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'We Plan to Stay Relentless': After Pepper-Spray Attack by Police, NC Poll Marchers Vow Return on Election Day

"This constitutes interference with our most fundamental civil rights—the right to protest and the right to vote."

Rev. Greg Drumwright (far right) led about 200 people in a Get Out the Vote march on Saturday in Graham, North Carolina. Police pepper sprayed the crowd and threw participants in jail, but Drumwright said Sunday he plans to gather peaceful demonstrators again on Tuesday. (Photo: @gregdrumwright/Twitter)

A minister in Alamance County, North Carolina on Monday said he and other voting rights advocates intend to return to the streets on Election Day, three days after police pepper sprayed a gathering of 200 marchers in Graham, N.C. as they held a Get Out the Vote rally. 

"We will not stand by idly as law enforcement abuses their power to intimidate or silence Black voters."
—Kristen Clarke, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

Rev. Greg Drumwright led the march in Graham on Saturday after receiving permission from the Graham Police Department to hold a peaceful rally including a march from Wayman Chapel AME Church to Court Square, where a Confederate monument stands. 

Drumwright led the attendees, who included four members of George Floyd's family, in a period of silence lasting eight minutes and 46 seconds to represent the time a Minneapolis police officer pressed his weight on Floyd's neck earlier this year, killing him. According to the Durham Herald-Sun, Graham police and Alamance County sheriff's deputies waited a little over 15 seconds after the vigil ended before they began pepper-spraying the crowd and ordering them to disperse. 

Some of the deputies began dismantling the group's audio equipment and pepper sprayed several people, including a 56-year-old woman with asthma, when the marchers intervened. Some of the children in attendance became physically ill from the effects of the spray. 

"I guess this is how we do 'voting' in Alamance County, North Carolina," tweeted one attendee, Elon University professor Megan Squire, in an account of the march and the police officers' violent response. 

The Alamance County Sheriff's Office drew angry responses on social media when it issued a vague statement saying the rally had "ended due to concerns for the safety of all."

"And by that you mean that you made people feel less safe by physically assaulting them," replied Yale health policy professor Howard Forman.

The police claimed they sprayed only at the ground to urge attendees to disperse, but Drumwright posted a video showing that he'd been sprayed directly.

Drumwright was one of more than a dozen people who were arrested at the march. After being detained briefly, Drumwright was released from jail and ordered to stay out of Graham for 72 hours. 

The minister indicated on social media on Monday, however, that he plans to lead voters to the polls on Tuesday. 

Alamance County and Graham law enforcement officials were in the news earlier this year, when officials announced they would not be issuing protest permits in Graham in July. At the time, the Confederate statue in Court Square was drawing demonstrators amid the racial justice uprising that began in May following Floyd's killing. 

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of several civil rights groups that sued officials over the ban on protest permits, condemned the police attacks on demonstrators. 

"The Bull Connors and George Wallaces of yesterday have been replaced by a posse of all-white law enforcement officials in the Alamance County Sheriff's Office who abused their power to silence and disenfranchise Black people," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee. "The assault on peaceful demonstrators in Graham, North Carolina shocks the conscience and is an astounding display of police violence perpetrated against Black people and other supporters in the final days of the general election... This constitutes interference with our most fundamental civil rights—the right to protest and the right to vote. We will not stand by idly as law enforcement abuses their power to intimidate or silence Black voters."   

Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris also denounced the use of "intimidation" to hinder voting rights.

"There is too much at stake and we want to preserve everyone's right to be able to be heard through their vote this election," Harris told reporters on Sunday after learning about the police violence in Graham. 

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein asked voters who experience intimidation or obstruction as they try to cast their ballots to notify the State Board of Elections.

The actions of the Graham Police Department and the Alamance County Sheriff's Office is indicative of the state which "has led the nation in voter suppression since 2012," Drumwright said in a statement.

"Officials from our state wrote the playbook on what happened on Saturday," the minister said. "This was not a coincidence, it was intentional. People of color in rural areas have been disenfranchised in their activism and in their efforts to organize against systemic oppression and police brutality. We plan to stay relentless to get people to the polls in Alamance County. As a national activist, I hope that people will seize this moment to double down on efforts to get people to the polls."   

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