THE STAKES 2020: Aranza Sosa on voting out racist officials in a rural North Carolina county

Aranza Sosa holds a sign calling out Sheriff Terry Johnson of Alamance County at the March for Justice and Community in July 2020. (Photo by Anthony Crider via Flickr has been cropped.)

(This is the second installment in The Stakes 2020, a series of interviews with community leaders, organizers, and advocates highlighting what's at stake for Southern communities during this year's election. We're going beyond the candidates on the ballot to dig into how elections influence the policies, budgets, and regulations that affect Southerners' everyday lives. Find the rest of the interviews here.)

Aranza Sosa is a 22-year-old resident of Graham, North Carolina, a small city of about 14,000 that's the seat of rural Alamance County, North Carolina. She's the daughter of Mexican immigrants who moved to the United States when she was a child. She's also an activist with Down Home NC, a group that's building working-class power in rural areas and small towns around the state.

A former textile center that's become a bedroom community for the nearby Research Triangle and Piedmont Triad communities, Alamance County has been the site of recent protests over a Confederate monument in downtown Graham. The protests have drawn white supremacist and neo-Confederate groups — often armed with guns and racist signs.

Alamance County is also home to about 21,000 Latinos, many of whom are undocumented immigrants who came to work in the local agriculture industry. Terry Johnson (R), the county's longtime sheriff, has faced allegations of racism for years, including a 2013 Department of Justice investigation and lawsuit over claims that his department engaged in racial profiling. Under Johnson's leadership, the sheriff's department participated in 287(g), an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program that allows local law enforcement agencies to act as immigration enforcement. After the DOJ dropped its lawsuit, ICE ended its contract with Alamance County. But the county signed an agreement this year to continue profiting from its relationship with ICE: It currently rents out 50 jail beds to the agency for immigrant detention. ICE pays Alamance County $135 a day for each bed.

We spoke with Aranza about her experiences in Alamance County and why this year was a watershed moment that led her to get involved with Down Home NC. Though the racist sheriff isn't on the ballot this year, she talked about the importance of electing local leaders who are responsive to their constituents, listen to the voices of the immigrant population, and will hold white supremacy in check. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Tell me about yourself and how you got involved in the work you're doing in Alamance County.

I've grown up in Alamance County my whole life, except for the first few years. I've always been here, and I've gotten to see the way things have evolved to where we are now. I got involved after experiencing some of this racism firsthand. When I saw George Floyd being murdered by police, it awoke something in me, and I wanted to go protest. I wanted to use my voice. And that's when I called Ricky Hurtado [a Latino civic activist and Democratic candidate for the eastern Alamance County state House seat currently held by Republican incumbent Stephen Ross]. We had a really emotional conversation and he influenced me to get more involved in the community. Finally, for the first time really seeing someone that looks like my people [involved in elections] was life changing for me. It made me feel like I needed to get out there too. It led me to get involved in protests and join organizations like Down Home.

Tell me about the community you live in. Who lives there, and what are some of the primary issues facing it?

I live right by downtown Graham, where the famous Confederate monument is here. I live right by the high school and the police department, and in my neighborhood it's a lot of Latinos, Hispanics, Black people. I just see how the police will patrol our area, or set up traffic stops in our area, because they know the type of demographic that is here. They had a Latino voter drive in Alamance County, and coincidentally that same day they just had to have a traffic stop down the street from it. It's stuff like that in my community. But it's a great community here outside of the fearmongering from the sheriff's department, the government, and some of their followers.

What has your community's interaction with the sheriff's department been like?

When I was younger I didn't see it as much. But now that I'm older and I'm actually on my own I see it a lot more, especially within the past four years since Trump was elected. Nobody is really hiding their true colors anymore. Especially Terry Johnson and some of the county commissioners like Bill Lashley. People were emailing him concerns about Graham and Alamance County in general, and his responses were that people were antifa and that they hated this country. The county commissioners were just not really caring to hear our voices. They just said, “When we get to the election whoever is elected will take care of it.” They wanted to ignore it, and I think that's what a lot of the government officials do here as well.

Terry Johnson has a lot of power here. He basically gets his way. He's been under fire multiple times for his xenophobia and his comments and his actions. He is super unprofessional and just very hateful and very money-driven. 287(g) especially shows that; he once said, in his exact words, "Go get me some taco-eaters."

