June 14, 2024

North Carolina police pepper spray, arrest peaceful protesters going to the polls

What was supposed to be a peaceful march to encourage residents in Graham, North Carolina to cast their ballots on the last day of early voting Saturday resulted in a chaotic scene, where police violently arrested and pepper-sprayed protesters — including children and the elderly.

About 200 demonstrators gathered for the “I Am Change” rally in which participants planned to march to a local polling station. Before heading to the polls, the demonstrators gathered for an event outside of the Alamance County Courthouse. They chose the location because of a Confederate statue that stands on the government property.

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After a few speakers, however, Graham police and Alamance County sheriff officers interrupted the event and told the crowd to leave because they were blocking a roadway and causing traffic, reports WUNC. While police claim they told demonstrators they had five minutes to disperse, witnesses say they were pepper sprayed before they had a chance to move.

“Less than a minute after telling people to clear the streets, we were pepper sprayed,” participant Belle Boggs told BuzzFeed News. “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.”

The peaceful rally quickly turned into a violent scene as officers pepper sprayed the crowd, which also included young children and the elderly. One graphic video shows a Black woman in a wheelchair moving wildly before falling out of the chair due to the chemical burning her eyes.

Another participant told BuzzFeed he saw several children choking from the pepper spray. “People had to choose whether to continue to the polling station or go wash their eyes and skin,” he said.

One woman told the Raleigh News & Observer that her 5 and 11-year-old daughters were sprayed with the irritant.

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Video posted online shows demonstrators were peaceful, including a Facebook Live stream. What’s more, the violent police encounter reportedly stopped most of the marchers from going to their intended destination: the polling station.

Organizers of the event say police were trying to intimidate the large crowd from voting. “It was intended to suppress the vote,” organizer and mom of three Faith Cook told journalist Sarah Ovaska.

“We are fed up with this kind of treatment in Alamance County and in Graham City,” Reverend Greg Drumwright, another organizer of the event, said in a video following the incident. “Both of those law entities … colluded to suppress peaceful organizers, who were here not only to vote today, but to call an end to system oppression and racial disparages.”

Graham police said they arrested a total of eight people. The courthouse where it took place holds a historical connection to the city’s racist past. On that same courthouse square in 1870, Klansmen hanged a Black man named Wyatt Outlaw from a tree, according to records published by UNC-Chapel Hill.

Outlaw was a rising local politician who had been appointed to the town council and had been deeded land for the town’s first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Before the Klansmen dragged him from his home and lynched him, they drove through the town in an effort to intimidate African-American residents. Outlaw and others, however, scared the Klansmen away by shooting at them. The horrific lynching was an act of revenge.

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