, NC

Edwards was one of six people, including the local NAACP president and a member of the county board of elections, who were arrested for protesting the Confederate monument while the protest ban was in effect. The Alamance County NAACP sued the city for violating the First Amendment right of freedom of assembly. Eight weeks after Edwards' arrest, the city lifted the protest ban in compliance with an order issued by US District Court Judge Catherine Eagles.

Lunsford Long, a visiting judge from neighboring Orange County, told Assistant District Attorney Kevin Harrison on Wednesday that he was surprised the case even made it to court.

"I have a problem with this case, Mr. Harrison," Lunsford said. "I'm surprised you're proceeding with it. People have a First Amendment right to express their views."

Harrison responded that the officers acted reasonably based on what they understood to be their job to be.

"If it turns out they didn't have lawful authority, doesn't he have a right to resist?" Long asked.

Harrison replied that the officers were enforcing the law as it was written at the time.

"The law was the same; it just hadn't been declared," Long retorted, before declaring Edwards not guilty.

As a wave of protests against police violence erupted across the nation last summer in response to the killing of George Floyd, the city of Graham clamped down on demonstrations through a series of emergency orders and its restrictive public gatherings ordinance. Once the protest ban was lifted, the Confederate monument became the focal point for a series of tense confrontations between antiracists and neo-Confederates over police violence and Trump's reelection bid, resulting in more than 100 charges against more than 50 defendants. The unrest in Graham culminated in an Oct. 31 march to the polls on the final day of early voting that was disrupted when police used pepper fog against the crowd, including children, and arrested more than 20 people, including a newspaper reporter.

Edwards told the court on Wednesday that grew up in Graham and attended Southern Alamance High School. As a teenager, he said he "drank the tea" by not questioning the underlying white supremacy inherent in veneration of Confederate symbols.

"Growing up, I said, 'It's just Southern heritage,'" Edwards testified. Later, he joined the Army, where he served as a military police officer, and experienced an epiphany on race relations. Edwards testified that he believed he had a duty to resist an unlawful order to disperse as a matter of upholding his oath when he joined the Army.

"It wasn't just me," Edwards said after the trial. "I felt like it was every single veteran who got their face spit on when they violated my rights. That is what we're supposed to protect."

Edwards was wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt, which has been widely associated with the boogaloo movement at the time of his arrest. Since then, Edwards said he had been told that the boogaloo movement represents white supremacy, and he wants to distance himself from it.

Judge Long also heard two additional cases arising from the ill-fated Oct. 31 march to the polls during the session on Wednesday.

Long dismissed a misdemeanor charge of resisting a public officer against William Traynor, a community development consultant, who was the first person arrested that day. The arrests began soon Graham police deployed pepper fogger in an attempt to clear the streets following 8 minutes and 46 seconds when marchers knelt in the street to honor George Floyd. The second person arrested was Tomas Murawski, a reporter for the Alamance News whose charge of resisting an officer is still pending.

Officer Eric Jordan testified he placed Traynor under arrest after several orders were given to move out of the street. As evidence for the charge of resisting, Jordan testified that Traynor tensed up when he turned around to allow the officer to put him in handcuffs. Judge Long expressed puzzlement that Traynor was charged with resisting without an accompanying charge for the alleged underlying offense. He also said he thought Traynor's response to the arrest was minimal.

"I think people instinctively tense up when they're about to be arrested," Long said.

Patrick Morgan, Traynor's lawyer, said his client was hit by pepper fog after the marchers knelt to honor Floyd, and then moved to the sidewalk across the street from the Confederate monument. Once the street was clear, Morgan said, some officers were allowing people to cross so they could get to an area where organizers were setting up a stage in front of the Historic Courthouse.

"That's when he crossed over," Morgan said. "He was trying to keep an eye on law enforcement. He didn't want to get sprayed again."

Arrests of William Traynor and Tomas Murawski during March to the Polls in Graham, NC

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is representing several of the marchers in a lawsuit against the Graham Police Department and Alamance County Sheriff's Office, alleging violations of the First and Fourth amendments, and also violations of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, which sought to protect newly enfranchised voters from intimidation, harassment and violence after the Civil War. Rev. Gregory Drumwright, who organized the Oct. 31 march, faces felony charges of assault against a law enforcement officer and obstructing justice. Drumwright has declared that he is innocent of the charges, which he described as retaliatory.

Rion Thompson, the campaign manager for a Democratic candidate for Alamance County Board of Commissioners, was in the crowd when officers began spraying pepper fog in front of people's feet. He moved towards the stage, where organizers were determined to continue the rally, as arrests and injuries resulting from the pepper fog mounted. Thompson was standing near a generator powering the sound system for the rally, which sheriff's deputies had determined to be a safety hazard.

The deputies pushed through the protesters in an attempt to take possession of a gas-powered generator, Thompson testified. He said he observed a deputy fall during the ensuing struggle and release a spray of some kind of chemical agent "in someone's face."

"Now, to be bum-rushed for a generator created an atmosphere that was confrontational," Thompson testified. "It doesn't paint a picture that we're supposed to be safe."

In response to the police conduct, Thompson testified that "some people were standing, some were shouting, some were crying; it was varied emotions." He told Judge Long that he went to the stage "to stand with the people who were there."

By that time, roughly a dozen deputies had emerged from the courthouse dressed in tactical gear. Thompson acknowledged that he ignored three verbal commands prior to his arrest for failure to disperse.

Thompson's lawyer argued that the command to disperse was unlawful, but the judge disagreed.

"I believe the command was lawful," Long said. "People were engaging in riotous behavior. He violated the command. I think he's guilty."

Judge Long said he would sentence Thompson to a suspended sentence of five days in jail suspended, saying, "I think this process is punishment enough." But Thompson informed the court that he would appeal the verdict.

Another case arising from the months of protests last summer and fall in Graham concluded on Tuesday, when a different judge found neo-Confederate Steven Darrell Marley guilty of assault on a female for striking a Black woman during a melee that took place in August. Marley's lawyer said he is "on disability and doesn't have a lot of money." The judge handed out a minimal sentence of court costs.