According to a statement issued by the Graham Police Department, police officers sprayed the ground to disperse the crowd when the demonstration was deemed “unsafe and illegal” due to unspecified “actions”.
But Scott Hoffman, a Democratic nominee for Congress in North Carolina who attended the rally, said the protesters were only exercising their First Amendment rights when law enforcement authorities used pepper spray in Graham, about 30 miles east of Greensboro.
The “I am Change” march was described as a “march to the polls” as participants were encouraged to march in honor of blacks whose deaths sparked protests against racial injustice, including George Floyd, Briona Taylor and Trifon Martin, among others, according to the event’s flyer .
The bulletin shows that Attorney Ben Crump, who represents the families of several victims of police brutality, was scheduled to speak at the event, alongside Brooke Williams, George Floyd’s niece.
Graham Police said at least eight people were arrested during the march on various charges, including non-separation and one case of assaulting a law enforcement officer.
The mayor’s office in Allamans County said it had made arrests at the demonstration, citing “violations of the permit” that organizer Reverend Gregory Drumwright, pastor and activist, obtained the assembly contract.
“Mr. Drumwright chose not to abide by the agreed rules,” Sheriff’s office said. “As a result, after the permit was violated, along with the disorderly behavior of the participants that led to the arrests, the protest was considered an illegal gathering and the participants were asked to leave.”
The march to the polling place included a stop in the courtroom
The gathering was scheduled to take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET starting at Wayman’s Chapel AME, with an expected stop at the Confederation Monument in Court Square, before ending at a polling place on Elm Street, according to the event flyer.
But once they reached the courthouse, the police decided to disperse the protesters, according to Graham Police, after people had stopped on the road for about 9 minutes, causing traffic to return. The police statement said that the march organizers informed that blocking the road is “a prohibited activity that will be strictly enforced.
Officers from the Graham Police Department told members of the crowd to return to designated areas near Graham Court, but when they did not, the police used “a crowd control measure consisting of spraying vapor of pepper onto the floor.”
Then the crowd moved to the designated area. Later, however, “as a result of the measures that took place inside the march,” law enforcement authorities deemed the demonstration “unsafe and illegal,” the police said, without describing the “actions” of the protesters.
He ordered the crowd to disperse and warned several times that pepper spray would spread if he did not. After five minutes, the sheriff’s office said several people remained and officers repeatedly sprayed the ground with pepper.
“At any point during this event, any member of the Graham police sprayed any participant in the march with the chemical irritant,” police said.
He said he could not call it an attempt to suppress the vote, but “that’s what happened.
He said, “There are people who were unable to vote today because they ended up in prison.”
CNN is trying to reach Dramrite for additional comment.
North Carolina Democratic leader says the actions are ‘voter suppression’
Ryan Bennett, an attendee, told CNN that the protesters stopped in the courthouse for eight minutes with George Floyd in silence after the march, and that “the police presence was there and they had no problem with that.”
But then Bennett saw what he described as a “commotion” and people started screaming. He saw an injured woman and then smelled pepper spray.
“Everyone is coughing and kind of running,” he said, adding that it was “really confusing because it was so fine.”
“Peaceful protesters must be able to make their voices heard, and voter intimidation in any form cannot be tolerated,” the governor said.
North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin issued a statement condemning the law enforcement actions, describing them as “unjustified hostility by police and voter suppression.”
“It’s scandalous that local law enforcement is behaving this way,” Goodwin said. North Carolina residents are no strangers to voter suppression and intimidation – we know it when we see it. “The North Carolina Democratic Party Calls For Fast And Clear Consequences For Offending Officers.”
Patrick Ganon, a spokesman for the North Carolina Board of Elections, said the incident did not affect the vote.
“The vote continues and has not been interrupted,” Ganon said.
But Jane Pebler, the poll reporter, who was working at the polling station on Elm Street, said that doesn’t mean that people weren’t feeling frustrated by what happened.
“We thought there would be tons of people coming after this event,” Bepler told CNN. “We had more people attending because the idea of that was that this gathering would end in the polls, but they dispersed it there in the courtroom before they got here.”
CNN’s Diane Gallagher and Pamela Kirkland contributed to this report.