Police, organizers recount details of march arrests, pepper spraying
The Graham Police Department held a press conference Sunday morning, recounting the events of a downtown march Saturday that turned chaotic as several people were arrested and more were pepper-sprayed.
A short time later, the Rev. Gregory Drumwright held his own press conference at the Tucker Street Apartments in Burlington, where he grew up, to share their side of the story.
"We understand the public's desire for answers and explanations about the incident that took place yesterday," Lt. Daniel Sisk said Sunday morning. "As an agency we respect and promote citizen's ability to their exercise their constitutional rights, and will do anything in our power to ensure those rights are maintained.
"In incidents such as this, communication between organizers and law enforcement is imperative to ensure safety of all that are participating."
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At Drumwright's press conference, he said he was banned from Graham for 72 hours, but carried on with the press conference in Burlington instead.
"I came here yesterday morning to wake up this neighborhood, knocking on doors, engaging my friends, engaging my community, asking them to vote. When they banned us from Graham for 72 hours, I knew where I had to come," he said.
Drumwright also added that he believes the Graham Police Department planned its press conference to overshadow his.
"They announced it not too long ago after we announced ours, to distract folks from being here, like they distracted people from getting to those polls," he said Sunday.
Planning for the march
Graham police began communicating with Drumwright to plan this march Oct. 9, Sisk said.
"We made numerous attempts to create plans for safety for the event participants, and to communicate with Mr. Drumwright about what our plan was going to be. That included providing five different routes his march could take, and creating rally points that would be safe for the participants," Sisk explained.
As part of that planning process, Sisk said, Drumwright requested street closures at Court Square and North Main Street, but those requests could not be fulfilled because of the proximity to polling locations.
"We were not wanting to authorize those [street closures] because it would limit access to the voting polls, so we didn't want to have anything interfere with that," Sisk said.
Instead of the street closures, Sisk said, the department shared a safety plan with Drumwright that would allow march participants to gather on the grounds of the historic courthouse and on the northeast and northwest corners of Court Square. Exceptions were made for brief stops at Sesquicentennial Park for a moment of silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd. That timeframe has become a symbol of police brutality as that is about how long a police officer knelt on Floyd's neck.
Drumwright "was made aware of this plan prior to [the march], and it was made very clear that no road closure was authorized," Sisk said. "Their intent from the beginning was to take the road. Prior to leaving Wayman's Chapel, [Drumwright] was seen on Facebook Live telling the crowd that we did not authorize a road closure and that he wanted the participants to block the road."
During his press conference, Drumwright also acknowledged the planning that preceded the march.
"Our attorneys and myself faced countless hours and energy coordinating details to the march," Drumwright said. "I went before the Graham City Council, I went before Graham's event planner, I went before Graham's police chief and a cadre of folks, and all along I asked them, 'Why can't we demonstrate our First Amendment rights … on October 31 with the intention, this time, of leading people to the polls?'
"This time, instead of closing the street, the police chief and city officials were intent on creating a public safety hazard by allowing cars to encircle that courthouse while we were convening a peaceful rally."
March deemed unlawful
Toward the end of the event, Sisk said, the Sheriff's Office had "interactions with people in the rally that led to people coming out in the streets."
As part of the permitting process for Saturday's march, the Sheriff's Office had granted a permit to use the grounds of the historic courthouse. Included in that permit was a prohibition of using any gas-powered generators on the property.
"One of the participants was seen carrying a gas can into the closed-off area right in front of the historic courthouse. When the deputies investigated, I believe they found a generator and the gas can, and when they went to confiscate it is when the event" escalated, Sisk explained.
The Sheriff's Office will hold a press conference at 3:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2.
March organizers said the event was permitted to continue until 2 p.m., though deputies announced that the event was over and began trying to disperse the crowd at 1 p.m. When asked why, Sisk said the disturbance over confiscating the generator turned the event violent, and law enforcement shut it down.
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At that time, Graham police officers tried to clear the street, and Sisk said a Graham officer was assaulted — struck in the chest.
"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 said.
At his press conference, Drumwright questioned the need for use of force.
