'We never made it to the polls': Police in North Carolina pepper-spray voting march — arresting 8
Police in Alamance County in North Carolina pepper-sprayed a peaceful get-out-the-vote march Saturday, descending on the crowd after they stopped near a Confederate monument to kneel in honor of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis in May. Viral videos of the violent police action show officers in riot gear attacking the marchers, including young children and elderly people, who had intended to walk to a polling place on the last day of early voting in North Carolina. At least eight people were arrested, including march organizer Rev. Greg Drumwright, who says police gave the crowd of hundreds only 14 seconds to clear out before attacking. "We never made it to the polls," says Drumwright. "We believe that this interaction, this interference from local authorities, has obstructed our marchers from not only lifting up our First Amendment rights to protest, to speak out, but also our rights to vote."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today's show in the battleground state of North Carolina. On Saturday, police in Alamance County pepper-sprayed voters taking part in a peaceful get-out-the-vote rally. The rally began at a local Black church and was scheduled to end at an early voting site in Graham, North Carolina, which is located between Durham and Greensboro. During the rally, participants stopped near a Confederate monument and paused in the street for eight minutes and 46 seconds to remember George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis in May. Floyd's niece was scheduled to speak but didn't get a chance. Moments later, the police, some dressed in riot gear, began pepper-spraying the crowd, which included children as young as 3 years old. One elderly woman in a wheelchair appeared to have had a seizure after being exposed to the pepper spray.
MARCHER: Medic! Medic!
AMY GOODMAN: Democratic congressional candidate Scott Huffman was pepper-sprayed and recorded this video in his car moments later.
SCOTT HUFFMAN: Hey, everybody. It's Scott Huffman. I'm running for Congress here in District 13. And my eyes are full of pepper spray because, you know, we were peacefully demonstrating. We were exercising our First Amendment rights with Black Lives Matter. And what I've witnessed is what is happening all over America. This is wrong. People should be allowed to — to show up, to exercise their rights, to vote. We're all taxpayers. The police work for us. Yet today I witnessed pepper spray, chemical weapons being sprayed on my fellow Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: Saturday was the last day of early voting in North Carolina, but the march never made it to the polling site. At least eight people were arrested during the rally, including the march organizer, the Reverend Greg Drumwright, who joins us now from Greensboro. He's lead organizer of Justice 4 the Next Generation coalition.
Reverend Greg Drumwright, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you take us through Saturday? What happened?
REV. GREG DRUMWRIGHT: Good morning to all of your viewers and certainly to you. And thank you for having us.
Saturday is, in some instances, still a blur. We still have people recovering from those tear gas and pepper spray attacks. We started the morning really knowing that there was going to be some form of a materialized effort to quell our success and to quiet our voices, even though we prayed intently and we met, several times over, with the local authorities there, asking them not to bring militia force to our march. As you and I know now, that was not the case.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what the purpose of your rally was, where you went, and when the police moved in and attacked you.
REV. GREG DRUMWRIGHT: We landed there, after marching for about three-quarters of a mile, on the north side of Main Street just before the court square, where we were allowed. We were in full cooperation with our agreement with authorities.
Once we got to North Main Street in front of a Confederate monument, we kneeled eight minutes and 46 seconds, as you have uplifted, in honor of George Floyd's family. And I need to say that George Floyd's family, four members of the family, was there with us on the frontline. After eight minutes and 46 seconds, we got up and began to prepare for our rally.
And just as the Graham Police Department uplifted in their press conference yesterday, at the nine-minute mark, they began to release pepper spray and tear gas upon our marchers, stating that we were not moving fast enough out of the roadways. I don't know if you know arithmetic well enough to discern that that's only 14 seconds for hundreds of people to remove themselves peacefully onto the sidewalks.
AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us who the sheriff is, and then tell us what happened next, once the police tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed you. Were they wearing riot gear?
REV. GREG DRUMWRIGHT: We seen all types of tactical force dressings and gear. We petitioned Chief Kristi Cole, who was in charge of this. Sheriff Terry Johnson's department, his deputies were working in concert with Chief Kristi Cole and the Graham Police Department. We begged them not to bring militia force. We begged them across several letters, stating that when this type of police presence gets involved, Black and Brown people end up in jail.
And so, we started our riot with people already being injured, people already being hassled and detained by local police authorities, simply because they would not get onto the sidewalks, after they escorted us in the streets, fast enough. Again, 14 seconds to make something like that happen with a crowd of hundreds of people.
AMY GOODMAN: The Graham Police Department held a news conference Sunday to answer questions about the pepper-spraying of the marchers at Saturday's event. This is Lt. Daniel Sisk.
LT. DANIEL SISK: We wanted them to have a successful event. They were under the same understanding we were, that we thought, when the event started, that they were not authorized to keep the road closed for an extended period of time, that the road closure was temporary just to accommodate the march, which we led from the chapel, had road closures up to the courthouse. And when we gave the order to clear the road, and when it was clear to our officers that the people had no intent on clearing the road, that's when we deployed the pepper fogger measure just to get them out of the roadway.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Lt. Daniel Sisk. And I'm looking at a flyer that was published and distributed by your organization, Justice 4 the Next Generation, that says, on Saturday, October 31st, in Graham, North Carolina, participants will be, quote, "marching from Wayman's Chapel AME to a Court square Rally at the Confederate Monument and on to Elm Street Poll!" So, talk about that end point. You had hundreds of people. Many were going to vote?
