Graham has received lots of attention, most unfavorable and unwelcome, for the Halloween march and rally led by Rev. Greg Drumwright of Greensboro.
Most notably, the publicity has been almost uniformly negative about the use of pepper spray.
Both law enforcement agencies – the Graham Police Department and the Alamance County sheriff’s office – deployed the use of the unpleasant agent in order to deal with two violations of their respective agreements with Drumwright.
In the first instance, Graham police officers used pepper spray, aimed at the roadway in front of the Confederate monument, when marchers wouldn’t move along and get out of the street. The crowd had been paused by Drumwright for a silent, 8 minute and 46 second tribute in memory of George Floyd, the Minneapolis black man killed in police custody when a white police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for that time period.
According to the agreement with Graham, the marchers were supposed to vacate the street and funnel into an area in front of the courthouse, which had been set off to accommodate the marchers who were then going to have a rally of sorts, with Drumwright and other speakers.
The police knew that Drumwright had not wanted to keep the roads open, and that he had argued against the idea repeatedly. They had also heard communication Drumwright made on social media, just that morning as the march started, that he was going to encourage his marchers to block Graham’s traffic circle around the courthouse.
Nonetheless the city had been insistent that, especially because of the last day of voting taking place just a block away, Graham’s downtown streets needed to remain fully open.
They had been closed during the procession of the march, re-opening as soon as the participants passed by.
Drumwright had already paused for about five minutes in the intersection of Harden Street, thereby blocking cross traffic while he gave a tribute about Wyatt Outlaw, the black Graham lawman and prominent Republican figure killed by lynching in 1870 during the Reconstruction period in the South after the Civil War.
After another pause at the monument, officials were no doubt irritated that Drumwright and his marchers were, at a minimum, procrastinating if not outright defying the provisions that had been agreed to; police later said they saw no movement to comply with instructions to move.
Here’s our only quibble, and it is a significant one: two of this newspaper’s reporters were present to cover the event. Both were located within 50-100 feet of the intersection in front of the monument and neither heard any direction from police about breaking up the rally and moving toward the courthouse, certainly not any announcement or warning loud enough to convey the seriousness with which participants should take it.
We were closer than a number of other media representatives – reporters and camera crews. So if we couldn’t/didn’t hear any warnings, we’re quite sure those farther away didn’t, and it contributed, no doubt, to the very unfavorable news coverage of the use of the pepper spray by Graham police in the first instance.
Yes, officers were motioning with their hands, but we really think Graham’s police department should invest in a simple bullhorn – or maybe they could have borrowed one from the demonstrators who always seem to have plenty – or had some other form of mobile public address method to warn the crowd more vigorously about the need to move and the potential consequences if they failed to comply.
It also seems to us that Graham’s police were a bit quick on the draw with the pepper spray. They could have used a little more discretion in their timing.
We really don’t know whether Drumwright and his marchers would have moved or would have continued to block or occupy the street. But allowing a little longer display of their obstinance would have provided considerably more justification for the department’s deployment of pepper spray to make them move along.
As it is, particularly in the absence of some sort of amplified public announcement, it looks like officers had a hair-trigger response, when a more patient one would have made them seem far more reasonable.
Drumwright’s own obstinance on the issue could be seen the next day, when at a press conference to defend his actions and condemn the police and sheriff’s office, he repeatedly still argued that the streets should have been closed, claiming that the failure to do so created an “unsafe” environment.
So he pretty much confessed publicly that yes, indeed, he deliberately was trying to renege on the agreement he had made with Graham’s police to leave the roads open.
Not surprisingly, it was this newspaper’s attempt to press Drumwright at his press conference on the difference between his stated position versus what he had agreed to, that prompted his attorney to urge the organizer not to answer the question. And he didn’t, at least not verbally, although his actions and his continued criticism of the officials’ requirement for streets remaining open pretty well revealed his position.