"We are asking ourselves why was there a need for our peaceful gatherers, organizers, marchers and participants, why was there a need, what did we do to warrant the use of excessive force and use of pepper spray and tear gas … against our community?" he said.
Sisk said Graham officers used pepper foggers, a mild irritant Sisk described as similar to [over-the-counter] pepper spray, that was aimed at the ground. The department states that no pepper foggers were sprayed directly at march participants.
Drumwright disagreed with this claim Sunday.
"They alleged that they only sprayed the teargas and pepper spray on the ground. We tried to inform Chief Cole there would be too many cameras and too much footage of our event for something like this to happen and them get away with it," he said.
Sisk stood by the statement, saying, "We chose to use that, rather than physical force, to get people moved out of the roadway."
Sisk said officers gave multiple verbal commands to disperse. Commands by Graham officers were verbal, but officers did not use any amplification systems to make sure the entire crowd heard the announcement.
A statement from the Sheriff's office Saturday night said three orders to disperse were given via amplified devices, with deputies waiting five minutes after the first announcement and two minutes after the second before taking action after the third announcement.
The initial use of the pepper foggers was made as marchers gathered in Court Square. According to Sisk, officers waited until the nine-minute mark of the moment of silence before beginning to disperse the crowd.
"Once it was clear that they had no intention to clear the road, we sprayed a couple sprays on the ground, and the crowds moved," Sisk said.
Some march participants were evaluated by EMS on scene after the use of the pepper foggers, but Sisk was unsure whether anyone was taken to the hospital.
On Sunday, Drumwright invited a woman who was hit by the pepper spray to join him during the press conference.
"I witnessed her being teargassed, pepper sprayed. I witnessed an epileptic seizure, her scooter was overturned, and there she lay in the street fighting for her life. What did she do wrong? What did she do wrong? Terry Johnson, what did she do wrong?" Drumwright said.
Graham police arrested eight people Saturday, though the names of those arrested and their charges had not yet been released by midday Sunday. Sisk said five of those arrested were not Alamance County residents, and one was a member of the media.
Charges range from resisting/delaying/obstructing to failure to disperse, and one person was charged with assaulting an officer.
Sisk said the department is working on creating a timeline of events, including planning emails between Drumwright and the department, which is expected to be made public by the end of the day Tuesday or early Wednesday.
Any use-of-force incidents will be investigated, per policy, Sisk added, and those investigation results and an after-action briefing will be made public.
In the wake of the march, Drumwright said he had spoken to several community leaders, including N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein and NAACP leaders.
"I have heard from the state NAACP who condemned what happened in Graham, NC, yesterday," he said. "I heard … from the local NAACP President Barrett Brown, [who said,] 'It happened to us, and we know why it happened to you.'"
Brown is one of several people who has been arrested at previous protests in Graham this year. Drumwright commented on these prior arrests Sunday, saying, "They have been at that courthouse demonstrating every weekend against the white supremacy that exists in my hometown. They have been arrested, they have been teargassed, they have been drug away."
"We need the public to understand we made every effort to coordinate with the planner of this event to make sure that it was successful," Sisk said. "For future events, we need viable communication that allows for adequate and proper planning so the organizers can relay that information to the participants, and everyone has a clear understanding of the safety plan.
"Previous events in Alamance County, such as Soles to the Polls, were successful events and should be an example of proper coordination with local agencies to ensure safety. That event led to 208 votes being cast by Alamance County residents. That was done by proper coordination and communication with law enforcement," he added.
When asked whether the department had any regrets on how Saturday's march was handled, Sisk said they were disappointed.
"There's disappointment. We were hoping to have a safe event," he said.
Sisk said the department regrets that children were affected by use of the pepper foggers, but stands by the method to disperse the crowd.
"That we do regret. We did not want any children to get hurt, we didn't want anyone to get hurt. The fact that children were exposed to the pepper fogger is unfortunate, but we were very clear on what we were trying to get people to do."
At Drumwright's press conference, his message was simple: "We were beaten, but we are not going to be broken."
Another Get Out The Vote march is planned for Tuesday, Election Day.