There Goes the neighborhood: Cussing no longer a crime on the Alamance County courthouse steps

It’s true.

Anyone, even you or I, can now cuss on the grounds of the historic old Alamance County Courthouse, in downtown Graham NC. You could even do it right on the courthouse steps.

Right there. In front of God & everybody — everybody including Sheriff Terry Johnson.

Yes, even him. The Raleigh News & Observer  (or ”N&O” in local parlance) broke this big  story on Monday April 19 2021, with a headline worthy of Tarheel history books:

Cussing is not a crime, Alamance sheriff acknowledges in legal settlement 

Background: Some of us may recall that in 2020, there were many protests against racism. Most of them were peaceful; some ended with violence.

Graham city officials were determined to be ready for anything. During the summer protests:

Graham Mayor Jerry Peterman . . . declared five states of emergency, citing the potential for “civil unrest” or “severe damage” in this city of 15,600. Most of his emergency orders imposed curfews, and one temporarily suspended all demonstration permits.

Yet Graham was not Portland Oregon. There was no civil unrest or property damage during the Black Lives Matter protests in Graham.

However, there was noise. Chants. And reportedly some cussing as well.

Terry Johnson, Sheriff of Alamance County NC.

Sheriff Johnson was not about to tolerate any such disorderly conduct. As the N&O fills in:

Alamance County took extreme steps to curtail political demonstrations in the wake of the death of George Floyd last May. Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, captured on video, set off protests across the country.

But would-be protesters in Graham, the county seat, were threatened with arrest, even for standing alone on the sidewalk holding up a sign.

Last summer and fall, Johnson or his deputies were involved in arresting at least four protesters based on their language. Charges in two cases were dropped after an assistant district attorney found that the allegations did not amount to a crime. Two other protesters were found guilty on related charges; one of those cases has been appealed.

Sign at the old county courthouse steps, Graham NC.

Speaking of signs, Alamance County officials soon undertook to require permits even to stand on the old courthouse steps. And they posted signs to that effect.

In the fall, they pepper-sprayed many and arrested several of those attempting to stage a peaceful march  on the courthouse to encourage voting in the 2020 election. (There was reportedly more cussing following the pepper spray, particularly its use on children and elderly marchers, all unarmed.)

Part of the base of the Alamance Confederate memorial.

One rationale for this heightened security was less  political than sacral. The Alamance County Commission includes a public comment period before its official meetings, during which citizens can sign up to briefly address the commissioners on topics of their choosing.

Since the summer of last year, many citizen speakers have chosen to urge the officials to take down or move the confederate memorial outside the courthouse. (One such concisely eloquent address by a local Quaker is presented in full here.)

But the memorial is more than thirty-plus feet of Winslow granite and Italian marble statuary, put up in 1914. NCPedia notes that:

Inside the concrete base of the monument is a copper box containing the names of 1,100 Confederate soldiers in the Civil War from Alamance and the names of contributors to the monument’s fund.

It also holds a number of confederate relics including Confederate money, papers of that day, several old coins and the names of the members of the Graham Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy.

Relics. Sacred war relics. As of late April 2021, the memorial still stands.

However, while the 2020 protests in Graham did not turn into riots, the reaction by the sheriff and Graham police did turn into lawsuits. Several. From the NAACP, the ACLU, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and more.

These litigants closed in to preserve one of their sacred relics, namely:

The First Amendment. Freedom of, among other things, peaceable assembly and speech and protest.

They told a federal court this relic was meant to be honored, not in granite, but in practice everywhere in the United States.

Yea, even in Graham NC.

And behold, even on the steps of the old Alamance County courthouse.

Proceedings went back and forth through the fall and winter, but it was soon evident that U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles mainly agreed with the plaintiffs that their relic (a sacred right) was not merely a relic (an obsolete antique, such as a statue recalling a  treasonable insurrection).

After all, that “relic” Amendment has been tested and preserved through several more wars than the figure on the courthouse pillar stands for.

At length, on April 20, 2021, the parties reached a settlement  on the main points of the lawsuits.

The terms of the deal with the local branch of the NAACP, as well as several individual protesters, include. . . an acknowledgment that the pavement and lawns surrounding the historic courthouse in Graham are “traditional public fora,” where protest cannot be altogether banned, as was the case last summer. Several protesters were arrested for standing near the Confederate monument in front of the main courthouse entrance.

Here are some of Judge Eagles’ key findings (The settlement order’s full text is here):

Law enforcement in Graham and Alamance County became aware of news reports of violence and property damage during protests in Fayetteville, Greensboro, and Raleigh, including a fire that damaged the Guilford County Courthouse in Greensboro; however, although there was some evidence of a few threats of property damage in Graham, there was no actual property damage in or around the Courthouse square. [Emphasis added.]

And

Defendant [Sheriff Terry] Johnson further agrees the use of “swear” or “indecent” words is protected under the First Amendment and is not lawful grounds for arrest, unless they meet the legal definition of “fighting words,” even when such language is directed at law enforcement officers. . . . Defendant Johnson agrees that he has already instructed his deputies on this issue and will continue to do so.

And not least,

The County Defendants, including all sworn Alamance County Sheriff Office personnel, agree to and will participate in an educational training on implicit racial bias and racial equity by September 24, 2021. By October 1, 2021, County Defendants shall forward to Plaintiffs’ counsel verification of the training identifying the training dates, number of hours, agenda items, the name of provider(s), and an attendance list of Alamance County Sheriff personnel who received the training.

Afterward,

Barrett Brown, President of the Alamance NAACP chapter, before the settlement.

Barrett Brown, president of the Alamance NAACP branch, said his organization “and many others in our community are ready for a new day, one where we don’t have to see that monument in the middle of our public square celebrating white supremacy from the Jim Crow era.”

Clyde Albright, the county’s attorney, did not respond to a [newspaper] request for comment sent by email on Monday.

Still, the County Commission did respond in action, by digging in to defend its relics. Within a few days after the lawsuit settlement, it erected a shiny new wrought iron enclosure around the Confederate memorial, 8-feet high with sharply pointed tips. The cost was in excess of $31,000.

Their relic seems safe enough, for now.  Meantime, the plaintiffs’ living “relic” of freedom of speech and assembly, has been returned, at least in law, to downtown Graham. 
But the obsolete signs were still guarding the courthouse steps as of April 23, when the Fair Wendy and I decided to do a bit of impromptu civil disobedience, and defy their stated instructions.

Your faithful scribe, but NOT in handcuffs. . . . And not far away, still in Alamance, we saw something that wants to be made a future relic . . .

Nobody bothered us.

But then, we didn’t do much cussing.

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