GRAHAM, N.C. — The familiar cries of “no justice, no peace” returned to Graham on the afternoon of July 9 as more than 30 people gathered in front of the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office.
The dozens of cars that drove by had a mix of responses during the three-hour protest. Some drivers were honking horns in support and shouting, “thank you,” while others were raising middle fingers and screaming, “blue lives matter.”
This sit-in was the first demonstration since a controversial protest ban enacted by the town of Graham and enforced by the Sheriff’s Office was lifted by a federal judge.
Following back-to-back demonstrations calling for the removal of the Confederate statue in Graham, the Sheriff’s Office announced on June 26 that no protest permits would be issued within the city for the “foreseeable future,” and that protesters would “be in violation and subject to arrest.”
In response, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit and sought a temporary restraining order against local officials, which was granted on July 6.
A letter from the ACLU to the Sheriff’s Office said, “Your threat to arrest people for protesting without a permit, as well as the indefinite blanket refusal to issue permits, violates the most fundamental constitutional rights to assembly, speech and to be free from unlawful seizures and use of excessive force without due process of law.”
Before the restraining order was granted, Elon University sophomores Kennedy Boston and Kasey Fountain were already planning the sit-in.
The participants called for the right to protest in the county and the removal of Terry Johnson as sheriff.
“America has always been founded on the idea that we can say what we want to say and say what we feel is right or wrong with our government,” Boston said. “If the founding fathers didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be here as a nation.”
Johnson had offered to step outside of the John Hardie Stockard Law Enforcement Building and participate in a question and answer session with protestors, but his offer was declined by the Alamance residents that attended the protest.
Johnson’s 18-year tenure as sheriff of Alamance has been peppered with accusations of racial profiling, specifically against members of the Hispanic and Latino community.
Nuevos, an advocacy group based in Raleigh, partnered with Fountain and Boston to call for his resignation.
“We’ve witnessed the injustice Terry Johnson has been doing here and we wanted to do something about it,” said Larry Lopez, an organizer from Nuevos. “We want to be the voice for those that can’t be heard right now.”
According to data from the last census, just over 13 percent of Alamance county residents are Hispanic or Latino.
“Sheriff Johnson needs to know we are being genuine,” said Carina Lozano, an organizer from Nuevos. “He needs to know that we are not going anywhere and he is the one that needs to go.
“I’m proud to see the majority of the people at the protest aren’t minorities, they were white people. They are young and they are trying to fight for us, it is amazing to see.”
While neither Boston nor Fountain had a goal for the number of sit-inners, both hoped to involve as many Elon University students as possible — despite the institution being in summer session.
“This affects everybody in the area,” Fountain said. “A college that happens to be in the area is a good place to start a movement because we are young, we are students, we learn about stuff like this in our classes all the time.”
One of the students that has taken an active advocacy role in the community is junior Emily Sledge, a life-long resident of Burlington.
After the protest ban, Sledge began an online petition calling for Johnson’s resignation. In the 12 days between the start of the petition and the sit-in, more than 5,790 people had signed.
“It’s great to see people here from Elon because it still matters to Elon University,” Boston said. “We are still in Alamance County so it’s important that we say that and that we are here… I’m happy they are here and using their voice. It’s really uplifting.”
As a precaution against COVID-19, protestors were advised to wear masks. Despite the potential for infection, Boston felt the risk had to be taken.
“As a Black person I don’t know if it’s going to be the police that get me first or the virus,” Boston said. “We’re really protesting for our right to live. … It’s just unfortunate that right now we are in the middle of a global pandemic… because no matter the global pandemic, there is still a risk that I could get pulled over like George Floyd was.”
On May 25, Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police Department officers while handcuffed to the ground. His death sparked a fresh wave of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality.
While the initial protests focused on justice for Floyd and other Black individuals killed by law enforcement, it evolved to include issues such as the federal recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday, and the removal of Confederate statues.
With the restraining order in effect, protests aimed at the Confederate statue in Graham resume this weekend. The Alamance Alliance for Justice and Alamance Agents for Change is pushing for “an end to racial oppression” and the removal of the contentious figure by planning a march on July 11 that will culminate at the statue’s base.
Nuevos is also hosting a “Justice for Vanessa Guillen” protest in Raleigh during the last weekend of the month. Guillén, a U.S. Army soldier of Hispanic heritage, is believed to have been killed by another service member inside a military base.
The NC News Intern Corps is a program of the NC Local News Workshop, funded by the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and housed at Elon University’s School of Communications.