Rev. Greg Drumwright addresses marchers from the steps of the Historic Courthouse in downtown Graham. (photos by Carolyn de Berry)
More than 200 people marched through Graham on Sunday afternoon to demand criminal justice reform after Alamance County law enforcement refused to apologize for its widely condemned use of pepper spray on Halloween and doubled down by bringing enhanced criminal charges against march leader Rev. Greg Drumwright.
The marchers, who included North Carolina NAACP President T. Anthony Spearman, state Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) and Rev. Randy Orwig, made stops at the Alamance County Courthouse, the jail, Graham police headquarters and the Confederate monument at Court Square to highlight racist policing and repression of activism. Despite the fact that the Graham police refused to provide an escort, the three-hour march went largely without incident, with the exception of Alamance County deputies threatening arrest outside the jail and Graham police intervening to break up an argument between antiracist marchers and neo-Confederate counter-protesters at Court Square.
Marchers departed from Children’s Chapel Church in Graham with considerable apprehension. Less than two weeks earlier, authorities brought felony charges against Drumwright for felony assault against a law enforcement officer and felony obstructing justice, on top of misdemeanor charges he was already facing when Alamance County deputies shut down the Oct. 31 protest at the Confederate monument. The sheriff’s office has said the additional charges resulted from a review of video from the incident. The sheriff’s office has not responded to a request from Triad City Beat to inspect the video. At the time of the arrest, deputies prevented reporters from observing by deploying pepper spray and ordering them to leave, along with others on the scene. Sunday’s march also came in response to multiple arrests as citizens were attempting to address the Alamance County Commission on Nov. 17. Activists said those arrested were thrown on the ground, and one person suffered a concussion and a dislocated shoulder.
Announcing the march during a Nov. 19 community meeting, Drumwright pointedly named it a “Peaceful Protest for Criminal Justice Reform.” The following day, the sheriff’s office released a selective recording of Drumwright’s remarks, misrepresenting his message that a peaceful protest is the appropriate way to channel anger as a threat to start a riot. The press release called on those planning to attend the march “to refrain from harming people and property”; none of the protesters led by Drumwright in multiple demonstrations since July have assaulted anyone or damaged property. The sheriff’s office also warned that blocking streets or trespassing could result in arrest.
During the Nov. 19 community meeting announcing Sunday’s march at Morgantown Baptist Church in Burlington, Drumwright had said, “We’re at war. We are at war for all those Hispanics and all those young Black people who have felonies slapped on their criminal records that never deserved it. And there are thousands in Alamance County alone. So, what is this march to focus on? It’s a march or a riot at this point, you all. And let me keep it 100 because I’m in church, and I got to be honest. There are folks in here who are ready to kick ass. There are people in here who are ready to riot. There are people in here who are holding back their anger out of respect for my leadership…. And we are trying to channel that anger because we don’t want to start a riot.”
As marchers assembled in the parking lot of Children’s Chapel Church for the non-permitted march on Sunday, a group of Graham police officers approached and handed out a letter signed by Chief Kristy Cole warning there would be no road closures, and that marchers could not obstruct traffic, even in stretches of roadway where there was no sidewalk. The notice went a step further by stipulating that “civilians are not authorized to conduct any traffic control.”
Largely complying with the requirements, the protesters marched two by two on the side of the roadway along East Harden Street. Protesters, including one using a bicycle, did direct traffic from time to ensure the safety of participants, although they had people cross the street in batches to avoid causing traffic backups. Graham police declined to direct traffic at the roundabout encircling the Historic Courthouse where the Confederate monument is located, and at one point a driver expressed impatience after waiting for protesters to cross the crosswalk by peeling out and taking off at a high rate of speed.
“We always come in peace,” Faith Cook said, addressing the crowd at the first stop in front of the Alamance County Courthouse. “When have we never come in peace? We come unarmed. Every single time. No looting, no destruction. You are destructing our souls! The looting is in our tears! The fire is in our feet! We will not be shut down by your intimidation. We will not be shut down by your false charges.”
Catherine Netter, a former executive administrative assistant and detention officer at the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, denounced the actions of the Graham police officers and Alamance County sheriff’s deputies when they pepper-sprayed people at the Oct. 31 protest.
“As officers we are supposed to be peacekeepers, not riot-ragers,” she said. “If you see something, you step in, you ask questions. You do not push on crowds, advance on crowds. There is no law enforcement training that teaches officers to do what you saw demonstrated on Halloween. How symbolic is that? Acting like devils. That is not what we’ve been put in uniform to do.”
Netter drew cheers when she said, “I am here to tell you that I am seriously considering running for sheriff in Guilford County, because I am tired of begging people to police the right way.”
The Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina NAACP, condemned Alamance County District Attorney Sean Boone for approving the felony charges against Drumwright.
“For what?” Spearman asked. “For telling the truth in the courthouse square, and for standing tall on behalf of the leaders of the next generation. Reverend Drumwright: To you, I say stand tall. And Greg: I just want you to know that we’ve got your back.”
Spearman also denounced Sheriff Terry Johnson as someone who “conducts himself and the sheriff’s office just as if he were a grand supporter of Jim Crow or himself a member of the white supremacist tea party.” Spearman continued, “It is in his nature to foster a culture of bias, which undermines the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office from serving and protecting the African-American community.”
During his remarks, Drumwright called attention to criminal justice issues in Alamance County that precede his own challenges, noting a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of North Carolina to address excessive bail in the Alamance County Jail and a US Justice Department lawsuit in the past decade that accused Sheriff Terry Johnson of racial profiling against Latinx residents.
Drumwright also announced a boycott, although the only specific target named was the advertisers of Alamance News, a conservative weekly that has portrayed antiracist activists in a negative light.
“If businesses are not supporting the Black community, we need to shut ’em down,” Drumwright said, as activists held up signs and banners to block Alamance News publisher Tom Boney from taking photographs. “I’m asking our white allies. I’m asking our Black community, our Latino community to stand with us. If you are not welcome in an establishment, they deserve none of our money. If they are advertising in the Alamance News, they deserve none of our money. If they are not going on record to support Black lives mattering, they deserve none of our money.”
Drumwright also called on the US Justice Department and the NC Attorney General to open an investigation into the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office.
“We need to discuss why the Graham Police Department and the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office is harming our people,” Drumwright said. “We need to discuss why we had to sue the city of Graham over executive orders that limited assemblies after a series of protests near the Confederate statue earlier this summer. We need to talk about that. There are people out here who still have to go to court because their First Amendment right to protest was violated earlier this summer.”