REV. GREG DRUMWRIGHT: Yes. We believe that many were going to vote. We believe that others were waiting for us to get to the Elm Street poll to vote in concert with us. The truth of the matter is, we really don't know what those numbers would have looked like. Because of this police brutality, we never made it to the polls. And therefore, we believe that this interaction, this interference from local authorities, has created — obstructed our marchers from not only lifting up our First Amendment rights to protest, to speak out, but also our rights to vote. This interaction from the police most certainly kept people from voting in Alamance County.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, as people heard this story all over the country, the parallels were being made to Bull Connor, the head of so-called security in Birmingham, who would water-hose the people who were going to register to vote, beat people, water-hose children. Your thoughts, Reverend Drumwright?
REV. GREG DRUMWRIGHT: This is a sheriff that has been sued by the federal government in 2012, has been sued by the government for actually disproportionately arresting Black and Brown people, even referring to Hispanics as "taco eaters." Sheriff Terry Johnson and his department has long suppressed the citizens of Alamance County. There are horror stories. The fearmongering in Alamance County is very intense.
As a matter of fact, as we have organized there all summer long, there are people who are in support of our movement but fear for their safety. One of our marchers, one of the speakers of our march, uplifted the fact that she, as a business owner, has been targeted. Other members of our march has had the KKK show up in their yard. And all of them have information that lead back to Sheriff Terry Johnson's administration.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to the woman in the wheelchair?
REV. GREG DRUMWRIGHT: We seen her yesterday. She is still recovering. She is very sore, and she is very shaken. And her spirit, as you might imagine, is broken. But she's not cast down, is what she told me. We are hoping that she makes a full recovery. We believe that she has lost the use of one of her mobile wheelchair units. And therefore, we are still fighting for all of the people that are recovering from the incidences on Saturday. And we're going to return to the streets on Tuesday.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend, how did you get arrested?
REV. GREG DRUMWRIGHT: Did you say how did I get arrested?
AMY GOODMAN: Yeah.
REV. GREG DRUMWRIGHT: We were standing there, holding our ground, because we were permitted to be at the court square until 2:00 with our rally. And the police, the law enforcement, the deputies formed a militia line. And they impeded upon us. They wrestled many of the folks that ended up in jail with me onto the ground. Those were people who had already been pepper-sprayed by this same police force. I was grabbed by my clothing and roughed up and taken into custody right there in front of the Confederate monument.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who you met in jail?
REV. GREG DRUMWRIGHT: I met folks that I didn't know yet. I met people that were there to stand with us in solidarity. I met Black folks and white folks in jail.
I also met a young man who did not come in with the crew, the particular crew, that I was detained with, and I didn't think that he knew who I was. I certainly didn't know who he was. And I had a split second to ask him, as he was being released, just minutes before me, in passing and processing, "Sir, are you going to vote?" He looked at me and said, "Reverend Drumwright, I was going to vote with you today."
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I'm looking at a piece from the Triad City Beat in September that said, "Supporters of the president's re-election bid yelled 'white power' from pickup trucks in 'Trump convoy' in Alamance County organized by neo-Confederate activist Gary Williamson." Can you talk about the climate in your county?
REV. GREG DRUMWRIGHT: Well, let me just say that it is a known fact that Sheriff Terry Johnson has a relationship with Gary Williamson. From that July 11th event, we have footage of Sheriff Terry Johnson actually being sympathetic, putting his arm around Mr. Williamson and telling Mr. Williamson just to calm down, while his same sheriff deputies were being instructed to lock up our peaceful protesters.
That's why we are advocating. That's why this was not just a march to the polls. But we had to stop by that Confederate monument and uplift our peaceful message for change. There needs to be police reform in Graham, North Carolina, just as it is being discussed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This scene from Saturday, and even the scene from July the 11th, where over 200 Confederates and neo-Nazis were allowed access to our march to disparage our efforts, to disrupt our efforts, is all too common right now in Graham, North Carolina.
AMY GOODMAN: What are your plans for Election Day, for Tuesday?
REV. GREG DRUMWRIGHT: You know, I am banned from Graham until Tuesday. And so, we are having to do this under so many different dynamics. We thought that Saturday would end our George Floyd summer and that we would have a little time to rest. We never imagined that we would be planning voter efforts on Tuesday on the streets.
And so, as soon as our interview wraps and in between other interview opportunities today, we are in very intense meetings to figure out, with our very meager resources, how we are still going to get people now into their various districts to vote. We also are concerned about the people who can't register to vote now, because Saturday was the last day of registration and voting in one stop. And so, we know for a fact that there are people who will not be able to vote simply because of the police brutality that we incurred on Saturday. We do know that our efforts will start at 9:00, and we're asking everyone to stay attuned to our social media for the official announcement of our plans after noon today.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Greg Drumwright, I want to thank you for being with us, lead organizer and activist with Justice 4 the Next Generation.
Next up, we go to Texas, where a caravan of Trump supporters tried to run a Biden campaign bus off the road. One truck swerved into a car full of Biden campaign workers. And a QAnon supporter has sued Harris County, home to Houston, to throw out nearly 127,000 early votes from 10 drive-thru polling locations. It goes to court today. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: "Beautiful Morning" by Little Brother, from Durham, North Carolina.