GRAHAM, N.C. — The voters came in black sweatshirts emblazoned with the mantra of the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, who celebrated “good trouble.”
Fists and iPhones raised, they chanted “Black Lives Matter” and promised “power to the people,” as they made their way from a Black church to the base of a monument to a Confederate soldier. In its shadow, they paused for eight minutes and 46 seconds, honoring George Floyd, the Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for what was later determined to be seven minutes and 46 seconds.
The participants in Saturday’s “I Am Change” march had intended to conclude at an early-voting site to emphasize turnout in the final days of the presidential campaign. Those plans were thrown into disarray when law-enforcement officers in riot gear and gas masks insisted that demonstrators move off the street and clear county property, despite a permit authorizing their presence.
As tensions escalated, officers deployed pepper spray and began making arrests. Among those caught in clouds of the irritant were children as young as 3 years old, as well as elderly residents and a disabled woman, said participants in the march.
The episode, which was streamed on Facebook by the march’s organizer, the Rev. Greg Drumwright of nearby Greensboro, unfolded three days before a major election. It capped nearly a half-year of protests after the killing of Floyd. And it reflected efforts to channel indignation on the street into power at the ballot box in North Carolina, a critical battleground state, and other places deciding the country’s direction.
“The world wants to know what’s going on in Alamance County,” Drumwright said, invoking the rallying cry of anti-Vietnam War activists.
His outrage was echoed by state and national leaders, including North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who called the incident “unacceptable.” The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law described the police response as a form of voter suppression.
In a statement, the Graham Police Department said its officers had made eight arrests, arguing that 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” — an account at odds with the statements of numerous participants.
The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office issued a one-line tweet, saying, “Unfortunately the rally in Graham ended due to concerns for the safety of all.” The office has previously faced scrutiny for what the Justice Department in 2012 called “discriminatory policing,” leading to a civil rights lawsuit against Terry 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, a U.S. district judge in the Middle District of North Carolina blocked county officials, including Johnson, from prohibiting protests in certain areas around the county courthouse in response to a lawsuit brought by the Lawyers’ Committee and the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
These events were the backdrop against which the weekend’s conflict unfolded. Drumwright, who was arrested Saturday and ordered not to return to Graham for 72 hours, seemed to point to earlier struggles as he offered this assessment: “We’re tattered. We’re torn. We’re pressed on every side.”
Starting at the redbrick Wayman Chapel AME Church, the march followed a half-mile route south to Court Square, the site of the Confederate monument as well as the Alamance County Historic Courthouse. The county, home to about 170,000 people, lies on the eastern edge of North Carolina’s Piedmont region.
Drumwright and others began planning their march weeks ago, endeavoring to secure the proper permits. But a meeting last month with Graham’s chief of police, Kristy Cole, did not yield the sought-after road closures, according to the police statement.
Instead, Drumwright obtained a permit from the county for the use of property around the historic courthouse, and the city police department made preparations to “provide traffic control and public safety to those participating in the march.” Authorities also set up a zone to separate counterprotesters from members of the march gathered near the Confederate monument, which for months has been the site of clashes between anti-racism activists and self-described “Southern rights” advocates.
Participants in Saturday’s march said their aim was to boost voter turnout. They included relatives of Floyd and the parents of Christian Griggs, a Black man killed by his White father-in-law in North Carolina in 2013.
“I’m out here voting for those who cannot vote today: my son, Christian Griggs, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin and all those others who have died at the hands of police or have had their lives impacted by an injustice,” Griggs’s mother, Dolly, said.
The crowd also invoked the name of Wyatt Outlaw, a Black town commissioner who in 1870 was kidnapped from his Graham home by the Ku Klux Klan and lynched outside the courthouse, not far from the present-day Confederate monument.
Leading the way was Drumwright, who preaches at the Citadel Church in Greensboro. Gathered near the base of the monument, and opposite the county courthouse, demonstrators paused to honor Floyd. Some knelt in the street.
“In the memory of George Floyd, I think people all over the world will be grateful that we occupied that street,” Drumwright said.
But police said the activity caused traffic to back up, and they ordered demonstrators onto the sidewalk. Supporters of the Confederate memorial watched from outdoor tables at a soda shop on the court square. One man shouted, “Get off the streets!” A truck with three Trump 2020 flags drove slowly around the courthouse.
Drumwright, overseeing the installation of a stage for speeches, asked the crowd to “hang tight.”
“If you have to, just party,” he counseled with a smile, eliciting whoops. “The streets belong to us.”
As Drumwright negotiated with law enforcement about the rally’s layout, some resisted efforts by police to make way for traffic. “Whose streets? Our streets,” rallygoers cried, interspersed with the refrain, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
Almost as soon as the moment of silence ended, rallygoers recalled, an officer yelled, “Get on the sidewalks! Get out! Move!” About 30 seconds later, the officer deployed pepper spray, said Carey Kirk Griffin, 38. She said she grabbed her children and moved back.
Shouts of “Ku Klux cops” rang out as Drumwright sought to shepherd those assembled over to the stage.
“I saw people beginning to flee up the sidewalks. I saw a parent carrying a child … wearing a princess costume or a fairy costume for Halloween, who was sobbing and coughing and rubbing her eyes,” said Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, 42, a political organizer.
One demonstrator, in a live stream of the incident, can be heard exclaiming, “The police started this.”
The rally that followed before the steps of the courthouse became a denunciation of the polices tactics. It featured members of Griggs’s family as well as local business owners.
Ian Baltutis, the mayor of Burlington, stressed the need to vote. “We know, here in Alamance County, we need to vote,” he told the multiracial crowd, arguing that elected officials in the county, which President Donald Trump won by 13 percentage points in 2016, “do not reflect the beautiful color that you reflect.”
Floyd’s niece was scheduled to speak, but she never got a chance. The remarks ended abruptly at about 1 p.m. as authorities moved on the assembly, accusing protesters of improperly occupying county property. Sylvester Allen, 35, said sheriff’s deputies were seeking to disassemble generators that were providing electricity for the sound system.
They used pepper spray, causing many to flee. “I looked up and a deputy sprayed me in the face,” Allen said. Video posted to social media shows a woman using a mobility chair suffering a seizure as pepper spray was deployed nearby.
Kyesha Willis, of Burlington, said she and her 3-year-old son could not escape the spray even as they sought to flee the scene. She tried to cover her son’s face, but he kept coughing, she said, and she later vomited.
Speeches briefly resumed, with those gathered raising their fists in opposition to a law enforcement arranged on the courthouse’s steps. “We came in peace,” Drumwright said. “You have disturbed our peace. We will not stand down. We believe in democracy. We believe in change. We ask you to honor our permit and our right to occupy this space until 2 o’clock, and we will peacefully do so.”
Flanked by protesters who locked arms, their faces covered by masks, he beseeched the police to “stand down.”
Instead, they advanced, climbing onto the stage and pushing protesters off. Some demonstrators turned and offered their wrists to be handcuffed. Others dispersed. “Please be careful,” they called to one another, offers of assistance punctuated by sounds of coughing and gagging.
Drumwright said Sunday that he plans to lead another march to the polls Tuesday morning.