A federal lawsuit is accusing police in North Carolina of voter intimidation after they deployed pepper spray during a get-out-the vote rally and hauled several participants to jail in a chaotic display of pre-Election Day discord.
The complaint, filed late Monday against the police chief of Graham, a rural community west of Durham, and the Alamance County sheriff, says that protesters were not expecting conflict at Saturday's "I Am Change" march, but that the situation escalated "when deputies and officers planned and orchestrated the violent dispersal" of a peaceful crowd.
The demonstration, attended by about 250 people, coincided with the last day North Carolina residents were allowed to sign up for same-day voter registration and vote early in person. Videos on social media showed the tense scene unfold as participants, some in Black Lives Matter shirts, clashed with deputies, seen spraying the crowd outside the county courthouse.
"The police violence in Graham, North Carolina, perpetrated against a group of peaceful and primarily Black protesters over the weekend is yet another clear violation of the right to free speech and the right to vote," said Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan organization that filed the suit with the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the march's organizer and activists.
The suit accuses officers of excessive force when they pepper-sprayed the participants "suddenly and without any warning," and depriving those who attended the "right to vote free from intimidation, harassment, threats, or other forms of coercion."
The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages. The lawsuit comes as the rally's organizer said he remains undeterred by the police action, which involved officers spraying into a crowd that included children and seniors, and he said he would hold another march to the polls on Election Day.
"It was horrific," the Rev. Greg Drumwright, an Alamance County native and plaintiff in the suit, who was among those arrested, said Monday. "Folks were afraid and traumatized by what happened. But we're going into tomorrow's gathering with the same intention that it be peaceful."
Drumwright, among others, wore shirts that read, "Good trouble," in reference to the late Rep. John Lewis, who advocated for nonviolent social activism.
He said pepper spray was used at least twice during the march. Initially, after participants paused in the street near a Confederate statue, which has been the subject of protests over the summer that also led to a lawsuit from the ACLU and the Lawyers' Committee over free assembly and speech at the site.
People knelt or laid down in memory of George Floyd, the Black man killed while in Minneapolis police custody in May. Drumwright said police gave people only 14 seconds to get up from the street and move on with the march. A niece of Floyd was also scheduled to speak, but never got the chance.
Without warning, the officers "began spraying the marchers — many of whom, because of age or disability, were still making their way to their feet — with pepper spray," according to the suit.
Drumwright said people were being discouraged from continuing on with the rally. Then, about an hour later, after de-escalating the situation and having speakers address the marchers, Drumwright said deputies began to disconnect their sound system's power source.
"Again with no warning or dispersal order, Defendants' officers and deputies begin deploying pepper spray on the marchers," the suit said.
Among those who suffered from the irritant were children, some as young as 3, while a woman on a mobility scooter appeared to be having seizures and received no help from the authorities, according to the complaint. Authorities say medics were on scene to treat people.
In a statement Saturday, the Graham Police Department said it made eight arrests, including for resisting, obstruction, failure to disperse and one count of assault on a law enforcement officer.
The Alamance County Sheriff's Office on Monday said it had made 15 arrests, mostly for failure to disperse, a misdemeanor.
The lawsuit argues the arrests were unlawful.
Graham police gave a differing version of events than what protesters said occurred and what local media showed. Police denied they used pepper spray without first giving an order to disperse, and said it was sprayed toward the ground and not directly at people.
But photos and videos from the event show pepper spray going above people's heads.
Police also said marchers had earlier caused a "traffic and safety hazard" after remaining in the street for nearly nine minutes to honor Floyd, which was permitted as part of an agreement between police and Drumwright.
"As a result of actions that occurred within the rally, on courthouse grounds, the assembly reached a level of conduct that led to the rally being deemed unsafe and unlawful by unified command," police said.
Lt. Daniel Sisk, a spokesman for the Graham police, told reporters Sunday that no one was directly pepper-sprayed in the face and it was the crowd that "became violent" after police were concerned about safety from the generators used for the march.
"We need the public to understand that we made every effort to coordinate with the planner of this event to ensure that it was successful," Sisk said.
A spokeswoman for the Alamance County Sheriff's Office told reporters that a deputy was injured after being shoved to the ground, and "as she was falling, she sprayed her [pepper] spray." She also said deputies told the crowd to disperse three times in the span of seven minutes, but that Drumwright instructed people to defy orders.
Neither Graham Police Chief Kristi Cole nor Alamance County Sheriff Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson could immediately be reached for comment Tuesday about the lawsuit.
North Carolina, with its 15 electoral votes, remains a key battleground state, and an NBC News/Marist poll from last week shows Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a six-point lead over President Donald Trump.
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Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, a spokesman for the ACLU in North Carolina, said it would be unfortunate if anyone who attended Saturday's march and had hoped to register to vote and vote early that day was unable to because of the chaos outside the courthouse. It's unclear if that was the case.
"If that did happen, that would be extremely troubling to anyone who values our democratic process," Chicurel-Bayard said.