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Posse Comitatus


A newsletter about sheriffs and the political power of law enforcement

Sheriffs, Voting, and Voter Suppression


This weekend in Alamance County, North Carolina, Sheriff Terry Johnson organized what amounted to an attack on a group of around 200 people who had assembled at the Wayman Chapel AME Church in Graham, NC, in order to march to the polls as a way to raise awareness to racism and encourage people to vote. After a moment of silence for George Floyd, law enforcement officers demanded that everyone clear the road and began to pepper spray the crowd, which included children and the elderly, and make arrests. (There is some dispute about what exactly the orders were and why.) Alamance County deputies disassembled the stage set up in front of the courthouse where there were going to be speeches. As the officers start yelling, arresting, and spraying, trucks with Confederate flags blazing drove around in circles. You can see on the video that the officers sprayed indiscriminately, arrested a photographer, and attacked a woman in a wheelchair. (The video is pretty disturbing, so just be aware.)
 
Sheriffs have a long, terrible history of interfering with the rights of Black Americans to vote. While sheriffs claim their power to derive directly from the citizens by way of popular vote, their actions reflect institutional racism and a narrow, anti-Black view of who their electorate is.
 
At the same time, history also presents moments when people of color have recognized tyranny for what it is and voted out racist sheriffs. The posse of Sheriff Jim Clark in Dallas County, Alabama, infamously and brutally attacked Black voters during the “Bloody Sunday” of 1965. In 1966, Black voters ousted him. This was achieved in part because of the Voting Rights Act, which passed in 1965 and made a big difference in the number of Black voters. (Of course, now the VRA has been gutted, and it will be worth watching how this will impact county sheriff elections.)
 
All this is to say that the right to vote and sheriffs are intertwined. So, when sheriffs say they won’t protect voters from roving bands of armed white men or when sheriffs pepper spray people in wheelchairs trying to vote, they are participating in a racist history. In the past, federal interventions from courts have been important tools to protect Black voters. But, now the federal courts are packed with Trump/ McConnell appointees who are actively participating in a racist agenda.
 
Alamance County and Sheriff Johnson are infamous for anti-immigrant and anti-Black rhetoric and activity. While Sheriff Johnson apparently sees himself as the sort of old-fashioned-small-town sheriff of television lore (he compares himself to Andy Griffith in Mayberry in a short film), he has a racist history that emphasizes just how county sheriffs are often out-of-touch with the community and the state. He really is the kind of sheriff for whom oversight feels designed.
 
In 2012, the Department of Justice investigated his office and found it guilty of systemic discrimination against Latinx people, including an “egregious pattern of racial profiling” with respect to traffic stops, arrests, jail bookings, and discriminatory training and program materials. But, that’s in addition to years of Sheriff Johnson terrorizing Latinx people, blocking them from voting, using racist epithets and making bizarre and unsubstantiated racist claims  (e.g. claiming that immigrants were “actually raping our citizens in many, many ways.”). Between 2008 and 2013, about 10% of the county’s Latinx population were deported, according to a local advocate.
 
Sheriff Terry Johnson signed Alamance up to participate in 287(g), which allows sheriffs to act as ICE agents to interview and detain immigrants for potential deportation proceedings. He also rents jail beds to ICE and other federal agencies for profit. He’s requested more money for “immigration enforcement” and gave his staff “bonuses.” And, unsurprisingly, he’s expanded the jail, a tactic that is less examined but common among outspokenly racist sheriffs.
 
During the summer, Sheriff Johnson’s office asserted an unconstitutional “no-protest” stance, which he promulgated by arresting protestors and refusing permits. (The area in question was the same place around the Graham courthouse where there is a Confederate statute.) He has also refused to enforce mask-wearing mandates even as a COVID-19 outbreak happened in his jail.
 
Terry Johnson ran uncontested in 2014 and 2018; he’s been in office for almost two decades. He already announced he is running for re-election. Hopefully, he won’t win, but in the meantime, there should be oversight and a mechanism to hold Sheriff Johnson accountable, or at least render him incapable of so much harm. An election every four years is not enough. (Hopefully, some of the North Carolina politicians condemning the violence this weekend are reading this.)
 
Election Guide
 
The Political Appeal has an excellent and thorough general round-up of criminal legal system-related measures. Rather than regurgitating the sheriff elections that are already well covered, I thought I would just hit two highlights involving sheriff oversight.
 
California and AB 1185
At the end of September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 1185 into law, which allows for California counties to establish their own sheriff oversight either through a county-wide or boards of supervisors vote. (It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the California State Sheriff’s Association opposed the measure.) As a result, several California counties have pending local ballot measures that would establish oversight of sheriffs’ offices and jails. These include measures in San Francisco and Sonoma County. (Other counties are looking into the idea and may use a vote from the board in lieu of popular vote.)
 
King County
King County, Washington (Seattle) has a referendum on changing the sheriff from an elected to an appointed position. In King County, the jail is already under county authority – not the sheriff’s – so this measure would largely impact policing outside of city limits. This perhaps explains some of the virulent rhetoric about the measure, accusing the county of “castrating” the sheriff’s office by making the position appointed. (The current sheriff is a woman.)
 
 

Other Reading

  1. Rachel Monroe, who is awesome, wrote this great story on military fakes. I appreciate that sheriffs are among those most likely to fake military experience.
  2.  How Texas jails are releasing people just before they die to save themselves the hassle of reporting the death and an investigation.
  3. And this weekend, a Texas sheriff says that he wasn't warned about the Democratic bus tour in and around San Antonio and Austin. The sheriff, Hays County Sheriff Gary Cutler, is running for re-election as a Republican. Kind of reminds me of the time I complained about a local pro-Trump rally in an elementary school parking lot and was told they were “picking up trash” and no violations occurred. Uh-huh.
     
Jessica Pishko @jesspish 
Hate it? Love it? Email me at jesspish at gmail.com
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