GRAHAM, North Carolina—On the final day of early voting in North Carolina, police in Alamance County pepper-sprayed a group of voters who were marching to the polls, leaving demonstrators injured and vomiting in the streets.
At least one journalist was arrested in the chaotic showdown on Saturday in Alamance County, a red county but one that may decide which party controls the state legislature next year.
About 250 people—most of them Black—were taking part in an event called I Am Change Legacy March to the Polls and on their penultimate stop before visiting a polling place in downtown Graham when cops intervened.
Just after several speakers, including Ian Baltutis, mayor of neighboring Burlington, had addressed the crowd, Alamance County sheriff's deputies dressed in camo, gas masks, and tactical gear stood in formation on the steps of the Historic Courthouse behind the stage. They ordered the protesters to disperse, and announced they would begin arresting people.
“I will stand my ground,” the Rev. Greg Drumwright said from atop the temporary stage, beneath the shadow of a Confederate monument. He told the deputies, “When you get involved, peaceful protests always turn into chaotic situations.”
Then, deputies grabbed Drumwright and at least four others and tackled them to the ground, while other officers advanced on protesters, legal observers and journalists, and forced them into the street.
Only minutes earlier, a Graham police officer announced from a loudspeaker that the protest was an “unlawful assembly.” After the organizers were arrested, Graham police officers began deploying pepper spray at protesters’ feet, driving them a block northward.
It was at least the third time police deployed large amounts of pepper spray on the crowd, underscoring Drumwright’s accusation that the police caused violence and chaos. Multiple people were injured and arrested, including one journalist. One protester was seen vomiting after police deployed pepper spray, and was treated by EMTs.
Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, who works for voter engagement group Down Home North Carolina and attended the march, told The Daily Beast: “I saw a little girl, probably five, being carried off sobbing and coughing. She was dressed as a fairy or a princess." She said that another child vomited after being pepper-sprayed.
A woman identified as Melanie Mitchell told The News & Observer that her 5-year-old and 11-year-old daughters were among those pepper-sprayed. She said her 5-year-old frantically ran away and “my 11-year-old was terrified. She doesn’t want to come down to Graham anymore.”
The chaos began early, once the marchers reached the Confederate monument. After they kneeled in the traffic circle to observe 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence to honor George Floyd, Graham police suddenly began pepper-spraying at people’s feet, including journalists and children, and ordering them to move.
One of the first arrested was Tomas Murawski, a reporter for the conservative news outlet The Alamance News. Video taken by The Daily Beast shows Graham police officers twisting Murawski’s wrist and forcefully jerking his arms in an upwards motion.
It was unclear why Murawski and another man who was arrested were taken into custody but Murawski had only been reporting on the protest at the time. Another protester was arrested when police found a Bowie knife strapped to her leg, said Jamie Paulen, a lawyer who attended the march.
A fourth protester, Avery Harvey, was arrested after telling a Black police officer that policing as an institution is racist. As Harvey was walking off, the officer told him he was under arrest. Harvey’s arrest angered protesters, who shouted from the courthouse across the street, “Let him go!”
Going into the rally, Drumwright expressed frustration with the Graham police, saying they refused his request to set up a stage at the Confederate monument and insisted on maintaining vehicular traffic around the traffic circle. Prior to the march, the police set up tape around the sidewalks in an attempt to corral the protesters past the monument and courthouse.
“The chief of police has worked very hard and very diligently to keep us from having a peaceful rally there on the Courthouse Square,” Drumwright told The Daily Beast during a companion march to a polling place in Greensboro on Friday evening.
Drumwright previously led about 700 people in a July 11 march to the Confederate monument, and he said the police chief did not respond to inquiries from his attorneys as to why they could assemble there in July, but not now.
As Graham police drove protesters away from the Historic Courthouse on Saturday, Alan Hall, a regular at pro-Confederate rallies, heckled them from a pickup truck festooned with Trump flags. “You want change?” he yelled. “Leave the Democratic plantation.”
Justasia Z. Drayton, an organizer with Down Home North Carolina, was at the polling place a block away to help people vote when police broke up the march. “This is the most un-American place in America,” she said. “On voting day of all days.”
Over the course of the day, at least one pickup truck flying a Confederate flag could be seen driving past the polling place. A man yelled, “Vote Trump!” from a passing vehicle.
Down Home North Carolina has been working to get out the vote for a slate of local candidates, including Dreama Caldwell, a candidate for Alamance County Board of Commissioners.
“A lot of people don’t want to vote; they feel disenfranchised,” Drayton said. “They feel their vote does not matter. But their vote does matter, because at the local level a couple hundred votes can sway an election. Dreama Caldwell would be the first Black woman county commissioner ever, which is astounding to me. That’s consequential.”
In a statement, North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin called it “completely unwarranted police hostility and voter suppression.”
“This group of North Carolinians was fully within their First Amendment rights to hold their protest and march to the polls,” he said. “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.”