Observers who were awaiting the outcome of the district court trial for the organizer of the march and rally in downtown Graham that ended with pepper spray on October 31, 2020 will have to stay tuned at least another six weeks.
The trial for Gregory Brooks Drumwright, 41, black male, of 4 Clubview Court in Greensboro, who organized the Halloween day march and rally in downtown Graham, won’t resume until September 8, due to scheduling conflicts for the retired district court judge who’s overseeing the 2020 protest trials in Alamance County district court, Drumwright’s defense attorneys, and approximately two dozen witnesses who may be called to testify.
Drumwright is currently charged with failure to disperse on command, resisting a public officer, and creating a public disturbance, all of which are Class 2 misdemeanors under state law.
The opening day of Drumwright’s trial in Alamance County district court was notable for several reasons: it will be a multi-day trial due to the number of potential witnesses; and it is the first district court proceeding in recent memory in which witnesses are being sequestered to keep them from sharing notes about their testimony. While assistant district attorney Kevin Harrison had said earlier in the week that he might call up to 17 witnesses to testify, he revised his estimate late Wednesday afternoon, telling retired district court judge Lunsford Long, III that he plans to call two more sheriff’s deputies once the trial resumes. The defense attorneys estimated Wednesday that they will call five to six witnesses.
Drumwright’s trial began Wednesday morning with testimony by six Alamance County sheriff’s deputies who had been on duty October 31 and recounted the chain of events that preceded a struggle over a gas-powered generator that had been brought onto the Historic Court House grounds, in violation of a permit for the event.
By mid-afternoon Wednesday, four of the six sheriff’s deputies called to testify by Alamance County assistant district attorney Kevin Harrison had recounted the sequence of events that led to the decision to “cut the sound” to the equipment that Drumwright was using to amplify speeches from a stage he had erected at the base of the steps at the north entrance of the Historic Court House.
Sheriff’s deputies repeatedly recounted the details of the violation of the permit he had been granted to use the courthouse grounds, and that Drumwright had signed off on a provision stating that all sound amplification equipment must be battery-powered.
The defense attorneys honed in on what they deemed to be a civil rights violation, specifically preventing their client and the march’s participants from exercising their First Amendment right of free expression.
There appeared to be little consensus Wednesday about how, in retrospect, to frame the October 31 “I Am Change Legacy March to the Polls.” Several deputies called it a protest during their testimony; Drumwright’s defense team called it “voter registration drive.”
In his initial inquiry to Graham police department, on October 8, 2020, Drumwright described the purpose of the “I Am Change March to the Polls” on October 31 as intended “to continue our engagement of the issues around equity, equality, and racism that persist there in Alamance County and to galvanize the community to participate in voting.”
Documents and emails that Drumwright exchanged with Graham police and city officials in coordinating the march route and other logistics for the October 31 event were furnished last fall in response to a public records request by The Alamance News.
During a brief opening statement, Harrison pointed out Wednesday morning that Drumwright is not charged with assault, but characterized the scuffle over the generator that resulted in Corporal Barbara Tomey’s injuries as a “flashpoint,” telling the judge, “That’s when everything broke loose.”
Defense attorney: “This case isn’t about a generator; it’s about what was happening around the country at the time.”
“We are coming to give you the full story about what happened on October 31st,” said Greensboro attorney Jason Keith. We recognize that you ought to hear the evidence or the lack thereof. This case is unique. The state has articulated that there was an alleged assault; there’s a reason why that’s not before your honor. This case is not about a generator; it is not about a permit violation.” This case, Keith told Long during his opening statement, is about “the context of what was happening around the country at that time,” in the days before the presidential election on November 3.
“Due to the racial tensions and the climate in Graham, there were issues in even getting this off,” Keith asserted, apparently referring to the procedures his client had to navigate to coordinate the event with the city and the two law enforcement agencies. “This is not about what Mr. Drumwright physically did but his [intent], as well.”
In addition to Keith, the attorneys representing Drumwright are: Christopher Knight, who is licensed in Illinois but admitted to the federal district court in the Middle District for North Carolina; Elizabeth Haddix of Carrboro; and famed civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump of Lumberton, who has previously represented the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor for their cases against the Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky police departments, respectively.
