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Law enforcement uses pepper spray at ‘march to the polls’ rally in Graham

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Law enforcement uses pepper spray at ‘march to the polls’ rally in Graham
Featured photo by Tony Crider

On Halloween, a disabled Black woman writhed in agony, convulsing in her motorized wheelchair after being pepper-sprayed by the Alamance County Sheriff’s Department. When onlookers rushed to her aid, they were also pepper-sprayed. Although recorded by professional filmmakers, the attack was not the beginning of a dystopian horror story, but the horrifying reality during a permitted rally held in Graham, in which the chemical weapons deployed by law enforcement prevented Black voters from reaching the polls on the last day of early voting in North Carolina.

The incident was captured by filmmakers Nat and Beatrice Frum, who were there documenting the “I Am Change March to the Polls” rally led by Greensboro’s Rev. Greg Drumwright, Burlington Mayor Ian Baltutis, and George Floyd’s niece and nephew Brooke and Brandon Williams. Later that afternoon, Nat and Beatrice Frum’s father, David Frum, a former President George W. Bush speechwriter and a former editor of The Atlantic, shared his children’s video of the incident on Twitter. The senior Frum also tweeted that the filmmakers “were both tear-gassed for being there,” adding that his son was pepper-sprayed more than once as he attempted to retrieve the woman’s wheelchair after she was carried to the medic’s station in Graham’s Sesquicentennial Park, the small gazebo-like area around the city’s historic courthouse bell.

That area is where, during a July Black Lives Matter march led by Rev. Drumwright, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson allowed neo-Confederate counter-protesters to gather and taunt Black marchers with obscenities, racist insults and threats, while personally arresting any marcher who cursed at the neo-Confederates back.

While David Frum is credited as the author of the phrase “axis of evil,” the woman his son and daughter filmed being pepper-sprayed was a victim of what local activists allege is an axis of racism, one that includes Sheriff Johnson, the Graham City Council, the Alamance Board of County Commissioners and Graham Police Chief Kristy Cole.

“We actually know why blatant racism is out in the open in Graham, led by Sheriff Terry Johnson, with no help for our cause from the new Police Chief Kristy Cole,” activist Paulette Montgomery told YES! Weekly. Montgomery livestreamed the incident and was also pepper-sprayed, along with her teenage daughter. “The racists in Graham seem to enjoy hurting people of color and the ones that support them; some folks even appear to take pleasure in it.”

On Saturday, neo-Confederate counter-protesters were not in their usual place in Sesquicentennial Park but were keeping a low profile in front of the Soda Shop and Grill on the other side of Court Square. In a video allegedly depicting a livestream by neo-Confederate Kevin Ashberry, a man states that the neo-Confederates were moved across the street by law enforcement prior to pepper-spray being deployed against the crowd marching to the polls.

The woman who was pepper-sprayed in her wheelchair recovered. (YES! Weekly is withholding her identity due to the threats she’s received from Alamance County white supremacists). But, while there were no neo-Confederates in the spot where she received medical treatment, the woman was allegedly accosted 30 minutes later by a small group as she passed Colonial Hardware as part of the crowd fleeing the volleys of pepper-spray that police and deputies used to break up the march.

Matthew McDonald, who was part of that crowd and allegedly intervened, photographed a gray-haired woman and a gray-bearded man in a Confederate officer’s hat speaking to the woman in the wheelchair.

“They called me a snowflake and commie when I told them to leave her alone,” McDonald told YES! Weekly.

The gray-haired woman was later identified by multiple sources as Elaine Stuart— the same person who made international news in September at a Graham Trump rally for wearing a mask resembling Black male genitalia. During that rally, Stuart allegedly mocked several white female counter-protesters with Black husbands and then was arrested for assaulting a Black male activist.

McDonald said he knew who the woman was, but not until his sister identified her from the photo by saying, “I didn’t recognize her without her cock.”

Stuart, who has never been shy about owning up to her controversial behavior, sent YES! Weekly an email on Monday morning in response to the article about the video.

“You forgot to mention that Kevin Ashberry had on Biden underwear with a shit stain in them,” she wrote.

Stuart’s comment may indicate tension between her and other neo-Confederates.

(As of 2 p.m. on Tuesday, she had not responded to a request for clarification or to comment on the allegations that she accosted the woman in the wheelchair.)

In a Sunday press conference,, Lt. Daniel Sisk of the Graham Police Department blamed the dispersal of the march on the marchers’ alleged refusal to stay out of the street after being given permission to speak in front of the historic courthouse.

“It was made very clear that no road closure was authorized,” Sisk said. “Toward the conclusion of the event, the sheriff’s office had interaction with people within the rally that led to people coming out into the streets.”

