Voting and civil rights activists were pepper-sprayed by police during a march to the polls in North Carolina on Saturday afternoon.
The “I Am Change” march, organized by Rev. Gregory Drumwright, was hosted in Greensboro and Graham on Friday and Saturday, respectively—the final days of in-person early voting in the state. The march aimed to encourage voters to get to the polls and help put an end to the systemic oppression of minority groups.
On Saturday in Graham, hundreds gathered for the march from Wayman’s Chapel AME Church to the Alamance County Historic Courthouse, where a controversial confederate monument still stands. The march would then culminate a few blocks down at the early voting polls.
But things quickly took a turn for the worst when Graham police instructed those marching to disperse and began pepper-spraying when they failed to do so, reportedly without a warning. Alamance County sheriffs soon began taking down the sound equipment used by event speakers and turning off the generator, stating that the permits had been revoked and reiterating that the crowd needed to disperse. Once the crowd got anxious, the officers started pepper-spraying them again.
Congressional Candidate Scott Huffman of North Carolina, who was present during the incident and was pepper-sprayed, told Newsweek that the officers began dismantling the sound equipment at around 1 p.m., before the speeches concluded. He said that the protest was peaceful and that sponsors had permits until hours later, noting that Alamance sheriffs didn’t give the crowd a reason for demanding that they disperse.
“They started coming up with pepper-spray as soon as they started giving warnings that the permit had been revoked. They gave us no reason,” said Huffman. “They told everybody to disperse and, of course, the crowd got anxious at that point.”
Huffman said that the officers pepper-sprayed children and a person in a wheelchair, who actually needed medical attention due to difficulty breathing.
“The fact that it was a peaceful demonstration made this totally upsetting,” Huffman said.
Videos of the event show hundreds of protesters peacefully marching and kneeling in a traffic circle in front of the courthouse. Several politicians and activists were present at the event, including Ian Baltutis, the mayor of nearby Burlington; Democratic candidate for county commissioner Dreama Caldwell; and Democratic school board candidate Seneca Rodgers. Huffman said that some family members of George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police in May, were also present at the event.
At least 10 people were arrested, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.
Rev. Drumwright was one of the people arrested and charged that afternoon for “failing to disperse on command.” He said that more than a dozen protesters were pepper-sprayed, thrown to the ground, and had visible wounds.
He said that, given the Alamance County Sheriff Department’s history with racial profiling (for which they were reprimanded by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012), he knew what he and the protesters were going into and had hoped to keep the event peaceful the entire time.
“Our peaceful rally was going on for about an hour, and the Alamance County Sheriff’s Department disrupted that and commanded us to disperse. We held our ground because we were permitted to be there. We received a permit to gather and hold our rally on the court square,” said Drumwright.
“When we refused to move earlier in the rally, they had pepper-sprayed a portion of our crowd. The second incident happened in the midst of our rally,” he added. “For many of us, our faces are still burning, our eyes are still leaking. We’re still trying to recover from that.”
In a news release regarding the incident, the Graham Police Department said that it had met with Drumwright to discuss options for a possible route, but a road closure was not a part of the agreement.
“A road closure where he requested, Courtsquare, would have limited access and available parking for the polling site,” the news release read. “An agreement for road closure was not made at that meeting and Mr. Drumwright was directed to the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office for the issuance of a permit to use county property at the historic courthouse as a rally location.”
Mr. Drumwright was provided a copy of our public safety plan so he would be aware of the route and expectations. Those plans detailed that the blocking of a roadway by participants was a prohibited activity that would be strictly enforced,” Graham police added.
The statement also mentioned that the crowd was given the command to clear the roadway and move to a permitted area designated by Graham police. The use of a “pepper-based vapor” came after “several verbal commands” and the event continued afterward. However, after some times, Graham police said that the event became “unsafe and unlawful,” causing another command to disperse.
“The order to disperse was given to the crowd with a 5 minute warning,” the statement read. “Several people remained after the final warning and officers again deployed a pepper-based vapor onto the ground to assist in dispersing the crowd. At
no time during this event did any member of the Graham Police Department directly spray any participant in the march with chemical irritants.”
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said that Saturday’s events were troubling, but didn’t appear to affect early voting at the polls.
“All eligible voters in North Carolina have a constitutional right to cast their vote safely and securely, without threats or intimidation,” Stein wrote in a statement on Saturday. “After today’s troubling events in Alamance County, I went to the courthouse in Graham and all is calm now.”
He added: “I reached out to the State Board of Elections and was informed that the events appear not to have impacted voting at the early voting location. The site there was calm, and the voters got in line and voted.”
However, Drumwright said that several voters didn’t get the opportunity to exercise their right to vote that day.
“The most egregious thing that has come out of this today is that people who were intending to cast their vote after our rally was over never made it to the polls.”