A police chief and sheriff in North Carolina are being sued for voter intimidation and violation of constitutional rights after participants in a voting march were pepper-sprayed and arrested on Saturday.
An estimated 200 to 250 people participated in the “I Am Change” march in Graham, North Carolina, which was organized to get voters to the polls on the last day of early voting in North Carolina on Oct. 31. The marchers were pepper-sprayed and 23 people were arrested, according to witnesses and statements from the Graham Police Department and the sheriff’s office.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of organizers Rev. Gregory Drumwright, Edith Ann Jones, and Justice for the Next Generation with the backing of the North Carolina ACLU. It claims that the planning and authorization of force against the marchers by Graham Police Chief Kristy Cole and Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson amounts to violations of the First, Fourth, and 15th Amendments, and other voter protection laws.
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“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,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a statement.
“Racially motivated attacks on peaceful demonstrators is a form of grotesque voter intimidation and we cannot continue to let these acts of violence continue,” Clarke added.
The right to protest has been the subject of legal battles all summer in Graham, following the police killing of George Floyd in May, with the city's mayor, Jerry Peterman, at one point issuing an emergency order suspending all demonstration permits.
Drumwright, who is the senior minister at the Citadel Church in Greensboro, was also a plaintiff in another lawsuit in July with the Alamance County NAACP that sued Peterman and other Graham and Alamance County officials over the restrictions. The plaintiffs were granted a preliminary injunction in August that prevented officials from prohibiting protests at the Confederate monument and courthouse grounds in Graham.
On Saturday the march paused near the Confederate monument in Court Square for 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence, marking the time that a police officer held Floyd in the knee chokehold that killed him, before Graham police began to pepper-spray them.
A press release from the Graham Police Department said that police had communicated with Drumwright about a safety plan for the march, and that “those plans detailed that the blocking of a roadway by participants was a prohibited activity that would be strictly enforced.”
According to the release, after the group paused to mark Floyd’s death, traffic began backing up around the square and police ordered the group to get out of the road, but the crowd failed to disperse and police began to use pepper spray.
The release says that the rally moved into designated areas and briefly resumed, but was deemed unsafe and police then ordered the group to leave or warned that they would be subject to arrest. However, the lawsuit alleges that there was no warning issued.
Graham police then began to pepper spray the crowd again and arrested eight people. After that, witnesses told BuzzFeed News that officers from the Alamance County sheriff’s office arrived and began to arrest more people.
“More arrests happened, then more pepper spray," Megan Squire, who attend the March, told BuzzFeed News.
The marchers included the mayor of Burlington, North Carolina, as well as candidates for county commissioner and school board, according to the complaint. At least three children were among those pepper-sprayed, along with an older woman using a mobility scooter who had seizures.
"It was horrific," Drumwright told NBC. "Folks were afraid and traumatized by what happened.
The plaintiffs are seeking a declaratory judgment stating that Cole and Johnson violated their rights to free speech and assembly, along with damages.