Police pepper-sprayed a disabled woman in a motorized wheelchair, children, and many others at a peaceful march to the polls in Graham, North Carolina on Saturday, October 31. The march and rally were held to encourage voting and in memory of people killed by police, from George Floyd all the way back to Wyatt Outlaw.
Shortly after the Civil War, Wyatt Outlaw became the first Black man to be elected Town Commissioner and Constable of Graham, North Carolina. In 1870, he was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. Near the courthouse where Saturday’s march ended. Near the courthouse where a Confederate statue has been the focus of demonstrations. Near the courthouse where people were headed to vote, when they were pepper-sprayed by the police in 2020.
Voting is not a new issue in North Carolina or in Alamance County. Black people voted right after the Civil War, when Wyatt Outlaw was a leader in the community. White North Carolina organized to take away voting rights. In 1900, a poll tax and literacy test took the vote from Black people in North Carolina. A “grandfather clause” allowed White people to vote without a literacy test, if an ancestor had been voting prior to the Civil War. The poll tax and literacy test remained in place until the 1960s civil rights struggle and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Organizers of Saturday’s rally and march applied for and were given a permit. The events began at Wayman’s Chapel AME Church, led by Rev. Greg Drumwright. The mayor of nearby Burlington, NC was one of several politicians and public officials participating in the march. Trump supporters came to heckle, driving trucks flying Trump flags around Courthouse Square.
The march and rally remained peaceful. That didn’t matter.
Marchers knelt in the street for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in memory of George Floyd. That was part of the plan, specified in the permit. But, said police, they didn’t get up quickly enough. After nine minutes, police announced that the permit was revoked and began pepper-spraying the marchers. The announcement was made without loudspeakers, which meant the marchers didn’t even hear it. The first inkling they had of trouble was when the pepper spray hit.
As spray filled the air, a disabled woman in a motorized wheelchair began to have convulsions. People who surrounded her to help her were pepper sprayed as they did so.
The marchers continued, moving from the street to the courthouse, where speeches were planned and a sound system had been set up. One of the scheduled speakers was George Floyd’s niece. Police dismantled the sound system before she could speak. They arrested people, including a journalist and Reverend Drumwright. They also pepper-sprayed people at the courthouse.
People brought children to the march, expecting it to be another peaceful event. Belle Boggs, associate professor and director of the MFA creative writing program at NC State University, brought her six-year-old daughter for what she expected would be a lesson on voting and justice. She told WRAL: “The point was that it would be an all-ages march that would get young people to the polls.”
Many other families were present. According to the News & Observer:
“Veronica Holman said her 3-year-old great-nephew also threw up after being pepper-sprayed. They had been sitting on a brick wall across the street from the courthouse, she said. ‘They didn’t warn us or anything,’ she said. ‘We were just sitting on the wall.’”
Reverend Drumwright, in a statement live-streamed on Facebook Saturday evening, said that he and others were released on condition that they not come back to Graham, NC for 72 hours. “We’re shaken. We are tattered. We’re torn,” he said. “There are people that did not vote today because the police released tear gas and pepper spray.
“We were assembled today to have a peaceful demonstration against police brutality, against systemic oppression, against racial inequities right here in our home town,” Drumwright continued. “This is where I grew up. This is where I was born and raised. And to come back here and be confronted with this suppression of our very rights to organize and to lead people to the polls to vote today has actually only emboldened us. We are not going to stop.”
Drumwright described the permit for the march: “We were escorted. That was part of our arrangements. For North Main Street to be closed until our rally started. The police escorted us up North Main Street. We were permitted to be on that street.”
North Carolina Congressional Candidate Scott Huffman told Newsweek: “They started coming up with pepper-spray as soon as they started giving warnings that the permit had been revoked. They gave us no reason.”
Saturday was the last early-voting day in North Carolina, but Reverend Drumwright’s Facebook page announced: “We are marching on Election Day to the polls to vote! Y’all coming??? Stay tuned. CHANGE is Within Our Reach!”
Mary Turck is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. She has published extensively as a journalist and has edited the Connection to the Americas and of the TC Daily Planet. Her website, maryturck.com, includes her literary and political blogs.