Behind the Piece: "Today's Outlaws"
An interview with writer Belle Boggs and a look at the reporting behind "Today's Outlaws" // photography by Carolyn de Berry
The Assembly: You reported this piece with the benefit of first-person perspective. What was it like on the ground at the October 31 protest?
Boggs: I’d taken my older daughter, Bea, who was six at the time of the march, to a number of protests and marches before this one, and she’d never felt scared before. But the closer we got to the courthouse, the more nervous she became. Drones followed us the whole way, pretty close to the marchers—apparently these were operated by private citizens—and there were many police surrounding the square.
But I felt safe because I saw so many older people in the crowd. There was one older woman marching with a walking stick that turned into a chair, and she was wearing a beautiful long black-and-white dress. I pointed her out to Bea because she loves fashion and dressing up; I told her how her grandmother always dresses up when she goes to vote.
Shortly after we finished kneeling in the street, I knew that we’d been tear gassed or pepper sprayed. Bea was screaming, and we were both coughing, our eyes burning. Of course, I had no expectation that anything like that would happen. There was no warning—I hadn’t even heard honking from traffic backing up—and there were a lot of people in the street who weren’t necessarily going to be able to move out of the way quickly. In other words, there were a lot of kids and older people in that crowd. That’s what made it so shocking.
A number of people have told me that their kids, who were there, refuse to go to protests now. Bea feels that way, and she’s terrified of police now too.
The Assembly: Graham is not a big place. Tell us more about what the relationship is like between folks on different sides of the issue—many of whom know each other personally.
Boggs: It’s a small town, and a lot of the Black Lives Matter activists and neo-Confederates know each other by name, which is sometimes expressed through taunting and name-calling, and is sometimes more nuanced and complicated. I’ve been impressed by the ability of activists like Maurice Wells to de-escalate and engage the other side in conversation.
I was out there one night in January when one of the neo-Confederates came by in his car, looking for Wells. The other protesters told their friend not to go over to where the guy parked—surely, this man was looking for trouble, and he also wasn’t wearing a mask—but we watched Wells walk over. The other man got out of his car and showed Wells something inside his trunk, then they had a conversation.
After a while Wells came back, sort of dumbfounded. Apparently the other guy had somehow picked up a Black Power sculpture—a metal pole with a fist on top and “Black Power” painted down the side. He said he’d give it to Wells if he wasn’t afraid that Wells would beat him with it. So, not exactly a peace offering, but also a sign that he actually wanted to show the BLM protesters something he found that he thought they’d like.
The Assembly: What do you think is next for the protest movement in Alamance?
Boggs: I think it depends on the individual or the group—there’s a diverse, multifaceted movement toward social justice in the county, with people contributing in different ways, according to their interests and talents.
Occupy Graham is focused on mutual aid and food insecurity; other groups are working on educating the community about local history. Others, like Down Home, are working on encouraging members of the community to participate in local elections, including running for office. There’s even a group called “Alamance Whites Against White Supremacy,” which works on educating white people about anti-racist principles so that Black people don’t have to do that work. Despite these different approaches and the inherent challenges of the time, they have worked really hard on coalition-building and on organizing within the pandemic.
It was also interesting to watch the Graham city council meeting on Feb. 9, when they discussed the possible renaming of Sesquicentennial Park. Because of procedure, the council read aloud the letters for and against renaming it Wyatt Outlaw Park. By my count, there were 23 letters for renaming the park and only two against. The mayor had a statement prepared that he read at the end—he was against renaming, as were the other council members—but it was clear that public sentiment is turning, whatever happens with the current (all-white) leadership.
The Assembly: You're reporting out a book on education in Alamance. Tell us more.
Boggs: I used to teach high school English in Alamance County, and I was educated in a rural school system in Virginia. Growing up, our history curriculum centered around a factually incorrect, lost cause, states’-rights mythology. (The whole state of Virginia celebrated not Martin Luther King Jr. Day but Lee-Jackson-King Day until the year 2000.) As an educator, I’ve long been interested in how education changes people, and the forces that help people or impede them from understanding a broader perspective—both in understanding the experiences of others, and also gaining a factual historical perspective.
So far I’ve interviewed a few dozen people who grew up in or are educators in Alamance. One of the things I do when I interview someone at length is ask them about their educational experiences: Where did they go to school? What are their strongest memories of elementary, middle, high school? Did they have Black teachers or any teachers of color? What did they learn about American history? Those last two questions, taken together, are really telling.
Read the full story, “Today’s Outlaws”
Scroll through The Assembly’s visual project for this piece, comparing the events of 1870 and 2020 side by side.