Originally published in The Washington Post.
Three weeks after two law enforcement agencies used pepper spray to break up a peaceful march to the polls in Graham, N.C., the county sheriff’s office said it would charge the march’s organizer, the Rev. Greg Drumwright, with felony assault on an officer and obstructing justice.
The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office said it has reviewed video of the Oct. 31 rally and alleged that Drumwright, pastor of the Citadel Church in nearby Greensboro, was involved in an “altercation” that left a deputy injured.
Drumwright, founder of the anti-racist coalition Justice 4 the Next Generation, brought two recent lawsuits against Alamance County Sheriff Terry S. Johnson and other local officials. His attorneys say the felony charges were designed to silence him.
“These charges are retaliatory in our view,” said Elizabeth Haddix, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represents Drumwright in the two lawsuits. “We’re looking forward to seeing the video the sheriff referenced. The videos we have seen dispute his statement.”
Sheriff’s office spokesman Byron Tucker did not respond to questions about the charges.
The 400 peaceful marchers, including children, led by the Greensboro minister, left a Black church in Graham and headed toward an early-voting site. Along the way, they stopped near the Confederate monument that fronts the Alamance County Courthouse for a vigil honoring George Floyd and a permitted rally. Deputy sheriffs and Graham police broke up the rally with pepper spray, saying it was impeding traffic and using an unauthorized gas-powered generator. Several children vomited while fleeing the chemical irritant, witnesses said. And one woman told The Washington Post that she had a convulsion in her mobility scooter, which was recorded on several videos.
Officers arrested 23 people, including Drumwright, who was cited for misdemeanor failure to disperse. The sheriff’s office did not say why Drumwright was later charged with assault, only that a video showed him involved in an altercation.
“We were assembled today to have a peaceful demonstration against police brutality,” Drumwright told reporters later that night. “This is where I was born and raised. And to come back here and be confronted with this suppression of our very rights to organize, and to lead people to the polls to vote today, has actually only emboldened us.”
Michelle Mills, the sheriff’s community engagement and diversity coordinator, said deputies broke up the event because the generator was a fire hazard. “Unfortunately, Reverend Drumwright, along with several others, told participants to hold their position on the stage, and then they locked arms,” she said at a news conference. Mills said a deputy was “shoved to the ground” as she reached for the generator. In response, Mills said, deputies pepper-sprayed both the air and the ground to disperse the crowd.
The pepper-spraying of adults and children sparked additional demonstrations, social media outrage and a confrontation before the Alamance County Board of Commissioners, when the chair adjourned the meeting before a scheduled public comment period. Five people were arrested in the aftermath of the meeting.
The incident also sparked two lawsuits against Johnson and Graham Police Chief Kristy Cole. In one of them, Drumwright and another activist, along with Justice 4 the Next Generation, said the two law-enforcement agencies intimidated voters and kept them from the polls on the last day of early voting and same-day registration and voting. Both lawsuits accused the agencies of violating the Ku Klux Klan Act, which Congress passed in 1871 to protect formerly enslaved Black voters from violence.
Johnson’s announcement of the charges against Drumwright comes after six months of amped-up tension between his office and civil rights activists in Graham, a former textile-manufacturing town in the North Carolina Piedmont and home to about 15,600 people. The sheriff, first elected in 2002, has long faced allegations of racial bias and civil rights violations.
In 2007, after Johnson’s office agreed to help the federal government enforce immigration laws, Johnson insisted that immigrants were more prone to commit crimes. “In Mexico, there’s nothing wrong with having sex with a 12-, 13-year-old girl,” he told the Raleigh News & Observer. “They do a lot of drinking down in Mexico.”
The U.S. Justice Department sued Johnson in 2012, alleging the sheriff’s office targeted Latino residents for traffic stops, arrests over minor infractions and immigration enforcement. Johnson, the lawsuit alleged, directed his subordinates at traffic stops to “get me some of those taco eaters.”
A federal judge dismissed the case in 2015. The government dropped its appeal after Johnson signed an agreement to improve his office’s policing practices.
After the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis in the spring, local activists stepped up their effort to remove Graham’s Confederate memorial, a marble statue that has long been a magnet for self-described “Southern rights” advocates who bring rebel and Gadsden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) flags and, recently, Trump 2020 regalia. They often carry signs supporting Johnson. In 2015, 1,500 people attended a rally in support of the monument.
After Floyd’s killing, the sheriff’s office banned protests in the immediate vicinity of the monument and courthouse. On its Facebook page on June 26, the agency said that there would be no permits granted to protest within Graham city limits “for the foreseeable future” and that anyone who protested without a permit would be subject to arrest.
Drumwright and seven others, along with the local NAACP branch, responded in July with a lawsuit against the sheriff and other local officials. The lawsuit, which is pending, alleged the protest restrictions violated the Constitution’s free speech and assembly protections. Afterward, the sheriff’s office arrested four people, including local NAACP President Barrett Brown, for standing next to the monument during a demonstration.
Tucker says the department does not comment on pending litigation.
Jason Keith, an attorney defending Drumwright on criminal charges, said he is trying to arrange for the reverend to turn himself in in Greensboro, where he lives, rather than Graham, “to circumvent bias by local law enforcement.” He maintained Drumwright’s innocence.
“I think these charges are bogus,” Keith said. “I think they are fabricated. I think they have been taken out to send a message to Drumwright to cease and desist.”