*Editor's note: The first name of the founder of ACTBAC was incorrectly listed as "Jerry." The founder's name is Gary Williamson. The online version of this article has been corrected.
On Saturday, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson told activist Lindsay Ayling “you’re breaking the law” and “we know you’re with antifa” after she asked him why he and his deputies were not wearing masks in downtown Graham. Ayling recorded the encounter in a video that has received 20,000 views on social media and has been shared by Newsweek.
The incident occurred in front of a small group of members of the neo-Confederate organization Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County (ACTBAC), who were counter-protesting the People’s Referendum, a symbolic vote conducted by Down Home NC, Siembra NC and Forward Motion Alamance on whether to move the city’s Confederate monument and repeal the sheriff’s 287g agreement with ICE. Sheriff Jonson has on previous occasions expressed solidarity and support with ACTBAC by such physical gestures such as, putting his arm around the organization’s founder Gary Williamson.
The video begins with Johnson speaking in a friendly manner to people off-screen at his left. At his right, a deputy readies a video camera, raising it and pointing it at Ayling as she approaches. Neither the sheriff nor the deputy are wearing masks.
“I’m just curious why any of the police aren’t wearing masks,” Ayling asks, “in violation of the governor’s order?”
“What are you doing?” asks an unmasked woman appearing to be counter-protesting with the neo-Confederate group from off-screen. An unmasked man with the woman comes into view at the sheriff’s left. ACTBAC was an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center identified as a hate group in 2017.
As reported by Kate Croxton of Burlington’s TimesNews, ACTBAC was removed from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Map” in 2018 because the group did not meet the “Hate Group” definition by making statements, “denigrating others based on immutable characteristics,” according to director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project Heidi Beirich.
“Why are y’all breaking the law by not wearing masks?” asks Ayling, in apparent answer to the woman’s question.
“Ma’am, you’re breaking the law,” says Johnson, taking a step toward Ayling. “We know you’re a member of antifa.”
“Antifa” is an umbrella term for an extremely loose-knit quasi-coalition of anti-fascist groups, some far left or Marxist, others simply liberal or even centrist. The anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that it is a single unified organization funded by billionaire financier George Soros has been debunked by historian Mark Bray, among others. (Ayling said she does not identify with any particular organization, but even if she did, it would be no more illegal than belonging to ACTBAC or the League of the South.)
“We know you’re with antifa!” repeats Johnson, stepping back and laughing, as he is clapped on the back by his deputy, who videos Ayling with his right hand and reaches out to Johnson with his left, gently pulling the sheriff back.
“Take all the pictures you want, sweetheart,” Johnson says.
Ayling replies, “you know it’s not illegal to be against . . . “
At this point, the woman interrupts, stepping into the shot and putting her unmasked face very close to Ayling’s. “Elizabeth Baird, hello!” she says loudly, identifying herself and waving into camera, while yelling in Ayling’s face.
“Hold on,” says Ayling to woman purporting to be Elizabeth Baird, then, to Johnson, “does the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office believe it’s illegal to be against fascism?”
Johnson, who has been leaning into the deputy and laughing, says, “she’s such as sweetheart.”
“Because you just said I’m breaking the law by being anti-fascist.”
“It’s not a law,” Johnson says.
“Dumbass,” Baird says.
“So, what you’re saying is, I’m not breaking the law,” Ayling says.
“There’s no law,” Baird replies.
“There’s no law against not wearing masks,” says the man with Baird, gesturing at his own face. “[Inaudible] when you wear a mask, guess, what all that stuff goes up your nose, that mask don’t do anything . . .”
“There’s violating masking stuff,” Ayling says, “but I’m not violating any . . .”
“But you are in my personal space,” says Baird from off-camera. “So back off!”
“Now!” shouts Baird, as Ayling shifts the camera toward her. “Back off 6-feet, bitch, back off!” The man with Baird glowers at Ayling from behind. At no point does Ayling appear to have approached Baird. Instead, Baird appears to have remained where she was when she stepped toward Ayling.
“Maybe you should back off six feet,” Ayling says, “because you’re the one not wearing . . .”
“You were the one [inaudible] before you walked up, lady,” Baird says.
“I’m wearing a mask,” Ayling says.
“And you’re pain in my ass in my ass, too,” Baird snaps in reply.
“Don’t let her worry you,” says Johnson to Baird.
“What’s your name?” Ayling asks.
Baird steps forward, her face filling the screen, her mouth wide open, and so close the viewer can clearly see her lower teeth and tongue.
“My name is Elizabeth Hodges Baird! You get a close-up?”
“Yeah,” Ayling says,” but you touched me, and I would like you not to do that.”
Baird has already turned away and walked back toward the man she was there with.
A repeated allegation made by anti-monument protesters is that they are immediately arrested when they touch or even insult a neo-Confederate counter-protester, but when a counter-protester is arrested for touching one of them, the sheriff or police officer always arrests both parties.
Sheriff Johnson moves forward, stepping between Ayling and the couple. At that point, the video ends.
Ayling told YES! Weekly that, after she turned off her video, “other anti-racists started pointing out that the woman in the video was getting in my face, trying to start a fight. Terry Johnson said that I started it.”
She also gave the following description:
“The husband of Ms. Baird said something like, ‘if you come at my wife ever again,’ and Johnson tried to prevent the anti-racists from coming to help me. I turned away to track Johnson because I was more interested in videoing him than the aggressive racists. I have that part on video too, and Johnson’s comment that I started it, but I didn’t tweet it because it also has the faces of some anti-racists.”
In the same Twitter message, Ayling gave YES! Weekly the following statement:
“If you do get ahold of Johnson, you may want to ask him why he thinks I’m ‘antifa.’ A while back, someone sent me an email that a deranged neo-Confederate sent to Johnson, a bunch of other LEOs, and journalists accusing me of terrorism and saying I was an ‘antifa leader” (which has been a common accusation ever since neo-Nazi Daniel McMahon started stalking me obsessively. McMahon is currently in prison, but before he was arrested, he communicated with a ton of locals and sent them info on me).”
Daniel McMahon of Brandon, Florida, was arrested by the United States Justice Department in September of 2019 and indicted on counts of “willful interference with a candidate for elective office, bias-motivated interference with a candidate for elective office, threats to injure interstate commerce and cyber stalking.”
The U.S. Department of Justice arrested a man on Aug. 12, who has long coordinated death threats, harassment and personal information exposure throughout the country, including toward University of North Carolina students and faculty. His threats toward Ayling and other UNC students and faculty have been covered in The Daily Tarheel and The Tampa Bay Times. The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office has not responded to YES! Weekly’s several calls and email requests for comment. The woman claiming to be “Elizabeth Baird” could not be reached to comment.