SAXAPAHAW — The organizer behind the third annual Freedom Talks Black History Month panel, held Sunday Feb. 10, at the Haw River Ballroom, said she was pleased with the turnout and the talk.
“They brought out some issues that have been in the hearts and minds of Alamance County,” said the Rev. Tamara Kersey, pastor at Maxwell Chapel AME Church. “ICE and the issues of race, white privilege and voting.”
The church and the Saxapahaw Black History Month Planning Committee hosted the talk this year, Kersey said, and brought together a panel including a political figure, Erica McAdoo, who narrowly lost the 2018 race for state House District 63; community leader Dorothy Yarborough; NAACP leader and expert on African-American history, Jerome Bias; and, for the first time this year, someone from law enforcement: Burlington Police Chief Jeffrey Smythe.
About 50 people came out for the hour and a half panel. McAdoo, who ran as a Democrat, said many were familiar faces, “so I’m preaching to the choir.”
mythe was not surprised when moderator Mtende Roll asked if the department has any partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE has been controversial locally due to its partnership with Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, in which the sheriff’s office held ICE detainees at the county jail, and ICE arrests last week in at least three North Carolina counties, including Alamance.
“I’ve been police chief for going on six years now — I’ve never had my phone ring and the call come from ICE,” Smythe said. “I believe strongly that as a local police chief, my job is public safety within my community.”
The department does work with other federal agencies, including the FBI, DEA and Homeland Security, Smythe said, but has never been asked to participate in an investigation with ICE. Smythe said public safety meant the people living and working in the city need to trust police; as such, said Smythe, his officers don’t ask victims and witnesses about their citizenship, so that more crimes local police can enforce are reported and investigated.
“But people need to recognize that at the end of the day, I took an oath to uphold the United States Constitution,” Smythe said. “And that means if somebody has violated the law, if there’s a warrant for their arrest and it happens to be for an immigration violation, we’re going to go and arrest that person.”
Yarborough, the community activist, said it was still hard to get many people to acknowledge some of the issues she thinks are most important or to accept concepts like “white privilege” or the equality of women. That affected November’s election, she said, in which Bob Byrd lost a seat on the Alamance County Board of Commissioners, and McAdoo lost to incumbent Republican Steve Ross.
“Because (Byrd) went to the Racial Equity Institute, he lost some votes, because he had the courage to say there is a problem,” Yarborough said. “Erica probably lost that race not just because a few Democrats didn’t vote for her, but because she’s a woman.”
Talking to people while she was campaigning, McAdoo said, was eye-opening. Some people she thought would probably support her said they didn’t believe their votes would matter, and others who she said “voted against their own interests,” and “drank the Kool-Aid,” and follow “like sheep,” would challenge her, but also listen and sometimes get something from her perspective.
LaShauna Austria, member of the Saxapahaw Social Justice Exchange and Alamance NAACP, said there were few black people involved in McAdoo’s campaign and asked how she would get more black people, especially women, involved if she ran again.
McAdoo said that was something people brought up with her a lot. While she was good at getting volunteers to sign up on Facebook and meet up at some local businesses on a Saturday, most were white, working 9-to-5 jobs or retired. Late in the campaign she started holding cookouts in neighborhoods, which she thought could be a better strategy to reach a more diverse group of voters if she ran again, but couldn’t say that was the solution.
“I don’t know the answer to it,” McAdoo said.