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North Carolina organizers fight to remove a racist sheriff and Confederate monuments

Alamance County organizers call for a new sheriff, removal of Confederate monuments, and an end to ICE collaboration.
Tamar Sarai Davis November 9th, 2020
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When Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson talks about what inspired him to run for the North Carolina office he now holds, he often cites the state’s perhaps most famous sheriff: TV’s Andy Griffith. Johnson, who supported the arrest and pepper spraying of demonstrators at a peaceful get-out-the-vote rally ahead of last week’s election, has said he looks to the level-headed, conflict-mediating Mayberry sheriff as an inspiration.

“I grew up watching Andy Griffith,” Johnson told Independent Lens this May. “A lot of people run for the office of sheriff for personal gain. I didn’t run for the sheriff for that. I’m like Andy Griffith, I believe in and want to help the people of my county.”

However, while Andy Griffith’s fictional Mayberry County would only be an hour drive from Alamance, the character is a world away from the values Johnson represents and the ways he abuses the power of his office.

During his 18 years as sheriff, Johnson’s office has engaged in racial profiling and misconduct, and he himself has routinely used racist slurs, shown support for far-right organizations, and forged strong alliances with ICE, effectively turning the Alamance County Jail into the “ICE processing center of North Carolina.”

Johnson’s nostalgia for Andy Griffith and his idealized view of the sheriff’s office mirrors the reverence with which some sects of his community hold the confederate monument that stands at the center of the county’s courthouse. The monument, which stands roughly 30 feet tall, features a statue of a Confederate soldier looking north with this rifle in hand. The soldier stands atop a long rectangular column with a north side that bears a detailed engraving of two Confederate flags. At the base of the monument rests a copper box holding the names of 1,100 Confederate soldiers from Alamance County. The eastern side of the monument reads in block letters, “Faithful unto death, they are crowned with immortal glory.”

With both the monument and Johnson, the discrepancy between how both symbols function in the public imagination and the harms they actually create looms large. In Alamance, community members and organizers are now pushing their leadership to acknowledge that gap and reconcile it once and for all both by removing Johnson from office and relocating the infamous monument away from the county's courthouse square.

Those efforts will require Alamance residents new to organizing to mobilize, navigate obscure ordinances and legislative loopholes, and figure out what interests will motivate county leadership to take action.  

‘They’re funding fear’

The rural county of Alamance has a population of roughly over 160,000. A number of cities comprise the county, the most populous being Burlington, Elon, Mebane, and the county seat of Graham where the county courthouse and monument are located. Organizers like Sugelema Lynch of Down Home NC say that Graham’s downtown area used to be a space where she and others spent a lot of time, but that all changed this summer as the area became a hotspot for neo-Confederate activity. Lynch, who identifies as Hispanic, says that she has never experienced racial harassment in Graham County until this year, when some residents told her “you don’t belong here,” and to “go home.”

“Now it feels like everyone's coming out of the woodwork,” said Lynch.

Alamance is governed by a board of five elected county commissioners, currently all Republicans who have been the primary targets of activists and organizers seeking not only the removal of the Graham courthouse monument, but also the resignation of Johnson and an end to the county’s ongoing collaboration with ICE. While the sheriff and the board are independent of one another, historically they have had a close relationship, with the board voting on measures that brought increased funding and capacity to the sheriff's office.

In January 2019, Johnson requested $2.8 million from the commissioners to increase the jail’s capacity for housing federal immigration detainees and was approved for the full amount. Later that year, Johnson was approved by the board to receive funds from drug forfeitures. He purchased a $300,000 Lenco armored truck.

“How does that ensure safety?” asked Lynch. “They’re funding fear instead of funding communities.”

While nationwide, the configuration and powers of the sheriffs office may vary widely, one responsibility all sheriffs hold is the management of their local jail systems. In Alamance, Johnson's relationship with ICE via the 287(g) program placed the community—particularly Latinx residents—under increased surveillance. As a result, Johnson has become the target of community-led opposition.

The 287(g) program deputizes local law enforcement with the authority of federal immigration agents and in doing so, opens up those local agencies to new federal funding streams. In 2007, Alamance entered into a 287(g) agreement, ushering in discriminatory practices so severe that ICE was forced to cancel the agreement in 2013. A 2016 report conducted by the Department of Justice found that Johnson’s deputies were between four and 10 times more likely to stop Latinx drivers than non-Latinx drivers. Alamance organizer Sylvester Allen even recalls one Latinx resident being detained for 10 days despite the fact that ICE holds are not meant to extend beyond 48 hours.

While the 287(g) contract between Alamance County and ICE was terminated, the relationship between Johnson’s office and immigration enforcement remains strong. As Prism previously reported, “Johnson continues to maintain a special service agreement with ICE in which his jail temporarily detains immigrants on behalf of the agency.”

Sugelema Lynch says that this relationship breeds intimidation that is felt daily within the Latinx community and Latinx neighborhoods where ICE checkpoints are strategically set up and aim to stop people in the mornings while on their way to work or on weekends while en route to church.

Any notion that the targeting of Latinx residents is coincidental is belied by the racial slurs and derogatory language Johnson uses openly. He once referred to Mexicans as “taco eaters” and at a January 2019 commissioners meeting, he warned that “criminal illegal immigrants were raping our citizens in many, many ways.”

