'I was afraid for my life': BLM activists mostly victorious in NC case that challenged unconstitutional protest ban
Alamance County NAACP President Barrett Brown was arrested for defying the city of Graham's unconstitutional protest ban on July 25, 2020. (photo by Anthony Crider)

A visiting judge dismissed charges on Wednesday against a local NAACP president and three others who defied a protest ban in Graham, a small city in the central Piedmont region of North Carolina, last summer.

Sheriff's deputies arrested Barrett Brown, president of the Alamance County NAACP, after he picked up a "Black Lives Matter" sign during a July 25 press conference and walked across the street to hold it while standing next to a divisive Confederate monument in front of the Historic Courthouse. Three others, including a Democratic member of the county board of elections, walked over to join Brown and were also arrested.

Judge Lunsford Long interrupted cross-examination of a sheriff's deputy called by Assistant District Attorney Kevin Harrison, saying, "Mr. Harrison, I have a problem with your case."

Long questioned the basis for charging the four defendants with impeding traffic, and with resisting when they declined to obey officers' orders to leave the area. The area where Brown and the other defendants were standing was part of a crosswalk marked by red, stamped pavement that runs along the side of the monument. With traffic moving counter-clockwise around the traffic circle, a vehicle would have to run through the monument to hit the defendants, and Brown noted after the hearing that seven vehicles passed while he was speaking with the officers. "The legislative intent is clear," Long said. "It says a defendant must 'willfully place themselves on the streets and highways so as to impede the regular flow of traffic.'"

Attempting to salvage the resisting charges, Harrison sought to direct the court's attention to the fact that the area was defined as part of "roadway," saying that it should be considered apart from a "debate" at the time "about a total prohibition against protest in the downtown area."

"What?" Judge Long asked in astonishment.

"I know," the prosecutor said, before running out of arguments.

Long's decision to dismiss charges against the four defendants came on the heels of a ruling last week dismissing charges against another man, Matthew Edwards, who had been arrested for holding a "Black Lives Matter" sign on a public sidewalk in Graham a month earlier. District Attorney Sean Boone told Raw Story last week that Judge Long's dismissal of the charges against Edwards did not sway his intentions to try the case against Brown and his co-defendants. "We evaluate each case on its own facts and merits, and will do so with the cases you referenced," he wrote in an email. "We will not be peremptorily dismissing them at this time."

Along with co-defendants Rev. Walter Allison, Noah Read and Amie Christina Harrison, Brown celebrated the outcome in the hallway outside the courtroom with their attorneys from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

"I'm confused as to why they continued to pursue this," Brown said. "To me, it speaks to the narrative we're experiencing in Graham, with the Confederate monument, martial law and the refusal to rename the park. They're dead-set against the kind of change that would move the county forward."

Following their arrests, the four defendants sang "We Shall Overcome" while riding in a sheriff's van to the jail.

After Judge Long dismissed charges on Wednesday, Brown thanked his lawyer, saying, "You proved us right…. It just took nine months."

Brown and others are calling on the city of Graham to rename a small park in the northwest corner of the Court Square, which is across the street from the courthouse and Confederate monument, to honor Wyatt Outlaw, a Black town commissioner and constable who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1870. Now called Sesquicentennial Park, the park is believed to be the location where Outlaw was murdered.

The park was also the setting for another case tried on Wednesday. Maurice Wells Jr., a local Black Lives Matter activist who attended protests against the Confederate monument and racist policing week after week last summer and fall, was arrested by Sheriff Terry Johnson in the park on July 11, 2020 on charges of disorderly conduct and failure to disperse on command. Wells' arrest came at the culmination of a March for Justice & Community led by Rev. Gregory Drumwright. At the time, the protest ban — based on a restrictive public gathering ordinance and a series of emergency orders issued by Mayor Jerry Peterman — was still in force. In the hours leading up to the march, it remained unclear whether the city would allow the march or provide police protection. The event also unfolded under a cloud of threats from neo-Confederates, including a man affiliated with the white nationalist group League of the South who suggested on social media that counter-protesters "roll out the trucks," adding, "Use them like a tank."

Drumwright led about 600 marchers from neighboring Burlington to downtown Graham, as 50 neo-Confederate counter-protesters jeered from Sesquicentennial/Wyatt Outlaw Park. Among them were members of League of the South, along with Jay Thaxton, a Proud Boy who would be arrested by the Washington DC Metro police on Jan. 6 for curfew violation, and ACTBAC, a local neo-Confederate formation that was previously listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. ACTBAC, an acronym for Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, came to local prominence in 2017 as a staunch defender of Confederate monuments, locally and across North Carolina.

Pamela Chestek, a legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild, testified for the defense that the counter-protesters continuously rang a 400-pound cast metal bell in the park while Drumwright and others spoke from a portable stage nearby.

"They were ringing that bell for the duration — dong, dong, dong," Chestek said. "It brought a lot of commotion to the protest."

A small group of antiracist protesters shouted back and forth with the counter-protesters, but most remained focused on the speakers, and at 3 p.m. the event ended and most people left.

Sheriff Johnson testified that he had observed the protest and noted that it was "peaceful," and had returned to his office by 3:10 or 3:15 p.m. He said he received a call from his major saying that Graham police were requesting his presence because tensions between the two opposing sides had ratcheted up. Johnson testified that he was called upon to personally intervene because "I know a lot of people, being from Alamance County."