Alamance county sheriff’s major David Sykes testified Wednesday that he had initially learned that Drumwright was planning to hold the event on September 28 through social media posts. He said he met with him on October 20, and sat down with Drumwright to go over the details of the permit application – which he had urged the organizer to secure in order to guarantee his exclusive use of the courthouse grounds on October 31 and to deter counter-protesters from coming onto the property and mingling with the marchers.
Drumwright was given a designated timeslot for his event, as well as sufficient time to set up and take down his equipment, Sykes testified. He later confirmed under direct examination by Harrison that Drumwright had signed the application, acknowledging that he understood the terms of the agreement – which prohibited gas-powered equipment from being used on the county-owned property.
Sykes recalled that the morning of October 29, he had met with the county attorney, who informed him that a stage would be approved for the landing on the north side of the courthouse but it could not be erected between the sidewalk and monument. The sidewalks were to remain clear, as was the roadway and streets around the courthouse, Sykes said, adding that the city had agreed to close all of the parallel parking spaces around the courthouse.
Sykes detailed how he went to work on developing an “operations plan” for the event, based on the approximate number in attendance and other logistical considerations. An operations plan is a standard requirement for “any large event that we are aware of, to provide safety for the participants and to protect property.”
Deputy Chad Martin testified that the “generator was located in a cloth cart that had numerous items around it,” and he and other members of his team who were stationed at the Historic Court House that day responded “to deal with” the gas can and generator. He recalled asking a man near the generator, whom he identified as wearing a red bandana, if he knew whose generator it was, Martin said, adding that the man had asked him why. “I stated we were going to seize it. He said, ‘no we were not,” he testified under direct examination by Harrison, and over Keith’s objection.
“There were numerous people that ended up walking over where we were located,” Martin testified. “Upon unplugging the generator – still while attempting to explain why the generator was being seized – there was pushing and pulling. Corporal Tomey, she ended up either [getting] pushed or [falling] to the ground. I ended up getting pulled back by the gentleman in the red bandana.” At that time, Drumwright was reaching for his arm, or the generator, and 15 or 20 seconds later, Tomey deployed her pepper spray, Martin recalled. “I believe multiple other officers deployed their fogger; it was aimed at the ground,” he said.
Maybe she tripped?
The defense attorneys, for their part, focused much of their cross-examination on questioning the credibility of the deputies’ testimony, and calling into question whether their response to the permit violation had been appropriate.
Keith pressed Martin about whether the deputies had informed Drumwright that the generator was being seized, since he was one of the people in charge of the event.
Martin confirmed that he hadn’t spoken with Drumwright, and his conversation with a higher-ranking deputy who relayed the instruction to seize the generator had taken place inside the courthouse. The only person informed was the man with the red bandana, who Martin said he “saw pull up with Mr. Drumwright and the rest of the others when they arrived.” He also acknowledged under cross-examination by Keith that he was unaware of what role, if any, that man had in the event, conceding that the man in the red bandana could’ve been “a mere spectator,” as Keith termed it.
“You recognize the right of them to have this event and to have freedom of speech, right?” Keith asked Martin. “You recognize that by pulling the sound [you were interfering with that].”
“To a certain extent,” Martin responded.
The defense also attempted to cast doubt on the cause of Tomey’s injuries, speculating several times on Wednesday that she might’ve tripped on the cord leading to the microphone that Drumwright was shown holding, in still photos captured from drone footage, during the “melee.” Maybe she lost her footing when she bumped against a curb and rocks behind her, or it could’ve been one of the other deputies inadvertently pushed her down, the defense countered during cross-examination.
“I don’t believe it was possible,” Martin responded when Keith asked whether it was possible one of the other deputies pushed Tomey inadvertently. “She’s in front of the other officers; she’s going backward – I don’t know how that would be possible.”
For his part, Knight keyed in on what efforts sheriff’s deputies had made to deescalate the situation before the so-called melee. He quizzed deputies Wednesday about whether they had attempted to issue a written warning to the organizers for the alleged facilities use permit violation, or whether they’d attempted to locate the organizers to speak with them before cutting the audio and terminating the rally.
