After a peaceful voter turnout rally was violently and abruptly shut down in Alamance County this weekend, organizers pledge to return on Election Day to urge voters to show up at the polls.
Rev. Greg Drumwright had hoped to lead a multiracial group of several hundred to vote in the Alamance County town of Graham on Saturday.
Instead, law enforcement which included the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office and the Graham Police Department abruptly shut the “I Am Change” rally down, spraying pepper spray vapor with little warning into a crowd including older people and children, and arrested Drumwright, a Greensboro activist, along with several others.
The exact number of arrestees remains unclear—Graham police say they arrested eight people, but organizers of the rally estimated as many as 14 to16 people were detained. The other responding law enforcement agency, the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office, has not released information about their arrests at Saturday’s event.
Now, he is banned from setting foot in Graham for three days, a condition of his release from jail.
On Tuesday, when that three-day ban runs out, Drumwright will be right back in Graham on what is the final day of voting in this contentious election year in one of the nation’s swing states. He’s planning for a large demonstration Tuesday and expects to be joined by other civil rights groups objecting to what many who attended described as voter suppression.
“I need you to figure out what’s going on with your schedule so you can be there” at the polls, Drumfield said in a press conference he held Sunday afternoon outside the Burlington apartments he grew up in. “Even if you already voted, I need you to get in those streets with me on those sidewalks with me, and I need you to stand up to white supremacy, to police brutality.”
North Carolina has already seen nearly 62% of its registered voters already cast ballots, by sending in absentee ballots or voting at early voting sites through Saturday. People can vote in-person at their voting precincts on Tuesday, Election Day.
NC Leaders Call Events “Unacceptable”
Some of the state’s top leaders have voiced concern and outrage at the arrests and police tactics used at Saturday’s “I Am Change March to the Polls” event. The protest had been peaceful before officers deployed the pepper spray vapor. Planned speakers included members of George Floyd’s family and attorney Ben Crump, who represents victims of police brutality across the nation.
Eyewitness accounts, including from Cardinal & Pine, and photographs of the chaotic dispersal of the rally show some law enforcement spraying the pepper spray vapor both at the feet of marchers, as well as above the heads of attendees. Attendees reported that they, and their small children, vomited from exposure to the pepper spray. (The News & Observer posted this video of footage from the event, showing among other things a woman in a motorized scooter convulsing from exposure to the pepper spray vapor.) The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond for a request for comment.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper condemned law enforcement’s responses, in a tweet from his official government account Saturday night.
“This incident is unacceptable,” Cooper wrote. “Peaceful demonstrators should be able to have their voices heard and voter intimidation in any form cannot be tolerated.”
NC Attorney General Josh Stein initially tweeted that he was assured that the chaotic scene hadn’t prevented anyone from voting, but revised that Sunday saying he’d heard there were people that intended to vote that couldn’t because of the incident.
“This is extremely concerning, and we need to get to the bottom of it,” Stein tweeted, asking people to contact the State Board of Elections if they were affected. “Obstructing people from voting is against the law.”
It was unclear if Stein’s tweet meant his office had opened an official investigation.
State Board of Elections spokesman Pat Gannon said the polling site was never shut down and reiterated that voters can still return any requested absentee ballots by Tuesday or vote on Tuesday at their assigned voting precincts.
North Carolina’s struggles to overcome racism and white supremacy have long been on display in Alamance County. The sheriff, Terry Johnson, was sued in 2014 by the Justice Department under the Obama Administration, accused of civil rights violations by the in its disproportionate arrests of Latino residents. Johnson beat the accusations in federal court, and won re-election in 2014 and 2018 .
The Black Lives Matter protest that erupted after the death of Floyd brought fresh attention to Graham’s Confederate statue in the courthouse square, with groups of Confederate supporters showing up to face off against BLM protesters. It is also the site where Wyatt Outlaw, the town’s first Black elected official, was dragged from his home and lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in 1870.
Recent calls to remove the Confederate statute have not been answered, even as other communities in the state and South began to dismantle the structures, many of which were erected during the Jim Crow era.
Police Say Rally Organizers Didn’t Follow Rules
Police are contending that Drumwright and the marches didn’t stick to an agreed-upon safety plan and blocked traffic in the small town’s downtown. It’s something that Drumwright denies, saying he and attorneys working for his group Justice for the Next Generation had been working for weeks to arrange the logistics of the event so that people would be able to safely get to an early voting site just two blocks away from the Confederate monument.
Two law enforcement agencies, the Graham Police Department and Alamance County Sheriff’s Office, were tasked with protecting the public’s safety during the event.
But Graham police contended that they didn’t intend to harm any children or other people with the pepper spray vapor.
“We don’t want any children to get hurt. We don’t want anybody to get hurt,” Daniel Sisk of the Graham Police Department said in a news conference on Sunday, adding that it was “unfortunate” if children were exposed to the chemical agent.
Drumwright called on the Graham Police Chief to explain why his requests to close down the streets weren’t answered, and why the decision was made to respond to the peaceful event with such agitation and force.
“Anytime peaceful demonstrators with no weapons, and no violence intended to organize to occupy and uplift our First Amendment rights, and it ends the way it ended yesterday—all of us should be appalled,” Drumwright said. “ Considering the history with this community, and Alamance County law enforcement, none of us should be surprised.”