Johnson testified that he focused his attention on Gary Williamson Jr., who is the leader of ACTBAC, and his father, Gary Williamson Sr., along with Wells.

Johnson placed his hand on the younger Williamson's shoulder and told him "if he didn't leave he was going to go to jail."

Testifying about Sheriff Johnson's interactions with the ACTBAC leader, Chestek said: "They seemed to have a friendly relationship. [Johnson] seemed to be trying to soothe [Williamson]."

Johnson testified under cross-examination that he knew Williamson from coaching him on a football team at Southern Alamance High School. Although he had mentioned Williamson's association with the group in his previous testimony, Johnson told the court he didn't know much about the group other than "it has something to do with the Confederacy."

Johnson testified that Wells was ringing the bell while he was trying to talk to the Williamsons.

"Maurice was cursing them," the sheriff testified. "I said — I think I called him 'son' — I said, 'Son, quit ringing the bell. All you're doing is causing problems and costing taxpayers money.' Maurice threw his hands out and said, 'Take me to f-ing jail.'"

Lindsay Ayling, an antiracist activist who witnessed the arrest, disputed Johnson's assertion that Wells continuously rang the bell, telling Raw Story that he she only observed him ring it once.

"Other Black activists had rang the bell," she said. "It was to show that Black people were in control because the racists had been ringing it to interrupt Drumwright's rally."

Video Chestek took that was submitted into evidence showed Wells dancing and singing the Anita Ward disco song "Ring My Bell" and then later mocking the neo-Confederates by saying, "You mad, motherfucker," and, "You're mad 'cause I rang your bell." The elder Williamson can be seen in the video shaking a wooden pole with a flag wrapped around it and shouting.

Chestek's video showed a commotion as a different Black activist, who is unidentified, shouted at a police officer, then turned abruptly to show Wells being led away in handcuffs.

"I didn't see anything going on that would lead to Wells' arrest," Chestek testified. "I saw something more imminent — a yelling match between a young man and a police officer."

After Wells' arrest, Chestek's video showed Detective Kenneth Brown, who accompanied Sheriff Johnson, explain to protesters that Wells was arrested because "he was told to watch his language."

Chestek testified that he heard Wells say, "This is our MF-ing bell."

He testified that profanity doesn't bother him, saying, "As a Northerner, profanity is part of our vernacular."

But something about Wells' language struck him as different.

"I felt the way he was acting and yelling at the crowd, he was trying to incite violence," Brown said.

Johnson acknowledged during cross-examination that the neo-Confederate counter-protesters had rung the bell for the duration of Rev. Drumwright's speech.

"They had a right to ring that bell," he said.

The sheriff also admitted under oath that the counter-protesters had used foul language.

"The First Amendment gives them a right to say what they want to, but when you incite a fight that's different," he testified.

Johnson was first elected sheriff of Alamance County in 2002, and ran unopposed in his last election in 2018. He testified on Wednesday that he started his law enforcement career with the Pitt County Sheriff's Office in the early 1970s. It was there that he first received crowd control training in 1972, he testified, because "we had some unrest due to a shooting down there." The killing of William Murphy, a Black man, by a state trooper in 1971 resulted in a wave of protests that drew in white and Black students from UNC Chapel Hill, with hundreds of arrests. An account in the New York Times said 26 people were arrested in one night for demonstrating without a permit during a state of emergency.

Elizabeth Haddix, a lawyer from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law who represented Wells, argued that her client's speech was protected under the First Amendment, but Judge Long sided with the sheriff and found him guilty of disorderly conduct.

"We will appeal this all the way up to the Supreme Court," Haddix vowed.

Long also heard a case on Wednesday involving Kani Adon Bynum, who was charged with simple assault and resisting an officer stemming from an arrest on Sept. 23, 2020.

Ryan Evans testified that he was walking around the Historic Courthouse and filmed the antiracist protesters after having exchanged words with them earlier. He testified that he was motivated to come out that night because he wanted "to protect my county where I live and work… to protect our statue, to protect our sheriff. Slowly, they are outnumbering us — people that don't even live here." Evans testified that he was "not a fan of BLM" and that he would help law enforcement in "any way necessary."

Bynum was carrying an African American flag, with the black liberation colors of black, green and red superimposed over the standard American flag pattern. Evans testified that Bynum struck him in the face with the flag, which Bynum denied.

Taking the stand, Bynum testified that he used the flag to cover the faces of two female protesters to protect them from being doxed. Bynum said he thought Evans was using his free hand to try to move the flag aside, and Bynum said he jerked the flagpole, accidentally striking Evans' phone in the process.

Bynum testified that after Evans reported the incident to the police, an officer suggested they talk "behind a building." Eight to 10 protesters got between Bynum and the police, according to testimony from multiple witnesses, and he started walking, then running away to his car, about a block away. Once he reached the car, Bynum testified that he realized he needed to speak to the officers. He said he opened the door, and knelt on the pavement so they could take him into custody.

"His testimony was he did not intend to hit him, and I believe him," Judge Long said from the bench. "I'm going to rule not guilty."

But on the second charge of resisting an officer, Long found Bynum guilty. Bynum received a prayer for judgment, meaning that he gives up the right to appeal and his sentence is limited to court costs.

Bynum testified that when one of the officers who had a reputation for brutality suggested talking behind a building, "I was afraid for my life. I honestly didn't know what they were going to do. I said, 'Please, let's talk where I feel safe.'"