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Police used pepper spray to break up North Carolina march to polling place

People cast their ballot during the presidential primary vote in Glendale, California on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020. - Fourteen states and American Samoa are holding presidential primary elections, with over 1400 delegates at stake. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNN) — Law enforcement officers used pepper spray on Saturday to break up a march to a polling place in Graham, North Carolina, a decision that has drawn criticism from the state’s governor and civil rights groups.

According to the Graham Police Department, law enforcement pepper sprayed the ground to disperse the crowd in at least two instances — first, after marchers did not move out of the road following a moment of silence, and again after an officer was “assaulted” and the event deemed “unsafe and unlawful.”

But the event’s organizers and other attendees have said they did nothing to warrant the response, and that they wanted to exercise their First Amendment rights and march to the polls.

“I and our organization, marchers, demonstrators and potential voters left here sunken, sad, traumatized, obstructed and distracted from our intention to lead people all the way to the polls,” said the march organizer, the Rev. Gregory Drumwright, in a news conference Sunday.

“Let me tell you something: We were beaten, but we will not be broken,” he added.

The “I Am Change” march was branded as a “march to the polls” in honor of Black people whose deaths have fueled protests over racial injustice, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin, among others, according to a flyer for the event.

Attorney Ben Crump, who represents the families of numerous victims of police brutality, was scheduled to speak along with Brooke Williams, George Floyd’s niece, the flyer shows.

Video published by the Raleigh News & Observer appears to show demonstrators and law enforcement scuffling over sound equipment outside the Alamance County Courthouse. Alamance County sheriff’s deputies wearing gray uniforms soon deploy pepper spray, and at least one deputy is seen spraying a man in the face. Others spray toward demonstrators’ feet.

At least eight people were arrested during the rally on various charges, Graham police said. In a news conference Sunday, Graham Police Lt. Daniel Sisk said five of those arrested were not residents of Alamance County and one of them was a member of the media.

Drumwright rejected the claim that authorities only arrested eight people. “They started arresting people before our rally began,” he said.

Authorities will investigate and determine whether the use of force was appropriate according to the department’s policy, Sisk said. A detailed timeline of events will also be released later this week.

The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office said it made arrests at the demonstration, citing “violations of the permit” Drumwright obtained to hold the rally.

“Mr. Drumwright chose not to abide by the agreed upon rules,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement Saturday. “As a result, after violations of the permit, along with disorderly conduct by participants leading to arrests, the protest was deemed an unlawful assembly and participants were asked to leave.”

Drumwright was among those arrested, according to his administrative assistant Tanisha Richards.

March to polling place included stop at courthouse

The rally was scheduled from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET starting from Wayman’s Chapel AME church, with an expected stop at the Confederate Monument at Court Square, before ending at a polling place on Elm Street, according to the flyer for the event.

Attendees told CNN they stopped for a minutes-long moment of silence as a nod to the amount of time a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck.

Lt. Sisk said Sunday officers allowed the march to pause for about 8 minutes and 40 seconds, but after 9 minutes marchers were told to clear the road.

“Once it was clear that they had no intention to clear the road,” police deployed the pepper spray at the ground, and the crowd then moved to the proper designated area, Sisk said.

Later, a Graham officer was assaulted, Sisk said, and the rally was deemed unsafe and unlawful and law enforcement officers dispersed the crowd.

According to the Graham police statement from Saturday, the crowd was againordered to disperse and was warned several times that pepper spray would be deployed if it failed to do so. After five minutes, several people remained and officers again pepper sprayed the ground, authorities said.

“At no time during this event did any member of the Graham Police Department directly spray any participant in the march with chemical irritants,” police said Saturday.

On Sunday, Sisk called the irritant a “pepper fogger” similar to OC spray, commonly referred to as pepper spray. But the irritant used by authorities Saturday is deployed in a vapor form, Sisk said, as opposed to a stream.

Sisk reiterated Sunday that no Graham officers sprayed anyone directly in the face. He pointed out that officers did not wear gas masks or other protective gear, so “they suffered the same effects” of the pepper spray.

Richards said she was still working to catch her breath Saturday after the incident.

“There were people who didn’t get to the poll because they were tear-gassed,” she said.

Sisk disputed that the march was “scheduled to go to the polls,” saying the event was meant to stop at the courthouse where a rally would be held. Afterward, participants could go to the polling place via sidewalks, Sisk said, but officials had not planned on closing the road for attendees to march to the polling place.

“We need the public to understand that we made every effort to coordinate with the planner of this event to ensure that it was successful,” Sisk said, alleging it was organizers’ intent to block the road, but authorities aimed to ensure safety of both demonstrators and others in downtown Graham.

NC Democratic leader says actions are ‘voter suppression’

Scott Huffman, a North Carolina Democratic congressional candidate who attended the march, said in a video shared on Twitter that demonstrators were exercising their First Amendment rights and that the organizers had obtained proper permits. But the “peaceful protests” became violent “because law enforcement tried to take the sound equipment,” he tweeted.

Rain Bennett, another attendee, told CNN that demonstrators stopped at Court Square for an eight-minute moment of silence for George Floyd following the march, and that “police presence was there and they had no problem with that.”

But then Bennett saw what he described as a “commotion” and people began screaming. He saw a woman who was hurt and then smelled pepper spray.

“Everybody is coughing and kind of running away,” he said, adding that it was “really confusing because it’d been fine.”

Some officers were allowing the protesters to march, but others weren’t, Richards said, which she attributes to a breakdown in communication between departments.

The incident was criticized by a number of officials and civil rights groups, including the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, whose executive director likened it to “voter intimidation.”

“We need to find a way to close the book on voter suppression and police violence if we are to start a new chapter in our story that recognizes the importance of protecting everyone’s right to vote,” said ACLU of North Carolina executive director Chantal Stevens.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper shared the Raleigh News & Observer’s article about the march on Twitter and called the incident “unacceptable.”

“Peaceful demonstrators should be able to have their voices heard and voter intimidation in any form cannot be tolerated,” the governor said.

State Attorney General Josh Stein said in a series of tweets Sunday that he’d “received reports that some people who intended to vote in Graham yesterday were obstructed and not able to do so.”

“This is extremely concerning, and we need to get to the bottom of it,” he said.

North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin issued a statement condemning the actions of law enforcement, calling them “completely unwarranted police hostility and voter suppression.”

Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said the incident did not interrupt voting.

But Jane Peppler, a volunteer at the polling station on Elm Street, said that doesn’t mean people weren’t discouraged by what happened.

“We thought there would be tons of people coming in after this event,” Peppler told CNN. “We had extra people come on hand because the idea of this was that this gathering would end at the polls, but they broke it up over there at the courthouse before they ever got here.”

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