Tom Boney Jr. just wanted to do his job.
But when Boney—the white-haired publisher of the conservative-leaning Alamance News—tried to cover a local court case, the judge demanded that he leave. Moments later, bailiffs cuffed the bespectacled publisher and forced him out of the building. They weren’t gentle about it, either.
We’ve been watching heavy-handed and racist law enforcement practices unfolding publicly in Alamance County for years now. In 2020, it’s become the state’s epicenter of unbridled white supremacist rage, as well as the site of massive and persistent resistance to that status quo. Given this backdrop, it’s hard not to see Judge Fred Wilkins’ decision to bar Boney and reporters from Triad City Beat and The News & Observer from his courtroom as a reactionary act of state repression aimed at further squelching the First Amendment.
It cannot, and must not, stand.
INDY Week condemns Judge Wilkins’ totalitarian decree. We stand fully behind our fellow journalists’ objection to his decision, and we also fully support their petitioning to open court proceedings to the public and press. We insist on open courtrooms as a basic and fundamental tenant of democracy. We also denounce what appears to be an emerging pattern of stifling dissent—as well as attempts to report on it. Attacks on a free press—whether visited on a conservative outlet like The Alamance News or a progressive one like the INDY—are unacceptable threats to a free society.
Here’s a little context on how the hell we got to this point.
This year, the central North Carolina county—located between Durham and Greensboro—consistently grabbed national and international headlines for its treatment of antiracist protestors. Law enforcement—both the notorious Alamance County Sheriff’s Department and the Graham police—have repeatedly come under fire for what appear to be brazen attempts to stifle demonstrations. Then the district attorney decided to get in on the action, pressing what looked like retaliatory felony charges against a reverend leading some of the protests.
Now the court system has one-upped them all, with an Alamance judge banning several reporters from documenting proceedings in his courtroom.
The most damning part of all is that these attacks on the First Amendment—both the constitutional rights to free speech and assembly as well as freedom of the press—are happening in broad daylight, and despite heightened media attention.
When locals started gathering regularly at the base of a massive Confederate monument in the heart of downtown Graham earlier this year, Sheriff Terry Johnson’s department tried to stop granting people protest permits altogether—no matter the size, type, or time—“for the foreseeable future.” In October, standing alongside Graham police, his deputies pepper-sprayed March to the Polls participants on the last day of early voting.
Following international outcry, Johnson’s office pursued felony charges against Reverend Greg Drumwright, the march’s organizer, seeming to intentionally distort his public statements to make it sound like the reverend wanted to incite a riot.
Soon after, Drumwright led hundreds in a peaceful march in Alamance County. Graham police reportedly refused to provide an escort.
Activists have repeatedly decried law enforcement’s apparent coziness with the far-right in Alamance County. Neo-Confederate groups and avowed white supremacists have repeatedly gathered at the Confederate monument, heckling antiracists, shouting “white power” from passing cars, and sometimes getting physical. To antiracist protestors—especially Black and Brown Alamance County residents—it feels like the state is aligned with these extremists. Photos of Sheriff Johnson’s fraternal interactions with neo-Confederate agitators don’t exactly dispel this notion.
Repression in Alamance extends to the press. During that October 31 March to the Polls, police forcefully arrested a reporter with The Alamance News. Then, on December 8, as reporters attempted to cover a related court proceeding in Alamance County Court, Judge Wilkins barred them from attending.
Alamance News Publisher Boney told Triad City Beat what happened when he entered the courtroom: “Be quiet!” Judge Wilkins reportedly said. “Get out of this courtroom. This courtroom is not closed to the public; it is closed to you.”
Bailiffs cuffed Boney, and “they were really quite rough and claimed I was resisting when they were twisting my arm,” he told Triad City Beat. The three newspapers filed a formal objection with the court, requesting “access to all future proceedings.” That’s especially paramount as several protestors’ cases head to court soon.
Unfortunately, these assaults on the First Amendment don’t shock us. They grow from a pattern of racist abuses in law enforcement—apparent in Johnson’s past comments about Mexicans and efforts to squash anti-Confederate protests in Alamance dating back at least several years. If this is how white reporters are treated, just imagine the kinds of “justice” Alamance County’s Black and Brown residents receive from the legal system when nobody’s looking.
Change is coming to Alamance County. This year, a grassroots campaign buoyed Democrat Ricky Hurtado—the son of Salvadoran immigrants and an instructor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill—to victory for a state House seat over his conservative opponent. Antiracist protests led by Drumwright and others show no sign of abating. That towering Confederate monument, if not removed and relocated by authorities, will one day fall, crashing to the ground as its counterpart did in Durham. And journalists, no matter how many times they’re locked up or shut out, will continue to show up and report the news.
That’s the thing about state repression—it often boomerangs into more resistance. Throw bogus charges against a protest leader, and you’ll likely draw dozens more to their cause. Enforce the law unequally, and the ACLU and others will sue you, and win. Shut reporters out of your courtroom, and ensure more journalists arrive next time.
We don’t know the motivations of Sheriff Johnson, the Alamance County district attorney, the Graham police chief, or Judge Wilkins. Repressing the First Amendment might not be their aim. But regardless of intent, an opaque justice system can only serve to uphold the racial, economic, and political hierarchies in Alamance County.
Like it or not, change is on the way.
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