Lawsuit filed against Alamance County Sheriff's Office, Graham police
Posted November 2, 2020 6:21 p.m. EST
Updated November 3, 2020 9:21 a.m. EST
Graham, N.C. — Twenty-three people were arrested over the weekend after a peaceful march to the polls devolved into a clash between law enforcement officers and organizers.
Two very different versions of events have emerged about the use of pepper spray at two separate points during Saturday's event. Protesters say the use of force was excessive. Meanwhile, the Graham Police Department and the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office say officers were keeping the area safe for the roughly 200 people in attendance and others in the area.
On Monday, representatives of the Alamance County Sheriff's Office offered a timeline of events, including the injury to a deputy pushed by the crowd, but did not take any questions.
A spokesman said the sheriff's office arrested 15 people. Eleven of them were charged with failure to disperse on command, a misdemeanor. A woman found with a knife was charged with having a weapon at a parade, also a misdemeanor.
Most of those arrested were local – from Greensboro, Elon, Graham and elsewhere in North Carolina – although one person was from Pennsylvania.
The Graham Police Department arrested another eight people on similar charges.
Shon Green, one of those arrested, said, “We were peaceful the entire time.”
Daniel Sisk, public information officer for the Graham Police Department, said the crowd had been told in advance they could kneel in the roadway for 8 minutes and 46 seconds – the amount of time that then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd. After people had kneeled for 9 minutes, police began asking them to get up and move.
“We were under the understanding it would be an 8-minute-and-42-second pause, and we had agreed that we were going to allow them to pause in the road for that time frame," Sisk said. "We did not give the order to disperse until after the 9-minute mark.”
Less than 30 seconds after the allowed time ended, police began trying to disperse the crowd. Many crowd members said they had no idea they were supposed to move before the pepper spray began flying over their heads.
“They didn’t give us enough time, and people became very sick over that," Green said. "There were children throwing up.”
A spokesperson for the City of Graham said police sprayed the ground with pepper spray, but photographer Anthony Crider caught an image showing pepper spray being sprayed over people’s heads.
“I understand some people are saying that we pepper sprayed children and disabled folks," Sisk said. "Again, I’m going to reiterate we never directly sprayed anyone in the face. It was all directed towards the ground.”
Burlington Mayor Ian Baltutis said the “police very aggressively told everyone to get off the street and onto the sidewalk. They started spraying everyone, including a couple of kids – small children. With the breeze, the spray was soon all over the square.”
About a half hour later on the courthouse grounds, Alamance deputies say they found a gas-powered generator running and a gas can two feet away. It was deemed a hazard and against the rules of the permit. When a deputy tried to unplug and seize the generator, authorities say protesters resisted.
“There was no arguing," Green said. "There was civil disobedience.”
Michelle Mills, a spokeswoman for the Alamance County Sheriff's Office, said, "One of our female officers was then shoved to the ground. As she was falling, she sprayed her [pepper] spray. At this point, she was injured.”
When deputies gave orders for the crowd to disperse – three times over the course of seven minutes – the organizer, Rev. Greg Drumwright, instructed people to stand their ground, Mills said.
On Sunday, Drumwright said the use of pepper spray on a confused crowd left him feeling "sunken, sad, traumatized, obstructed and distracted from our intention to lead people all the way to the polls."
"What did we do that would warrant the use of excessive force?" Drumwright asked.
On Monday, the ACLU of North Carolina and the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina on behalf of Drumwright and Ann Jones.
In a press release, the ACLU of North Carolina said "the lawsuit aims to protect protesters’ rights to free speech and assembly under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as rights protected under Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act. Police violence over the weekend is cited as a violation of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which was initially enacted to protect the suffrage rights of formerly enslaved people, including by protecting them and their supporters from violence, intimidation, and harassment."
National spotlight turns again to Alamance County
This is not the first time in the national spotlight for the community of Graham and Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson.
In 2012, after a two-year investigation, the United States Department of Justice found that the office engaged in "a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing against Latinos," including targeted traffic stops, checkpoints in predominantly Latino neighborhoods and a greater likelihood that Latinos would be arrested where those of other ethnicities might get off with a warning.
Earlier this year, the ACLU sued the City of Graham over executive orders that limited assemblies after a series of protests near the town Confederate statue.