Organizer of Halloween march suing Alamance County sheriff and Graham police chief for alleged voter intimidation

Rev. Gregory Drumwright, who organized a march in downtown Graham last Saturday, has filed a federal lawsuit accusing Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson and Graham police chief Kristy Cole of alleged voter intimidation.

Drumwright claims in his suit that the use of pepper spray by law enforcement Saturday afternoon represented a “planned and orchestrated violent dispersal of a peaceful and nonpartisan march to a polling place” on the last day of the early voting period (see related story, this edition). The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has also filed a federal lawsuit that outlines similar claims.

Drumwright filed his suit in federal district court Monday night. Also listed as a plaintiff is Edith Ann Jones, who is described as a white resident of Graham and a member of another organization, People for Change, that helped organize last Saturday’s march.

The Alamance County sheriff’s office said during a Monday afternoon press conference that the march was cut short after deputies discovered a gas can and gas-powered generators on the courthouse grounds, in violation of a facilities use agreement that Drumwright applied for, obtained, and signed October 20.

The facilities use agreement which allowed Drumwright to reserve the courthouse grounds for last Saturday’s rally stated, “electrical generators are not allowed on Historic Courthouse property” and that any devices used to amplify sound must be battery-powered, Alamance County sheriff’s department community engagement and diversity coordinator Michelle Mills said at the press conference.

While the sheriff’s department approved his request to reserve the courthouse grounds for the event, the Graham police department refused Drumwright’s request to close one or more streets in the historic downtown business district for the march that began Saturday morning at Wayman’s Chapel AME Church at 592 North Main Street.

Drumwright announced his “I Am Change Legacy March to the Polls” during a press conference at the Alamance County historic courthouse on October 14, five days after he initially contacted the Graham police department to request the street closure.

However, the Graham police department refused to close streets in downtown Graham for the march, concluding that doing so would limit access to an early voting site at the county annex building at 201 West Elm Street, based on email exchanges with Drumwright that the police department released this week.

A Burlington native and senior minister of the Citadel Church in Greensboro, Drumwright described twin goals for his “I Am Change March” during his October 14 press conference: to protest the Confederate monument at the historic courthouse and to boost voter turnout on the final day of early voting. He previously led a protest against the Confederate monument at Alamance County’s historic courthouse in downtown Graham on July 11 of this year.

Saturday’s march was to have culminated at the polling site at 201 West Elm Street.
But at 12:54 p.m. last Saturday, “a male with a gas can was witnessed within the permitted area where approximately 200 people were gathered,” Mills said at the press conference. Though prohibited from the property, Drumwright brought a gas-powered generator onto the county property, which was discovered inside a “purple cloth wagon” and concealed beneath a sound speaker, based on the description by Mills.

Several protesters began “pulling and shoving” sheriff’s deputies as they sought to confiscate the generator and gas can, Mills said Monday.

The protesters were advised three times to clear the courthouse grounds before law enforcement deployed what they termed “pepper fog” to disperse the crowd.

Instead, “Rev. Drumwright along with several others told the participants to hold their position on the stage, and then they locked arms together,” said Mills. “A running generator inside a cloth wagon near a gas can is deemed a fire hazard [that has] the potential for catastrophic damage, putting innocent people and law enforcement officers in danger, she said, adding that the sheriff’s department was “disappointed” by Drumwright’s and the participants’ aggressive response.

Nearly two dozen people – including Alamance News reporter Tomas Murawski, who was covering the march – were arrested and banned from returning to the city of Graham for 72 hours. Exceptions were granted for those needing to work in Graham.

In his suit, Drumwright alleges that the actions by law enforcement to disperse the crowd on Saturday “amplify the already charged atmosphere for voters in North Carolina.” He further claims that the response by local law enforcement deprived the participants and members of his organization, Justice for the Next Generation, which is based in Greensboro, of their ability to exercise their right to vote, free from intimidation and harassment.

Meanwhile, Drumwright announced Monday morning his plans to hold a “get-out-the-vote march” in downtown Graham on Election Day.

Drumwright is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, as he and more than half a dozen other plaintiffs were for suits they filed this summer against the county and city of Graham. He is also being represented by Greensboro attorney Jason L. Keith. Drumwright is asking a federal judge to declare the “dispersal orders” an unlawful violation of his constitutional rights, as well as an award for damages, attorney’s fees, and court costs.

Neither defendant appeared to have been served with the lawsuit by press time Wednesday.