'You have created this chaos,' arrested clergy says to police who pepper sprayed North Carolina crowd

Dean-Paul Stephens, Rachel Berry and Isaac Groves

Saturday’s “I Am Change” march in Graham, North Carolina, ended with multiple arrests and injuries following a police crackdown on the peaceful demonstration.

It came a day after organizers held an identical “I Am Change” march in nearby Greensboro, N.C. The two events, according to those who attended both, were like night and day, in regards to the response by law enforcement officials.

“You have created this chaos; we will not stand down,” said Rev. Gregory Drumwright, the primary organizer of both marches, as law enforcement issued a disperse order. “We have a legal right to occupy this ground, and I have a legal right to occupy this ground until 2 p.m., and I will stay here and demonstrate our legal rights.”   

Drumwright, who was among those arrested, directed his remarks to recently appointed Graham Police Chief Kristy Cole. Drumwright referred to 2 p.m. because he had received a permit prior to the event to occupy the area in front of the courthouse until that time.

Saturday’s march was a get-out-the-vote event meant to take participants from the parking lot of the Wayman Chapel AME Church to Graham’s Court Square, where a number of activists and community leaders were slated to speak. This included members of George Floyd's family, who were in attendance. From there, the march would continue to Graham's early voting precinct. The polls closed at 3 p.m. Saturday for the last day of early voting before Tuesday's election. 

Demonstrators taking part in a rally and listening to speakers outside the Alamance County Courthouse in Graham on Saturday, Oct. 31. The rally turned violent with law enforcement pepper-spraying some of those attending and arresting others.

On Court Square, the marchers had moment of silence for George Floyd. Once it ended, Burlington (North Carolina) Mayor Ian Baltutis said, Graham “police very aggressively told everyone to get off the street and onto the sidewalk.”

“They started pepper spraying everyone, including a couple of kids — small children.”

With the breeze, Baltutis said, the spray was soon all over the square.

In their official statement, law enforcement officials maintained not having directly sprayed anyone in the face.

"When the crowd failed to disperse, after several verbal commands, officers with the Graham Police Department utilized a crowd control measure that consisted of spraying a pepper based vapor onto the ground," the statement read. 

Those at the event and video posted to social media contradict that statement.

At least one demonstrator, bound to an electric scooter, had to be carried away and given treatment.

"With my own eyes, I saw someone from the Sheriff’s Office attack someone in one of those electric scooters,” local attorney Jamie Paulen said. “That person wasn’t doing anything … and that person was having a seizure.”

Baltutis, who was a speaker at the rally, also witnessed the woman in the scooter. 

“There was a woman in an electric scooter who got sprayed,” Baltutis said. “She was convulsing … we tried to call over police and sheriff’s deputies, and they just looked at us. … it was alarming.”

A statement from Jon Dooley, vice president for student life at Elon University, said five Elon student journalists were among those pepper-sprayed. Dooley said two of those arrested are Elon students. 

Concerns of voter suppression

Dream Caldwell, candidate for county commissioner, was at the polls watching the march on Facebook live and planning to meet marchers when they came to vote after the rally.

On one stream she saw some children she knew start crying. She headed down the street to help them, but a police officer stopped her and told her the rally was an unlawful assembly and she would be arrested if she tried to get to it.

She was told her campaign manager Rion Thompson had been arrested. More than three hours later, he hadn’t been processed, so she hadn’t been able to bail him out.

She had spoken to the woman in the electric scooter at the polls and then saw a Facebook video of her convulsing after being sprayed.

“I saw her after she said she’s OK,” Caldwell said.

She was trying to find out how many people missed their last chance at early voting.

“We had people who needed to register and vote, and they didn’t get to do that,” Caldwell said. “Some people did go [to the polls afterward], but some people had had enough and went home.”

Deputies put on gas masks and started pushing people north, Baltutis said, not allowing them go in the direction of the polling place at the County Annex building.

“It was chaotic. They would spray one area and then push people into the pepper spray,” Baltutis said.

Protesters were especially concerned that an event promoting voting had been broken up like this. 

"It's frustrating, but at the same time you kind of just learn to expect this to happen because it keeps happening, like this isn't something new, so that's the very reason that we're out here," said Tanisha Thomas with Justice 4 the Next Generation about the arrests and "pepper based vapor" used on participants at the march. 

"It's another way of voter suppression," Thomas said. 

Sierra Harvey, also with Justice 4 the Next Generation, agreed. 

"I was crying and shaking because I saw my brothers get physically attacked and thrown on the ground, and hearing their plight and hearing them yell is just tugging on my heart really bad," she said ... "It's a hard thing to deal with and say 'yes fight for us, but also I need you to live, so you can fight tomorrow.'"

Ernestine Ward, an 83-year-old longtime activist, said “people were moving, and they were spraying them."

Prior to the crackdown, Ward got into an altercation with an officer who, according to her, tried to make her move faster than she was able. A group of activists came to her aid.

“I’m happy these young people are here to do this,” she said, comparing the evening’s crackdown to similar ones from civil rights movements of decades past. “We should be out here supporting these young people because they have the resources and the power to fight back. It’s hard to go up against the establishment.”

Police say traffic was at issue

While the first half of the march went smoothly, police began cracking down on demonstrators upon reaching the Alamance County Courthouse in an effort to keep the roundabout clear for traffic. Police allowed Drumwright to continue the event despite having pepper-sprayed the audience.

Drumwright and several others remarked at what they described as the needlessness of trying to maintain traffic despite the number of participants while others surmised doing so was an excuse to make arrests. 

In a statement hours following the arrests, the Graham Police Department said closing the street wasn't possible because it was too close to the early voting location and would block parking for early voting. 

As Drumwright and others took to the makeshift stage to give remarks, Graham police officers continued to make arrests until Alamance County Sheriff’s deputies exited the courthouse and approached the sound equipment. A tussle between demonstrators and deputies over the sound equipment ultimately ended with arrests.

Law enforcement officials gave demonstrators five minutes to deconstruct the stage area and vacate the courthouse property. Drumwright and others maintained they had permission to continue until 2 p.m., their original designated end time.

Police responded by arresting Drumwright and other activists.

Following the arrests, a group of protestors gathered in front of the Alamance County Detention Center. Protestors were contained to the grass in the area between the parking lot and the road. 

By 7 p.m. Saturday, the protestors had left from in front of the jail. Police and the Sheriff's Office had not released names and charges of those arrested as of Saturday night.