Law enforcement officers in Graham, North Carolina, used pepper spray on people, including young children, who were marching to a local polling station on Saturday, and made multiple arrests.
The march, called "I Am Change," was to rally voter participation on the last day of early voting across the country. According to multiple witnesses and a Facebook livestream, Graham Police Department officers unleashed pepper spray on a crowd of about 200 demonstrators after what appeared to be an attempt to shut down the entire rally.
Witnesses told BuzzFeed News that officers from the Alamance County Sheriff's Office then arrived at the scene, and law enforcement officers began making multiple arrests.
"More arrests happened, then more pepper spray," said Megan Squire, who attended the march. Squire and her husband, a photographer who was taking photos of the incident, counted at least three arrests at the start of the clash and six arrests near the end.
The Graham Police Department released a statement saying 8 people were arrested for various offenses, including failure to disperse, and one count of assault on a law enforcement officer.
According to the police, officers used a "pepper-based vapor" after the marchers blocked the streets, causing traffic backups in all directions, which led to a "safety hazard."
The statement said the chemical irritant was sprayed onto the ground and never directly at the crowd.
The Alamance County Sheriff's Office did not respond to multiple inquiries from BuzzFeed News.
The event began after 11 a.m. local time, and videos posted to social media showed peaceful demonstrations at their meeting point. Organizers also strategically planned to meet by a Confederate statue, where several keynote speakers would speak about issues like police brutality.
At around 1 p.m., when the first speaker took the stage, witnesses said they saw police officers surrounding the site.
"The sheriff deputies came out of the courthouse and began unplugging the sound equipment," said Squire. "This started some yelling from the demonstrators and speakers who were still in the middle of the event."
Squire's husband, Anthony Crider, told BuzzFeed News that law enforcement told people to leave.
"They declared it an 'unlawful assembly' and told everyone to leave," Crider said. "It was very chaotic. I saw multiple arrests. Some kind of pepper spray/fog got used on a lot of people."
The Facebook livestream — shared by the speaker who was interrupted by the police apparently unplugging their sound system — showed that cops began deploying pepper spray before giving enough warning to marchers to leave.
"I saw several children choking from the spray," said Squire. "People had to choose whether to continue to the polling station or go wash their eyes and skin."
Raleigh News & Observer reported that a 5-year-old and an 11-year-old were pepper-sprayed. Their mother, Melanie Mitchell, told the outlet that both of her kids threw up from the pepper spray.
Belle Boggs, a participant who was there with her 6-year-old daughter, told BuzzFeed News they did not have time to clear the area before officers began swarming demonstrators.
"Less than a minute after telling people to clear the streets, we were pepper-sprayed," said Boggs. "There wasn't time to clear the streets safely because of social distancing guidelines and the fact that many people were elderly or had children with them."
Due to the clashes and brute police force, many marchers did not make it to the polling site, which was their destination.
Demonstrators told BuzzFeed News that people instantly began running away once police responded with force — because they were sprayed, to help those who had been sprayed, or to follow and assist those who were arrested. About 50 people remained after the scuffle, they estimated.
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BuzzFeed News reached out to the North Carolina Board of Elections regarding concerns the board may have had about what transpired in Graham just three days before Election Day, but spokesperson Patrick Gannon said, "Voting continued uninterrupted at that early voting site."
However, some of those who organized or participated in the march that was cut short by the police believe it was a concerted effort to restrict their voice at the ballot box.
Faith Cook, one of the organizers, told reporter Sarah Ovaska, "It was intended to suppress the vote."