A racially diverse group of about 200 people walked with a police escort from Wayman’s Chapel AME Church to Court Square, where they held a rally encouraging people to vote. The event was organized by Rev. Greg Drumwright, a Burlington native who leads the the Citadel Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Saturday’s “I Am Change” march was supposed to conclude at an early voting site to promote voter turnout in the final days of the presidential campaign. Cops in riot gear and gas masks threw a monkey wrench in those plans by forcefully moving demonstrators off the street and away from county property, even though they had a permit to be there.
Tension escalated, the cops deployed pepper spray, and arrested 8 people. Very young children, as well as elderly and disabled residents were caught in the clouds.
Drumwright was one of the people arrested, along with activists associated with the group, People for Change, which has organized frequent demonstrations in Court Square this past summer.
At least three politicians participated in some parts of the event: the current mayor of Burlington, Ian Baltutis; Democratic candidate for county commissioner Dreama Caldwell; and Democratic school board candidate Seneca Rodgers.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law described the police response as a form of voter suppression. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said the actions of the police were “unacceptable.”
The Graham Police Department says force had been justified by the refusal of demonstrators to disperse after the gathering had “reached a level of conduct that led to the rally being deemed unsafe and unlawful by unified command.”
The department also defended the deployment of what it called a “pepper-based vapor,” saying its officers did not “directly spray any participant in the march.”
The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office tweeted saying, “Unfortunately the rally in Graham ended due to concerns for the safety of all.”
The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office has previously faced scrutiny in 2012 for “discriminatory policing,” leading to a civil rights lawsuit against Terry S. Johnson, the county sheriff. After a Republican appointed federal judge dismissed the suit, federal prosecutors agreed to drop the case in exchange for revisions. Since then, Johnson has twice won reelection, both times running unopposed.
In August, Judge Catherine Eagles ruled that Alamance County’s ban on allowing protesters on the courthouse grounds, steps and sidewalks likely violates the protester’s First Amendments Rights. The judge then blocked county officials, including Sherriff Johnson, from prohibiting protests in certain areas around the county courthouse in response to a lawsuit brought by the Lawyers’ Committee and the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union
Despite all that, the protesters were still blocked, and Reverend Drumwright was arrested Saturday and ordered not to return to Graham for 72 hours.