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Hanging meme from south Georgia sheriff angers residents

Harry Young, the four-time sheriff of Grady County, posted a Facebook meme that advocated hanging of "traitors." Young told the Thomasville Times-Enterprise his original post was aimed at national Democratic figures like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Herb Pilcher / AJC file)
Harry Young, the four-time sheriff of Grady County, posted a Facebook meme that advocated hanging of "traitors." Young told the Thomasville Times-Enterprise his original post was aimed at national Democratic figures like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Herb Pilcher / AJC file)

Credit: Herb Pilcher

Credit: Herb Pilcher

A Facebook post by a long-serving Georgia sheriff connecting the violent protests around the nation with the hanging of “traitors” is dividing his south Georgia community.

“I think that it’s inappropriate for anyone who is in a leadership or political position,” said Grady County school board member Teresa Gee Hardy. “When anyone mentions hanging, it isn’t a good thing to me, whether it is a joke or whatever, considering the history in the Deep South.”

Harry Young, serving his fourth term as sheriff of the rural county on the Georgia-Florida border, posted a meme to his personal Facebook page on May 8 showing a historical painting showing prisoners being led to a large scaffold with the legend “Can we get back to the tradition of hanging traitors?”

Local Democratic activist Laura Register said she was alerted to the post by a friend and pasted it onto her own Facebook page.

“I’m completely disgusted by the Facebook posts of our Sheriff Harry Young,” she wrote on May 31 as cities around the nation were dealing with large protests over the death of African-America Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer.

“This is just one example,” Register wrote. “If you think people that don’t look like him will get a fair chance you need to think again.”

Young responded quickly to Register's complaint by doubling down, re-posting the meme with the comment, "If you like destroying hard working people's property because of one officer's horrible decision then you are the problem!!!"

Grady County Sheriff Harry Young angered some in his south Georgia community with a Facebook post that appears to advocate hanging looters.
Grady County Sheriff Harry Young angered some in his south Georgia community with a Facebook post that appears to advocate hanging looters.

Register's post has been shared more than 100 times and drew dozens of outraged comments, including calls for Young to resign. On Young's own page, the responses were more mixed about the sheriff and his political views.

“Harry Young, you the man. You have been the sheriff for this county for since I was born. I hope you get it again!” one resident posted.

Others were critical and vowed to see Young, who is running for reelection, defeated. “You won’t be sheriff for long,” another resident wrote.

Young told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution his original post was aimed at national figures on the left “wanting to change our Constitution.” But he said he did not think they should be executed.

“I think they should be dealt with,” he said. “They should be put in prison or something.”

Young specifically singled out billionaire George Soros.

“I’m talking about George Soros and people like him who are funding people going out and funding people who are protesting,” he said.

Soros, who is a large contributor to left-wing political causes, is a favorite target for right-wing conspiracy theories.

Young’s Facebook page is filled with similar memes supporting President Donald Trump and attacking national Democrats, often repeating false information. Some are arguably as inflaming as the “traitors” post.

"If you think people that don't look like him will get a fair chance you need to think again." —Laura Register, local Democratic activist

On May 12, he posted a meme featuring former President Barack Obama that reads, “My plan was to destroy American and convert you to Islam. And then, your Christian God sent Donald Trump to ruin it.” Young told the AJC that he believes Obama is a secret Muslim and sought to undermine America while in office.

“Look at all the Muslims he brought into the country and placed them around the country,” he said. “He puts them in one area and they run for office.”

Register said Young’s “traitors” post recalls the South’s history of lynching. The county’s top law enforcement officer should know better, she said.

“It’s his right to post that kind of stuff. It’s our right as a community, if we think this is wrong, to vote against him,” she said. “He has several opponents.”

Young is not the only Southern sheriff to divide a community with his comments about the unrest following Floyd's death. The sheriff of Polk County outside of Tampa, Fla., stirred controversy when he advised would-be looters that his residents were armed and "I'm highly recommending they blow you back out of the house with their guns."

Of course, Trump’s own social media rhetoric in recent days has drawn praise and criticism, depending on the audience. The president’s tweets about shooting looters and siccing “vicious dogs” on protesters outside the White House have their own echoes in civil rights history.

For most of his political career, Young ran as a Democrat. He switched the Republican Party in 2016.

Despite the criticism his Facebook post generated, he said he would do it again.

“Somebody has got to stand up; somebody has to say something,” he said. “You’ve got one side trying to destroy America, and if you say something, they say something is wrong with you.”