While the police had used pepper-spray to “direct” people off the streets earlier in the day, the “incident” Sisk referred to was the pepper-spraying of the woman in the wheelchair.

“We tried to prevent people from being in the streets at that point,” Sisk said, “and one of our officers was assaulted. And at that point, that’s when we deemed it was an unsafe event and deemed that it was unlawful, and we went ahead and dispersed the crowd.”

Sisk then stated that “the dispersant measures we used were a pepper fogger that was never directed at any person; we directed it toward the ground. That created a vapor that was in the air. Our officers were never ordered to don masks or anything like that.”

The only officers YES! Weekly observed wearing gas masks were the sheriff’s deputies, and the only ones directly spraying marchers were those deputies, one of whom sprayed Rev. Drumwright in the face while arresting him. However, it appeared that the police officers used the foggers to drive people toward clouds of pepper spray.

“It has been said that we pepper-sprayed children and disabled folks,” Sisk said. “Again, I want to reiterate; we never directly sprayed anyone in the face. It was all directed toward the ground to disperse the crowd.”

Sisk said that the initial dispersant was after the marchers reached Court Square.

“We allowed them to pause for eight minutes and 40-some seconds, and after about nine minutes, told them they needed to clear the road. Once it was clear they had no intention to clear the road, we sprayed a couple of sprays on the ground, and the crowds moved to the respective areas where they were at.”

YES! Weekly observed officers directing that spray in the direction of people who were clearly already trying to get out of the street, including several with children. Mayor Ian Baltutis of Burlington told the Burlington Times-News that he did as well.

Baltutis also told the Times-News that the Graham 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.”

Scott Huffman, the Democratic candidate for North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, marched beside Baltutis and Drumwright and condemned the police and sheriff’s office.

“Children and the elderly were sprayed and arrested,” Huffman stated in a press release. “There was no warning from the police to disperse and no reason for them to force the rally to shut down.”

Huffman also challenged his opponent Ted Budd to condemn the police action, and stated, “I wonder how his events are traded in Graham by the local police.”

McDonald told YES! Weekly that Mayor Baltutis was not the only white person officers carefully avoided arresting or pepper spraying. McDonald said that officers seemed extremely tolerant of the neo-Confederates who stopped keeping a low profile after the march was dispersed, alleging that law enforcement allowed a group of them to lean against a police vehicle.

He sent YES! Weekly a photo of them doing so, along with the following statement:

“Rules of the road were drastically different for these white people. After I requested equal enforcement of crosswalk or street loitering violations to at least five officers, one officer came over [to the neo-Confederates] and asked them [to move], and they skipped over to the sidewalk. Not long after this, [the neo-Confederates] parked in the road and leaned on a police car unbothered for the duration. We were sprayed out of the road prior to this and afterward. People were thrown to the ground for the same exact citation level infractions.”

McDonald also alleged that police allowed neo-Confederates to heckle and harass Black women and young white women down the street, “asking ‘how many of y’all did they get this time?’ while laughing."

Ian McDowell’s account and timeline of the Oct. 31 rally in Graham

At approximately 11:40 a.m., the march began in front of Wayman’s Chapel AME Church at 592 N. Main St. and headed south towards Court Square. Rev. Drumwright and Shon Green led the marchers in chants and songs. At one point, Drumwright handed his megaphone over to Brooke Williams, the 17-year-old niece of George Floyd. They paused in front of the former home of Wyatt Outlaw, the Black Union veteran and Graham town constable lynched by the Klan in 1870, whose killers later erected the county’s Confederate monument on the spot where he was lynched.

At approximately noon, the march reached that monument, where Rev. Drumwright told everyone to pause for eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence.

At 12:05 p.m., Drumwright said, “We’re getting ready to build our stage” and told marchers to “hang tight.”

At 12:07 p.m., a police officer yelled, “clear the roadway!”

“Get behind the barriers,” another yelled. There was no indication of any conversation between the police and Drumwright. Instead, officers yelled at the crowd.

At around 12:08 p.m., rather than asking him to tell the marchers milling around to move out of the street, an officer shouted, “get out of the road, or you’re subject to arrest!” and “move ‘em out!” through a bullhorn.

“If you don’t clear the roadway, you will be arrested,” another officer shouted.

At around 12:12 p.m., while most of the crowd was still attempting to move out of the street, the first volley of pepper spray was fired. Marchers begin coughing and choking. I witnessed a young child kneel and vomit and saw several other children with tears and mucous streaming down their faces.

Sheriff’s deputies gathered on the steps of the old courthouse, in front of which the marchers had been allowed to set up a speaker’s stand.