The climate of fear and omnipresent danger for Latinx residents of Alamance County has urged local leaders to find ways to protect their communities. In 2012, Otoniel Recinos, a pastor in Chapel Hill, warned his predominantly Latinx congregants to avoid driving through Alamance County.

Terminating the relationship between Johnson’s office and ICE is only the tip of the iceberg for organizers. They want to see him resign and be replaced by someone with an “inclusive personality” who is committed to consistent training about bias and sensitivity, Allen explained. Johnson however, has already announced his intention to run for reelection in 2021 and as of now, faces no challenger. Organizers say they have spoken with law enforcement officers who might be interested in the role, but they are too intimidated by Johnson to cement their candidacy.

‘It’s all a matter of racism’

While the 2021 election will be a prime opportunity to unseat Johnson, organizers say that the fight to remove and relocate the courthouse square Confederate monument is also key to weakening the sheriff’s power and his ability to promote hatred and enact racist policies.

“The statue is about the preservation of pride,” said Allen. “It’s all a matter of racism. A sheriff can look at that statue and feel white pride.”

In North Carolina, 771 Confederate monuments dot the entire landscape of the state, with a handful of them located at courthouses alone. The Alamance courthouse statue was erected in 1914, at a time when similar monuments began popping up across the country to memorialize Confederate soldiers who were dying off, deepen white supremacist sentiment, and instill fear in Black communities.

The statue was funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and was dedicated by Jacob Long, the county’s Ku Klux Klan founder. Decades before the dedication, Long was a part of a mob of night riders who lynched Wyatt Outlaw, the country's first Black town commissioner and constable. The lynching took place in sesquicentennial park, directly across from where the monument now stands.

Calls to remove Confederate monuments have been rising over the years and have seen an upsurge in activity in the midst of current uprisings around police violence. In some cases, elected officials have ordered their removal and in others, community members have taken their removal into their own hands and toppled the statues by force. On June 21 of this year, three Confederate monuments at the state capitol were permanently removed, but many across the state are protected by a 2015 state law that prohibits the removal of statues by the state unless they compromise public safety.

In Alamance, community members have long called for the courthouse statue's removal, but this current moment has opened up a fresh avenue of opportunity. Ian Baltutis, mayor of Burlington, North Carolina, says that he and other community leaders and local organizers are calling not for the complete destruction of the statue, but rather its relocation—either to a Confederate burial ground or to a museum that can place its meaning in a broader historical context.

When organizers brought these proposals to the board of commissioners however, there was pushback and confusion around whether the board had the authority to decide the statue’s fate at all. The monument stands on Highway 87, a road maintained by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Since the monument sits on state-owned property, arguably the 2015 law applies and may protect the statue from removal.  

Baltutis, however, says that legal argument doesn't quite hold up and that in recent weeks it has become generally understood that the statue is in fact under county supervision. Still, in a nod toward the state law, a June 29 letter drafted by Baltutis and signed by over 330 community leaders and members in support of the monument's removal spoke to the public safety risks that the monument might pose.

“As the municipalities and counties around us have taken action to remove their monuments,” Baltutis wrote, “the Alamance County monument draws ever increasing notoriety and represents an increased potential for violence.”

The commissioners responded, denouncing the letter and the decision by signees to release it to the public before privately engaging with the board.

At a public commissioners meeting, community members attempted again to reach the board by delivering public comments largely in favor of the monument's removal and revealing the results of a People's Referendum, wherein 1,339 voters supported the monument's removal and 1,289 voted in favor of the termination of Johnson’s 287(G) contract—75% and 71%, respectively, of those who cast ballots.

Despite the overwhelming support for the monument's relocation, the commissioners responded neutrally, giving weight to those on the other side of the argument.

“There are people in this community who want to see that statue remain exactly where it is,” said Alamance County Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Steve Carter during a commissioners meeting held in mid-August, “and we represent them just as we represent you. You may not appreciate that fact but we do.”

Carter’s argument hinges on the idea that the monument is a worthy piece of Alamance history that should be celebrated. But even some community members who might be sympathetic to that argument balk when given additional context. Ron Osborne, a Civil War reenactment actor and descendant of Confederate soldiers who submitted a public comment in favor of the monument's relocation is one. At the same commissioners meeting, Osborne explained that the monument is “as much a divisive symbol of the injustices inflicted on many of our citizens as it is a reminder of any of the sacrifices and gallantry of my ancestors.”

Despite the monument’s indisputably horrific roots, organizers feel that it may ultimately be business interests that help sway the commissioners to acquiesce to their demands.

This summer, the United States Postal Service announced that it was considering building a facility in Alamance that would bring a $262 million investment along with 4,451 full-time jobs and up to 1,000 part time positions. In August, they also announced their support for the organizers and their demands to remove the monument.

UPS falls in line with other industries throughout the years who have expressed dismay towards the commissioners’ refusal to relocate the monument. Some have even declined to set up their businesses in the county because of it.

Baltutis says that while Alamance has made progress in rejuvenating itself since the decline of its textile industry, it has experienced the ongoing loss of business opportunities due to the monument’s presence. It’s become a problem big enough to bring together business leaders from across the political spectrum. The June 29 letter drafted by Baltutis’ office was signed by leaders including the chair-elect of the Alamance Chamber of Commerce, and the presidents and CEOs of Alamance Foods Inc and Buckner Companies, among other business professionals.

“When it comes to getting the commissioners,” said Allen, “it will come to money, not caring about Black and brown lives."


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