“There were approximately six or eight of us; we were going to seize the generator as well as the gas can,” Martin testified, confirming under direct examination by Harrison that one of the pictures introduced into evidence Wednesday showed Drumwright, who appeared to be reaching for the generator at the same time as the deputies were.
Initially, Martin said, there were about 15 to 20 people around the deputies. “The longer we stood there, the more people came,” the sheriff’s lieutenant testified. “I know when my hand was on the generator, Mr. Drumwright grabbed my arm…There was a lot of pushing and shoving.” Martin confirmed that pepper spray was deployed about 15 seconds after the struggle over the generator began.
Both Martin and Tomey, who was among the group of deputies who attempted to confiscate the gas generator, testified Wednesday that two males who she said appeared “to have control of” the generator had refused to turn it over to the sheriff’s deputies.
Tomey said she’d “engaged” the participants after she’d observed an assault on Martin, which she described as being struck on the wrist. She recounted on the witness stand that she had taken several photographs, demonstrating the progression of her injuries, which included bruises and scrapes, that she later turned over to her superiors. Tomey confirmed that she hadn’t taken out charges against Drumwright; that was the decision of her “chain of command” following their subsequent evaluation of the events and photographs, she said.
Are you sure they heard dispersal orders?
Alamance County sheriff’s deputy Pete Triolo testified Wednesday that he had been advised to deliver three dispersal orders over a bullhorn, which he did at 1:05, 1:10, and 1:15 p.m., reiterating testimony he had given this spring, during several earlier trials for other defendants who were among the 23 people, including Drumwright, who were arrested on October 31.
The crowd had been given 15 or 16 minutes to leave the premises, Triolo said, referring to the amount of time that lapsed between his first dispersal order and the final warning.
Defense attorneys quizzed whether Triolo’s warnings could be heard.
The judge, who had heard Triolo bellow the level of his warning, unamplified, during an earlier trial, asked attorneys whether they wished for the deputy to repeat that illustration. They declined.
Triolo recalled that he was initially stationed inside the Historic Court House that afternoon; he had received an order from the “operations command” to seize a gas can, which he said he’d initially “observed moving through the crowd.” Triolo testified that he recognized Drumwright that afternoon, who he confirmed he knew by name from a protest he’d held in downtown Graham on July 11, 2020. The deputy described the organizer as “distinctive by his hair and presentation,” referring to the dreadlocks skimming the lower part of Drumwright’s back.
Deputy Daniel Nichols testified Wednesday that, after the three dispersal orders were given, he’d heard Drumwright on the megaphone saying, “‘we were given a permit until 2:00; we are not leaving.’ There was also a chant, ‘whose streets – our streets.’”
‘A failure to communicate’
“Respectfully, the issue is it’s a First Amendment freedom of speech march to the polls,” Crump explained to the judge later Wednesday afternoon. It’s important to understand that, not from the law enforcement perspective, but from the perspective of the Black Lives Matter people, he said.
“They felt their speech was being disrupted, and they didn’t know why – I’ve known that from the first case,” Long responded, indirectly invoking a famous line from the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
The maximum penalty for a defendant with no prior criminal record, if convicted of failure to disperse, is 30 days in jail and/or a fine; a first conviction of resisting a public officer carries a maximum penalty of 30 days’ community punishment (usually probation or community service) and/or a fine, under the state’s current sentencing ranges; and a first offender convicted of failure to disperse faces a maximum of 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
State law classifies a Class A1 misdemeanor (such as an assault) as the most serious, carrying a maximum sentence of up to 150 days’ jail time; and Class 1, 2, and 3 are the least serious, carrying a maximum sentence of up to 120 days’ active jail time, probation, or community punishment, depending upon a defendant’s prior criminal record, under current sentencing guidelines.
Many of the defendants charged at protests in Graham in 2020 have been found not guilty, during trials Long presided over in Alamance County district court thus far this year. A handful of defendants who have been found guilty – primarily of misdemeanor offenses similar to the ones that Drumwright is charged with – have been given a prayer for judgment and ordered to pay a fine.
Drumwright’s trial is currently scheduled to resume September 8.