Police fired pepper spray into a voter turnout and racial injustice rally Saturday in Alamance County. (Photo by Sarah Ovaska) Alamance County Voter Rally
Police fired pepper spray into a voter turnout and racial injustice rally Saturday in Alamance County. (Photo by Sarah Ovaska)

Law enforcement in Alamance County, which has been a hotbed for racial tensions, fired pepper spray to disperse a permitted rally and march to the polls.

Police officers and sheriff’s deputies wielding pepper spray abruptly shut down a multiracial voter turnout rally of several hundred in Graham Saturday, the final day of North Carolina’s early voting period. 

Shortly after rally goers held a moment of silence for George Floyd, a man killed in a violent encounter with Minnesota police this spring, law enforcement fired pepper spray into the crowd. Children and elderly persons were among those sprayed, in a town and county that has seen already high racial tensions escalate in the wake of Floyd’s death and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. 

Fourteen people were arrested, organizers said, after law enforcement declared the rally—which had a permit from the county—to be an “unlawful assembly,” demanding people move back from the demonstration at the Alamance County Courthouse and its adjoining Confederate statue. The early voting site two blocks away remained open throughout the chaotic scene.  

Police deployed what appeared to be pepper spray into the permitted rally area as well as into groups of bystanders on sidewalks in an attempt to clear the area.  Before the chaotic end, multiple cars and trucks drove through the area, displaying Trump signs in what appeared to be opposition to the multiracial voter turnout rally.

Alamance County Protest
Faith Cook, a Graham mother of three, told Cardinal & Pine she saw nothing that would justify police shutting down a voter turnout rally in Alamance County Saturday. (Photo by Sarah Ovaska)

Many of those attending saw the abrupt clearing of the downtown area as a form of voter intimidation and suppression. 

The event had members of Floyd’s family in attendance and was supposed to include comments from Ben Crump, an attorney who represents the families of police brutality victims.  

It was to culminate with a two-block march to a nearby early voting site. There were no outward signs of violence on behalf of the grassroots rally attendees, though the crowd grew agitated and vocal after pepper spray was twice released and then people were ordered to disperse. 

“We aggressively got pepper sprayed,” said Quenclyn Ellison, an Alamance County woman who has been attending anti-racism events in the county since this summer. This was the first where police shut down an event and pepper sprayed attendees.

“We were trying to collectively get our people to the polls,” Ellison said.  

Bill Traynor, of Graham, was one of those arrested and charged with resisting an officer. Moments after he was released from jail Saturday afternoon, he told Cardinal & Pine that he was backing up and moving away from the courthouse but was voicing his anger at the way law enforcement acted.

“I was upset,” Traynor said. “They had pepper sprayed us – there were children and older people.”

Then, he said he was grabbed by an officer and arrested. Traynor, who is white, said he came to the event to show his support for racial equity in a community that has been a frequent site of racism-fueled clashes.

“It’s obvious that the struggle (for equity) is pitted and contentious,” Traynor said. “There’s massive resistance to the idea that all people should be treated equally in Graham.”

A Contentious History in Alamance County

Alamance County, located 90 miles northwest of Raleigh, has earned a national reputation for racial intolerance with regular clashes between anti-racism protesters and white supremacy groups and Confederate supporters over the decision to keep a Confederate statue standing outside the courthouse.  

Its elected sheriff, Terry Johnson, was accused of racially profiling Latino residents by federal justice department officials, although he was ultimately found not culpable by a federal judge

Faith Cook, a Graham mother of three with Alamance County group People for Change, said nothing she saw Saturday would have justified authorities shutting down the event, discharging pepper spray or arresting people.  

“It was intended to keep us from doing what we were out there to do today. That’s voter intimidation” what law enforcement did, Cook said. 

Cook, who is Black, said she’s often wondered if she needs to move out of Alamance County so that her children—ages 12, 9, and 3—can grow up without fear of how they’ll be treated because of their skin color.  

“I shouldn’t have to pick up and move to another place,” she said, with tears in her eyes as she stood in line to cast her ballot in the 2020 election.

“This is what our ancestors died from,” she said, referring to the chaos and unrest from an hour earlier. 

Cook urged those who haven’t voted to do so on Tuesday, Election Day.

“Vote. Don’t let them stop you.”