Civil rights groups sue after use of pepper spray on demonstrators in NC county

GRAHAM, N.C. — A rally to promote voting that ended with North Carolina police pepper spraying and arresting attendants was the result of participants blocking the roadway without authorization, authorities said Saturday.

Graham police said they issued several warnings to the crowd at Alamance County’s courthouse to move from the roadway before releasing pepper spraying and later making arrests.

The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office spoke Monday about what happened over the weekend.

ABC11 was at the Monday afternoon news conference where Alamance County community engagement and diversity coordinator Michelle Mills outlined new details for the gathered media, including that demonstrators had created a safety hazard by bringing a running generator and gas cans in clear violation of the terms agreed to by the City of Graham and its police force.

Mills also said a female deputy was injured when she was shoved to the ground by demonstrators, ABC11 reported.

A civil rights group announced later Monday night it was suing to protect the constitutional rights of the voters.

“The right to protest has always been an important feature of our democracy and a tool for demanding change,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The police violence in Graham, N.C. perpetrated against a group of peaceful and primarily Black protestors over the weekend is yet another clear violation of the right to free speech and the right to vote. We will not stand back and let the voices of voters continue to be suppressed just hours before Election Day. Racially motivated attacks on peaceful demonstrators is a form of grotesque voter intimidation and we cannot continue to let these acts of violence continue.”

The lawsuit aims to protect protesters' rights to free speech and assembly under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina by the ACLU of North Carolina and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Graham Police arrested eight people and the sheriff’s office arrested at least 15 people -- only four of them Alamance County residents -- in the ensuing chaos. The sheriff’s office also said a woman in the crowd was armed with a knife and ammunition.

A press release from the department during the weekend said the march organized by Reverend Greg Drumwright didn’t have permission to block traffic.

Drumwright initially asked police and the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office if authorities could block the roadway for the rally members, but that request was never completed because Drumwright “missed the deadline,” Graham police said.

Police said attendees paused in the roadway for about nine minutes, creating traffic back ups “in all directions around court square.”

Later, police asked the crowd to disperse, giving them a five-minute warning to leave the roadway.

After the time passed, police said they released the spray toward the ground not “directly” toward any participant.

The “I Am Change” March to the Polls was organized by activist Drumwright, and began as a march from a local church to the courthouse.

Drumwright said the group was permitted to stand in the courthouse square and was escorted through the streets by the police. He also said that the group had “no intention” of having the rally in the street.

“We are fed up with this kind of treatment in Alamance County and in Graham City,” Drumwright said in a Facebook live video following the altercation. “Both of those law entities colluded to suppress peaceful organizers, who were here not only to vote today, but to call an end to system oppression and racial disparages.”

Lindsay Ayling, a graduate student and anti-racism activist who participated in the rally, told The Associated Press police used tear gas indiscriminately and without reason on the crowd, including on children.

“The police were looking for excuses to use pepper spray and arrest members of the crowd,” Ayling said.

Saturday was the last day to vote early in North Carolina, a key battleground President Donald Trump needs to win to boost his prospects of defeating Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein called the events “troubling.” He said election officials told him that polling places stayed open and people continued to vote.

“All eligible voters in North Carolina have a constitutional right to cast their vote safely and securely, without threats or intimidation,” said Stein, a Democrat.

Governor Roy Cooper called the actions unacceptable. He said “peaceful demonstrators should be able to have their voices heard and voter intimidation in any form cannot be tolerated.”

The North Carolina NAACP released a statement Sunday after the incident, saying the Alamance sheriff violated “North Carolina law, our Constitution and State policies when he ordered a pepper spray attack on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators."

The group urged the sheriff’s office to drop charges against those who were arrested and to hold the sheriff accountable.

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READ NAACP’s FULL STATEMENT:

"The Alamance Sheriff violated NC Law, our Constitution, and State Policies, when he ordered a pepper spray attack on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators on the last day of early voting in NC. Rev. Gregory Drumwright met fierce resistance when applying for permits for the peaceful protest for free and fair elections, following the permitting procedures to the letter.

Do the Sheriff and his enablers want Graham Courthouse to go down in History as NC’s Edmund Pettus Bridge? Do sensible, long-time Alamancers with the beautiful Elon Campus bringing national recognition to their County, want to remind the nation of its lynchings and hideous history of hate? Is the multi-cultural community of faith that Rev. Drumwright and other clergy are creating to help bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice such a threat to the dwindling, but powerful group of officials who still govern with violence and hate?

According to Graham’s law enforcers, it was when the peaceful protesters paused for eight minutes and 46 seconds, to honor the Black Life of George Floyd, that the deputies decided to pepper spray the crowd. Graham Mayor Ian Baltutis said his “police very aggressively told everyone to get off the street and onto the sidewalk. They started spraying everyone, including a couple of kids – small children. With the breeze, the spray was soon all over the square.”

On June 19, 2020 we requested Gov. Cooper to halt the use of tear gas and pepper spray during the pandemic. We believe our request was given to the Governor’s new Racial and Equity Task Force, but apparently was never discussed. We renew our request with a copy of the video from yesterday’s attack, noting the pandemic is reaching new highs in cases and deaths in NC. Let the Task Force meet and invite Rev. Drumwright and other witnesses to it. We note this Sheriff is no stranger to racialized tactics that deny human dignity. He has been in the news before. Drop all charges against those arrested. Dismantle Racism."

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A Confederate monument outside the Alamance County courthouse has been a local target for demonstrations since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police in May. Floyd, a Black man, died after a white officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for several minutes.

Drumwright said he’ll be holding a press conference Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at the Tucker Street Apartments in Burlington, where he is from.

Full statement from the North Carolina Democratic Party on the actions of the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office:

“The actions of these officers represents completely unwarranted police hospitality and voter suppression. The group of North Carolinians was fully within their First Amendment rights to hold their protest and march to the polls. Our democracy is built on the idea of one voice, one vote; no one should be denied their constitutional right to cast their ballot, much less fear for their safety while they do so. It is egregious that local law enforcement would conduct themselves this way. North Carolinians are no strangers to voter suppression and intimidation -- we know it when we see it. The North Carolina Democratic Party calls for swift and clear consequence for the offending officers.”