He's been the sheriff for a few decades now, and the way he is now is the way he was back then. He has always worked to target Latinos, even though he says otherwise. And I feel like that has trickled down to the sheriff's department and the police department here in Graham.

My parents don't speak English, but I guarantee you if you ask them who the racist sheriff is here, they can tell you just because of how bad he's been. He's jailed a lot of people because of racial profiling. Within the past few months he had a large COVID outbreak here, in our Alamance County jail. He also refuses to enforce the mask mandate here in North Carolina for his department. That's all within the past few months.

What is 287(g) and how does it impact what the sheriff's department does in Alamance County?

[Johnson] has an agreement with ICE that he can detain undocumented people here in Alamance County. And he gets money from ICE for the agreement. But it affects a lot of things. They spend a lot more time profiling people, they routinely stop Latinos at a higher rate here than they would other demographics. It has made things really scary and uncomfortable for our Latino community.

You said that when you brought some of these concerns to local government officials and local government leaders, many of them brushed you aside. What do you think the election has the opportunity to change about how this policy is enforced or how the sheriff's department is able to act?

This election is really important because we have opportunities to completely change out the people in our government here in Alamance County. There's a lot of amazing people up for election, like Dreama [Caldwell] and Kristen Powers [who are running for the county commission]. They would be more than willing to hold people like Terry Johnson — and each other — accountable. With the government we have right now, it's not really like that. Everything's being ignored, everything's being swept under the rug because they just are under the impression that they won't have to deal with it if they push it off long enough, that people will forget about it. With some of the people who are running, I definitely feel like things could become a lot better, more welcoming. And even with just having a more welcoming government here that might better things economically.

I wanted to go back for a second — at the beginning you were talking about Ricky Hurtado as someone who you felt like you were really able to connect with, and felt heard by.

Before I contacted him, I didn't really interact with any government officials mostly because I'm a shy person. I keep to myself. There wasn't many opportunities for me before. I didn't think that the number I called off his website would be his personal number or that he would talk to me. But it actually became really personal and I appreciated that. I didn't know that there was someone like him running, and it just gave me a little bit of hope to see him up there.

What were some of the issues you talked about?

That was the day of the protest, and the cops were lecturing me, and there was some shop owners in Graham across the street with their weapons. I was talking to him because I was concerned. I wanted to talk to someone who could give me a little bit of information about where to go from there and what I could do to get involved. He listened to me. I told him some of my personal background: My parents were immigrants, they don't really have schooling, so I feel like it's on me and my siblings and the next generation to make our parents proud to have sacrificed everything to come here. He was very understanding, and it felt like I was actually talking to someone that I knew for a long time. It didn't feel like it was a police officer or something — I didn't feel nervous to talk to him.

And so to have somebody like him in office, if he wins — or to have some other people on your local city council who might actually hear what you're saying, when you come to them with stories or concerns…

Yeah, and it's a little bit more than that, too. They not only are listening to you but they've also been through a lot of the things that the people here have been through. These are people who grew up here and have experienced a lot of this stuff, and they're working on this stuff because they know what it's like to be in a house with two other families sharing cars and stuff like that. They really get it.

Is there anything else going on in Alamance you're thinking about as the election approaches?

Honestly, the biggest thing is just the government and Terry Johnson, and I think that just spreads all across the board in Graham. Their mindset — they have that privileged view. It spreads to the news reporters and some of the citizens of Alamance County.

There was a really, really large Trump convoy that started at the Ace Speedway, which was illegally opened in the middle of the pandemic. It started there and drove through Elon, Burlington, Graham. All these people in the Trump convoy were yelling out slurs and stuff like "white power" and cussing at people, and just being really, really nasty towards the people out on the streets. Afterwards, they met up at the monument here in Graham, and they had a lot of disrespectful signs. They had a sign that was originally a Black Lives Matter sign, and they wrote "Crack Lives Matter" over it. There was another [white] woman there who assaulted someone, and she had a face mask on of a Black man's genitalia.

It just feels like it's really one-sided here. It feels kind of hopeless at this moment, and it feels kind of hopeless if we can't get a lot of these people voted out.