According to a statement from the Graham Police Department, officers pepper sprayed the ground to disperse the crowd when the demonstration was deemed “unsafe and unlawful” due to unspecified “actions.”
But Scott Huffman, a North Carolina Democratic congressional candidate who attended the march, said demonstrators were only exercising their First Amendment rights when law enforcement used the pepper spray in Graham, about 30 miles east of Greensboro.
The “I Am Change” march was branded as a “march to the polls” where participants were encouraged to march 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 at the event, the flyer shows, along with Brooke Williams, George Floyd’s niece.
At least eight people were arrested during the rally on various charges, including failure to disperse and one instance of assault on a law enforcement officer, Graham police said.
The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office said it made arrests at the demonstration, citing “violations of the permit” the organizer, the Rev. Gregory Drumwright, a pastor and activist, obtained to hold the rally.
“Mr. Drumwright chose not to abide by the agreed upon rules,” the sheriff’s office said. “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.”
CNN is attempting to reach Drumwright for comment.
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.
But once at Court Square, police decided to disperse the crowd, according to Graham police, after people stopped in the road for about 9 minutes, causing traffic to back up. The police statement said the march organizers were told that blocking a roadway was a “prohibited activity that would be strictly enforced.”
Officers with the Graham Police Department told members of the crowd to move back to the designated areas near the Graham courthouse, but when they did not, police “utilized a crowd control measure that consisted of spraying a pepper based vapor on the ground.”
The crowd then moved to the designated area. But later, “as a result of actions that occurred within the rally,” law enforcement deemed the rally “unsafe and unlawful,” the police said, without describing demonstrators “actions.”
The crowd was ordered to disperse and was warned several time 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, the sheriff’s office 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.
NC Democratic leader says actions are ‘voter suppression’
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.”
“Peaceful demonstrators should be able to have their voices heard and voter intimidation in any form cannot be tolerated,” the governor said.
North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin issued a statement condemned the actions of law enforcement, calling them “completely unwarranted police hostility and voter suppression.”
“It is egregious that local law enforcement would conduct themselves this way. North Carolinians are no strangers to voter suppression and intimidation — we know it when we see it,” Goodwin said. “The North Carolina Democratic Party calls for swift and clear consequences for the offending officers.”
Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said the incident did not impact voting.
“Voting continues and was not interrupted,” Gannon said.
CNN’s Dianne Gallagher and Pamela Kirkland contributed to this report.
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