Sheriff’s use of pepper spray
After perhaps an hour or so of getting ready for the speechifying and the subsequent rotation of various speakers at the podium, a line of sheriff’s deputies emerged from the courthouse, with one giving a very formal announcement to the rally crowd, by then gathered on courthouse grounds based on the agreement with the sheriff’s office, that the scheduled event was over and that the crowd needed to leave – that is leave the courthouse, leave the sidewalks, and leave the area in toto.
Now, here the sheriff’s office was better prepared than Graham police. Their officer had a bullhorn of some variety which worked quite well.
It was easily heard. And three warnings were given over the span of about seven minutes. On each occasion, a very formal disperse order was given, citing North Carolina General Statutes that the assembly was no longer lawful and that any failure to disperse would be met with an arrest.
So, here the warning was amplified; there were numerous opportunities to comply. And then the pepper spray was deployed.
Here’s the only problem. The formal notification saying that the group was no longer lawfully assembled didn’t include any explanation about why the assembly had become unlawful and why participants were being required to disperse.
The organizer, Rev. Drumwright, very well may have known. He saw deputies seize the gas can and the gas-powered generator he had deployed to run his amplification system. He is bound to have known that the presence of both violated the agreement he had signed. That was also evident by the attempt to conceal both.
But other participants almost surely did not know. Drumwright kept insisting that he had a right to occupy the courthouse grounds until 2:00 p.m., based on the permit he had been issued.
That’s what the permit did, in fact, provide – but that assumed that Drumwright and the crowd complied with the terms of the facility use agreement. However, the early termination of the event, around 1:00 p.m., was because he had not complied with the terms of the permit which he had signed.
Not only had he violated the agreement, in doing so he endangered his own supporters, who were the ones closest to the hazardous generator running on gasoline.
No one sprayed in the face
The only example where deputies failed, even a little bit, was in using an airborne shot of pepper spray into the air across the crowd on the platform near the steps of the courthouse.
The subsequent explanation is that a female deputy fired the shot as she was falling back after having been pushed back by a rally participant; one more airborne spray was released as deputies attempted to assist their fallen colleague.
All other video and photographic evidence shows the deputies, and subsequently also Graham police officers, aiming the pepper spray at the ground.
Both agencies are insistent that no one was sprayed in the face. That conclusion would be the typical layman’s understanding upon hearing that either law enforcement agency “used pepper spray,” because that’s how regular citizens would use it – or mace, or any other personal defense spray.
And the description that they “pepper sprayed” children and the elderly was especially provocative, sensational, and inaccurate because no one was individually sprayed, except at their feet, and no one was deliberately sprayed in the face. Especially not children. And especially not the elderly. (Did anyone get a face full as the officer was falling back? Or from the officer who gave an airborne spray? We don’t know, but that is the only possibility we can imagine that could, even remotely, have produced some of the ill effects some participants have claimed.)
And one more word about pepper spray
We’ve seen several reviews in articles that second-guess whether pepper spray is appropriate as a law enforcement tool to disperse a crowd. Several of these have even attempted to find “experts” who purportedly find pepper spray unsafe, unwise, dangerous, or otherwise don’t think it should be used.
Here’s a tidbit for those intrigued by those claims. The U.S. Department of Justice continues to advocate the use of pepper spray as a legitimate crowd control method – and lists it as one of the least invasive measures of crowd control available.
It is not, as some critics have contended, some irrational or illogical form of abuse used by reckless or heavy-handed law enforcement agencies. On the contrary, particularly when used by the indirect method – i.e., spraying it on the ground – it is particularly effective at its intended purpose: control of crowds who have otherwise failed to heed law enforcement’s instructions.
Exaggeration about the use of pepper spray seems to have surrounded this story since Saturday. And, just by the way, pepper spray is not the same as “tear gas,” as falsely described more than once by Rev. Drumwright during his Sunday press conference. Only pepper spray was used; tear gas never was, not even once.