Local Politics

Photos show Alamance sheriff deputies aiming pepper spray just over crowd's faces

Belle Boggs, associate professor and director of the MFA creative writing program at NC State University, attended a march to the polls event in Alamance County. She brought her 6-year-old daughter, Beatrice, with her, in hopes she could teach her about voting and justice.

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Maggie Brown
, Heather Leah, WRAL multiplatform producers
GRAHAM, N.C. — At a press conference on Sunday, the Graham Police Department addressed their use of pepper spray on the crowd during the march to the polls.

Daniel Sisk, public information officer for the Graham Police Department, said the crowd has been told in advance they could kneel in the roadway for 8 minutes and 46 seconds -- the amount of time that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd. After people had kneeled for 9 minutes, police began giving dispersal warnings. However, they acknowledge not using any tools to amplify their voices, which possibly accounts for why so many members of the crowd were caught off guard by the pepper spray.

“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," he 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.

A spokesperson for the City of Graham said police sprayed the ground with pepper spray, but photographer Anthony Crider caught this image.

Sisk said the officers did not pepper spray anyone in the crowd directly, but rather pepper sprayed the ground. Some photos seem to show Graham police aiming at the ground; however, some photos from the event show Alamance sheriff's deputies spraying over the heads of the crowd as the crowd ducks.

“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.”

The NC NAACP released a statement calling for the Alamance sheriff to be held accountable for their use of pepper spray, which photos show aimed slightly above the head level of an average person.

"The Alamance sheriff violated NC Law, our constitution and state policies, when he ordered a pepper spray attack on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators on the last day of early voting in North Carolina," said the NC NAACP.

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.”

On June 19 of this year the NC NAACP asked Gov. Roy Cooper to halt the use of tear gas and pepper spray during the pandemic. They said in the light of Saturday's incident, they are renewing their request.

Graham police aiming pepper spray at the ground during the march to the polls.

Some families had brought children and the elderly, as the event was advertised as simply a march to the polls – not a protest or act of civil disobedience. Several crowd members seemed genuinely surprised the incident happened, saying they never even realized there was an issue until the pepper spray was deployed.

Sisk said that while the crowd kneeled in the street, they blocked others from being able to reach the polls downtown. He also said that organizers brought a gas generator that was not allowed per permit, and that someone assaulted a law enforcement officer when the officer began attempting to remove the gas generator.

March to the polls organizers hold press conference, share their perspective

Rev. Greg Drumwright held a press conference on Sunday as well. He said the incident and use of pepper spray on a confused crowd which contained children left him feeling "sunken, sad, traumatized, obstructed and distracted from our intention to lead people all the way to the polls."

Drumwright was organizer for the march to the polls event and worked with law enforcement to make sure that he had a permit for the event. Photos show that police escorted people during the march.

"What did we do that would warrant the use of excessive force?" Drumwright asked.

The Graham Police Department said on Sunday that they arrested eight people during the march, but Drumwright claims that number is higher. People were arrested before the event began at 11 a.m., he said.

"How many people did you lock up yesterday?" he asked the police.

Police said in a news conference on Sunday that the polling site was not accessible due to road closures from the march to the polls event, which made the event unlawful. Drumwright said that there were several other avenues that people could have taken to the polling site.

Drumwright said that he is planning another march to the polls on Nov. 3.

NC State professor, 6-year-old daughter pepper sprayed

Belle Boggs, associate professor and director of the masters of fine arts creative writing program at North Carolina State University attended the march with her 6-year-old daughter, Beatrice, in hopes she could teach her about voting and justice.

"She understands why we were there. She understands the importance of protests," Boggs said.

The event started out at an AME church downtown. Drumwright opened the march with prayer, and asked the crowd to remain peaceful. Boggs said there were about 200 people at the event -- motivated and excited for the march.

"The point was that it would be an all-ages march that would get young people people to the polls," she said.

The "pepper spray-based vapor" used on a crowd in Graham, NC. Photo taken by Anthony Crider, photographer and professor at Elon University.

People walked through the streets, which were blocked off, chanting and singing.

"I thought it was an educational opportunity for my daughter," Boggs said.

Boggs said while walking down one of the main streets in the city, she heard a police officer say to someone next to her, "You need to be on the sidewalk." She didn't think much of the comment, and she said he didn't try to enforce the message.

Then, not soon after, there was a burning fog in the air.

March to the polls in Alamance County on Oct. 31. Photo taken by Anthony Crider, Elon University professor.

People started screaming and ducking down on the ground. "Vapors overtook the crowd," Boggs recalled. Beatrice was sobbing.

"That was the worst thing I've ever experienced in real life," the 6-year-old told her mother.

Beatrice told her mom that the day was like a nightmare.

"To see [the march] disrupted by force, by violence," Boggs said, "purposely by people supposed to protect and serve was disgusting."

Arrests being made in Graham during an anti-racism protest. Photos from @alexcovello on Twitter.


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