Thursday, December 10, 2020

Alamance County: Black Lives Don't Matter All That Much. Neither Does Freedom of the Press


This monument to the Confederacy stands in front of the Alamance County Courthouse -- the old county courthouse, which is "historic." There's a newer county courthouse nearby that doesn't have a symbol of white supremacy erected in front of it.

The old courthouse is not just a museum piece. It's still used for hearings and trials. On Tuesday this week (Dec. 8), a hearing was held on the charges against a 52-year-old white woman who had a shouting match back and forth on West Harden Street in Graham city with two mouthy teenage girls of color -- one Black, one Hispanic -- shouting that at one point included apparently the phrase "Black 'hoes" -- and felt so infuriated by something the girls shouted back that she whipped her big dominator pickup truck around in a U-turn and aimed it like a missile at the two girls on the sidewalk, and hit the accelerator. The girls scattered while the 52-year-old white woman drove her truck up on the curb and then stopped.

A Graham city cop witnessed the whole thing. Don't know if the woman got clapped in irons right then, but the cop did swear out a warrant, and the district attorney charged the woman with felony attempted murder with a deadly weapon. This was back in August. It now seems pretty clear that the woman was trying to "discipline" the two mouthy teenagers by scaring the bejesus out of them -- rather than trying to outright kill them. The D.A. lowered the charges to misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon. The woman pleaded guilty. Sentenced on the spot by district court judge Fred Wilkins to two consecutive 60-day jail sentences (suspended). Also: "She will be on supervised probation for 12 months and must obtain a mental health/anger management evaluation and follow the recommended treatment. She is not to have any contact with the victims or their families and must pay court costs and a $1,000 fine" (News and Observer).

Judge Fred Wilkins is the lead player in what else happened in that courtroom on Tuesday. He's officially a retired district court judge, but like a lot of other retirees from the bench, he pinch hits all over the place. Wilkins is a native of Pennsylvania but got his law degree at Wake Forest. He was first elected to the bench in 1998 in Judicial District 17A (Rockingham). He served there until he was defeated for reelection in 2014, after which he promptly retired. He serves now as a "special" fill-in judge wherever he's needed.

Judge Wilkins apparently has a thing about the free press, in addition to believing in slaps on the wrist for dangerous white women in big honking trucks. The case of the truck driving woman threatening to kill two kids of color naturally attracted several news outlets, including the Raleigh News and Observer and WRAL, but Judge Wilkins decided ahead of time and sent his deputies out to inform whomever it might concern that no reporters would be allowed inside the courtroom for the pickup-driving woman's pleading. Only the week before, the press had been barred from a hearing over the sheriff's/Graham city police's handling of arrests at a Black Lives Matter protest in October. And the county has been notorious for a long time because of a notoriously racist and arrogant high sheriff. 

Thomas Boney Jr., out of handcuffs
but still being escorted from the
Alamance County Courthouse on Tuesday
On Tuesday the judge sent the word -- "No reporters allowed" -- and the news outlets protested, or rather asked to be heard by the judge on why their constitutional rights were being trampled on. The judge wouldn't hear them. When Alamance News publisher Tom Boney Jr. got inside the courtroom, he admitted he was a newspaperman there to observe court proceedings and wanted to present to the court a formal objection to barring the press, a document prepared by his lawyer. Judge Wilkins wasn't swayed. Boney lectured the judge that he couldn't under the Constitution close the courtroom to the people. "The courtroom is not closed,” the judge said, gesturing to the people in the room, who numbered more than two dozen, according to Boney. “It’s closed to you.”

When Boney refused to accept his imminent ouster, Judge Wilkins threatened contempt and ordered his sheriff's deputies to take Boney out. According to an eye-witness, the deputies scrambled like a SWAT team. Kristy Bailey, a reporter for the Alamance News, said she saw deputies take off running about the time Boney was removed from the courtroom. She was standing just inside the courthouse door. “Based on their reaction, I would have thought somebody had a gun,” Bailey said. Outside the courtroom, Boney was handcuffed "quite roughly" according to him

Newspaperman Tom Boney is an elderly man. Quite the dignified elder statesman (as well as ink-stained wretch). The Alamance News is known as a conservative rag and no friend to the Black Lives Matter movement. Boney's no wide-eyed liberal. He was standing up for a principle that crosses all aisles and for defending the Constitution.

After Boney finally agreed to leave the building -- at one point he had averred that he'd rather be shackled than leave the building he had every right to be in -- Judge Wilkins almost immediately sent word to uncuff him and let him go. 

It's not over. I believe I read that some of the barred media sites are appealing Judge Wilkins' action to a higher authority, but now I can't find that source. I have 42 tabs open on my computer.

The Black community in Alamance was already justifiably on edge before Tuesday. Leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement had been pepper-sprayed, and some of them arrested, at a George Floyd remembrance rally combined with a march to early voting back in October. Their leader, Rev. Greg Drumwright, got the cuffs slapped on, and now the legal establishment is trying to have him banned entirely from county property, especially the old courthouse where the Confederate statue still stands tall and proud.

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