Graham protesters question Alamance County Sheriff’s racial bias and integrity at trial

A judge in Alamance County dismissed charges, including disorderly conduct, against one protester and declined to penalize another in a case over several protests in Graham last fall.

On Wednesday, Judge Lunsford Long cleared Maurice Wells, Jr., of all charges, including damaging a vehicle, resisting a public officer and disorderly conduct, stemming from a protest last September.

Maurice Wells, Jr., waved the Afro-American flag for the Forward Motion’s daily Occupy Graham demonstration near the Historic Courthouse after his trial on March 3, 2021.

Surveillance camera footage provided by the City of Graham showed that Wells was waving an Afro-American flag, a version of the national flag colored with black, red and green, across from sheriff deputies who had surrounded the Alamance County Historic Courthouse and its Confederate monument.

Wells stepped onto the sidewalk as the driver of a car approached him. He stopped and struck the car with the flagpole as the driver continued, but while he was still in front of the car. Judge Long ruled that Wells appeared to be defending himself; nor did he resist deputies who soon crossed the street to arrest him.

Wells will have his other case tried next Wednesday for a different protest in July. Wells told Policy Watch that he thinks he was targeted by law enforcement, possibly because of his race.

Judge Long found another defendant, Maggie Blunk, guilty of disorderly conduct. However, Long directed the court not to record the charges. In exchange, Blunk forfeited her right to appeal.

“When we have civil disobedience, it’s important to be civil,” Long said.

Blunk accepted the deal but said she’s worried that the sheriff’s office could still target her group in the future.

Last September, Blunk was among marchers who were protesting the sheriff’s treatment of people incarcerated in the Alamance County jail. The protesters marched carrying 99 black balloons representing the 99 people who had tested positive for COVID-19 in the jail. In a parking lot in front of the facility, protesters chanted to those who were incarcerated: “We love you. We see you.”

Through a megaphone, Blunk was repeating the phrase, “People are going to die because of you,” when Deputy Sheriff Jackie Fortner handcuffed her. Blunk was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting a public officer for trying to take the megaphone back when an officer snatched it away.

Fortner testified that Blunk also used foul language when accusing the sheriffs of being “racist,” which Blunk denied.

Fortner told the court he was concerned that the protesters would further agitate people incarcerated in the county jail. “Inmates were beating on the windows very hard… You could hear them rattling,” Fortner testified. He said the windows were old, and he worried about inmates breaking from the jail.

Alamance County jail, where protesters were arrested on Sept. 28, 2020.

Witness Katie Cassette testified that tensions escalated after deputies arrested her husband, Nicholas Cassette. Cassette later told Policy Watch that when sheriffs instructed protesters to leave the parking lot and retreat to the sidewalk, her husband misunderstood. He walked to a different side of the sidewalk and then crossed the parking lot to join the rest of group, she said, when deputies flanked him as if they were escorting him. Instead, they suddenly tackled him near the edge of the parking lot where other protesters were only a few feet away, she said.

A video presented by the defense showed that Sheriff Terry Johnson stuck out his tongue to protesters as some shouted “Fuck you, Terry Johnson.”

Ann Humphreys, an organizer of the local activist group Forward Motion Alamance, testified that the deputies’ instructions given were conflicting as to whether the protesters could be on the grass next to the parking lot.

Humphreys told the court that the sheriff’s office treated protesters differently than Confederate sympathizers. Steve Marley, a member of the neo-Confederate group Taking Back Alamance County, walked past the parking lot and high-fived with a deputy. Humphrey said law enforcement officers explained to them that Marley wasn’t protesting and was free to walk on the public property.

The remaining cases, including Nicholas Cassette‘s, will be heard every Wednesday in March and will be streamed on the county’s YouTube channel

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