Police officials have defended their subordinates’ actions, saying protesters “assaulted” at least one officer.
Two federal lawsuits are taking aim at North Carolina after “I Am Change” protesters were pepper sprayed outside a polling location.
According to CNN, one of the two lawsuits was filed on behalf of marchers by the NAACP. In the complaint, attorneys say law enforcement’s heavy-handed response caused protesters to “[suffer] harm.” It also challenges the use of force—and alleged intimidation—by the city of Graham, North Carolina, as well as Alamance County.
“Defendants,” states the lawsuit, “prevented North Carolinians from peacefully protesting and casting their vote free from intimidation, threats, harassment, and coercion.”
The second lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina in conjunction with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Filed on behalf of individual protesters—including Rev. Gregory Drumwright, who organized the march—the suit asserts that Graham Police and Alamance County deputies acted in such a way as to “suppress and violently disperse a peaceful assembly gathered for the express purpose of encouraging people to vote.”
“The police violence in Graham, North Carolina, perpetrated against a group of peaceful and primarily Black protesters over the weekend is yet another clear violation of the right to free speech and the right to vote,” said LCCRUL executive director Kristen Clerke.
CNN reached out to both law enforcement agencies for comment.
In response, Graham Police Department officials said that they used pepper spray on two separate occasions: once to remove marchers from a road after they refused to listen to comply with commands, then again after an officer was “assaulted.”
But the lawsuit alleges that, during the second incident, police officers simply began pepper spraying protesters for no apparent reason.
“Again with no warning or dispersal order, Defendants’ officers and deputies began deploying pepper spray on the marchers,” the suit says.
NBC News notes that Graham Police later claimed that they had given orders to disperse, and that they first tried pepper spraying the ground in front of protesters. However, video footage of the encounter showed officers spraying directly above marchers’ heads—meaning the pepper particles would have gone straight onto protesters’ faces and into their eyes.
One way or another, Graham Police deemed the protest “unsafe and unlawful” following the purported “assault on an officer.”
However, Drumwright and other event organizers maintain the march was largely peaceful, and that its participants’ actions did not warrant an aggressive police response.
“I and our organization, marchers, demonstrators, and potential voters left here sunken, sad, traumatized, obstructed and distracted from our intention to lead people all the way to the pulls,” Drumwright said in a weekend press conference.
“Let me tell you something,” he added, “We were broken, but will not be broken.”
CNN notes that “I Am Change”—a literal “march to the polls”—was meant to honor Black Americans who were killed by police, and whose death inspired mass protests across the country.