At 12:17 p.m., Drumwright said, “All right, family, we’re here for change, and we’re going to get our change. We’re going to get some of these people out of these offices. We’re gonna vote em out; we’re gonna get a new council, we’re gonna get new commissioners. Chief Kristy Cole, you maced children. This is how your administration is starting.”

At 12:20 p.m., he said, “What we are about to witness is that the Graham Police Department has reopened the streets so that people can prohibit us from having a peaceful demonstration. But you do not have to be afraid. Everything that is happening is happening before the world. This revolution is televised!”

By 12:24 p.m., the streets were clear and open. Speeches began on the stand, while several cars festooned with Confederate flags circled, honked, and jeered.

“I am here in peace; we are here in peace,” said one speaker to the crowd.

At approximately 1 p.m., deputies on the courthouse steps rushed forward and seized what appeared to be a small generator from beside the speaker’s stand and began discharging pepper spray.

A few moments later, I saw the woman in the motorized wheelchair heaving out of her seat in convulsions.

“Oh my God, she’s seizing!” a marcher shouted.

“Oh my God, my eyes are burning,” another exclaimed.

Through my own burning eyes, I saw the woman lifted out of her wheelchair and carried across the street, where she was given medical attention. I also glimpsed people being pepper-sprayed as they retrieved her wheelchair.

At 1:05 p.m., my eyes now only slightly burning, I heard an amplified voice say, “I’m a deputy with the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office. You are in violation of [inaudible] statute leave [inaudible] disperse peacefully, or you will be arrested.”

A minute later, I heard, “you have five minutes to leave.”

Many began dispersing, but some remained in the speaker’s stand. Others milled about, chanting “fuck Terry Johnson!”

One woman shouted, “talk to people! Andy Griffith would follow the will of the people!”

(Sheriff Johnson had made numerous statements comparing Graham to Mayberry; his critics alleged this means he wants to keep a white majority in the city.)

“How the Hell can you pepper-spray a woman in a wheelchair!?” shouted an activist over a megaphone.

“The whole world is watching; I hope you’re proud!” yelled another to the officers.

Rev. Drumwright and Green remained standing on the stage, fists raised, accompanied by four or five others. Around them, their crew began gathering up microphones and cables. A deputy spoke through a megaphone again. While I could not distinguish his amplified words, he sounded high-pitched and frantic.

“You are the new slave patrol,” shouted Green, while waving his flag.

“You trying to keep us from the polls?” a Black woman asked. “Well, we still going!”

“Shame on you!” Drumwright shouted. “When police get involved, this always happens! “We believe in peace. You have disturbed our peace. We will not stand down. We believe in Democracy. We ask you to honor our permit and our right to occupy this space until 2 o’clock, and we will peacefully do so. We are telling you, stand down. You have tear-gassed our children. You have tear-gassed our elderly. You have created medical situations for our disabled. You have criminalized our peaceful movement.”

I heard a deputy say, to his radio, “we have given a third warning.”

The deputies surged forward, pepper-spraying Drumwright and bearing him to the ground. He and the others remaining were arrested and hauled inside the old courthouse.

I saw Mayor Baltutis arguing with several officers as I retreated. People around me coughed and cursed, and clouds of pepper spray drifted past police pushing the crowd down the street.

I heard someone shout, “Oh look, the neo-Confederates have shown up!”

At 1:13 p.m., the woman with whom I’d traveled to Graham with texted me that she and her son were at the polling place and ready to leave. I found them both suffering slightly from pepper-spray, and we returned to Greensboro.

According to Forward Motion Alamance’s livestreamed press conference on Sunday, another march to the polls was announced by Rev. Drumwright on Election Day for those who did not get the chance to vote after the incident on Oct. 31.

“Let me tell you something, we were beaten but we are not going to be broken,” Drumwright said to the cheering crowd. “We will stay relentless.”

Monday evening, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina announced a lawsuit against Sheriff Terry Johnson and Chief Kristy Cole. The announcement included the following statement:

“Law enforcement officers in Graham violently interfered with voters’ march to the polls on Saturday and suppressed a peaceful and lawful assembly,” said Chantal Stevens, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “We know that voters, particularly Black and Brown voters, have repeatedly refused to let acts of intimidation silence their voices or deprive them of the right to vote, and we hope that’s the case during this election.”

The lawsuit aims to protect protesters’ rights to free speech and assembly under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as rights protected under Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act. The 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.

“The right to protest has always been an important feature of our democracy and a tool for demanding change,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The police violence in Graham, N.C. perpetrated against a group of peaceful and primarily Black protestors over the weekend is yet another clear violation of the right to free speech and the right to vote. We will not stand back and let the voices of voters continue to be suppressed just hours before Election Day. Racially motivated attacks on peaceful demonstrators is a form of grotesque voter intimidation, and we cannot continue to let these acts of violence continue.”

Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.

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