An Alamance County sheriff's deputy arrests the Rev. Greg Drumwright on Oct. 31, 2020, during a protest Drumwright helped organize in downtown Graham. Photo courtesy of Anthony Crider via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/acrider/albums/72157716693326681

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On Oct. 31, law enforcement officers in Graham pepper-sprayed and arrested protesters, Democratic election observers and a photographer for the local newspaper.

The narratives of the people who were arrested and that of law enforcement diverged sharply. 

The public will now have an opportunity to see what happened for themselves. On Thursday, a coalition of news organizations including Carolina Public Press won a lawsuit for the release of videos and photographs taken by law enforcement during the protests. 

Alamance County Superior Court Judge Andrew Hanford ordered that the videos should be released in full since the city and county failed to show a compelling governmental interest in blurring or redacting any part of the videos, according to Mike Tadych, the lawyer who represented the media outlets. 

“I believe that the media entities think it’s important to understand all sides of it,” Tadych said of the protest. “Front and center, recordings of the police officers and law enforcement were pertinent to that.”

Most of the law enforcement officers at the protest were either wearing body cameras or using other cameras to record the protesters, Tadych said. The videos to be released will also include security footage from cameras in downtown Graham and video captured by a drone, according to court documents. 

The materials will give the public the most in-depth look into the events that led up to law enforcement using pepper spray. The judge has not yet issued a written order, and it is unclear how quickly the media coalition can coordinate with the agencies to receive copies of the videos. 

But it should not take long, Tadych said, because the videos do not need to be altered in any way. 

Hanford rejected law enforcement’s argument that the videos should not be released due to ongoing criminal cases. 

“As all of these videos and images are potential evidence in pending criminal cases from Oct. 31, 2020, we object to the public release until those cases have been adjudicated,” according to a Sheriff’s Office court filing that described the scope of videos collected. 

Rather, Hanford said the release would not interfere with an ongoing criminal or civil matter, according to Tadych. 

It took a legal challenge and more than six months for the public to gain access to these videos because North Carolina law prevents the release of any law enforcement video without a judge’s order. 

Legal resolutions, but little clarity on events

To date, the events have been pieced together from phone videos uploaded to the internet and reports from journalists who were at the protest. 

The videos show something the police department initially denied: police officers aiming pepper spray over the heads of protesters, including children and elderly people among the mostly Black people present for the combined protest and march to the polls on the last day of early voting. 

Still, the exact reasoning for the escalation by police remains unclear. In a press conference the day after the protests, Daniel Sisk, public information officer for the Graham Police Department, said some protesters walked into the street and assaulted sheriff’s officers, at which point the law enforcement officers moved to disperse the crowd. 

Protesters widely disputed this narrative, and in the videos available online no such assaults were apparent. 

The police and the Sheriff’s Office then deployed pepper spray two more times. The release of law enforcement video will be important to show the lead-up to each use of pepper spray, said Elizabeth Haddix, managing attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the lawyer for the Rev. Greg Drumwright, who organized the event.  

“That initial pepper spray by the Graham police turned an otherwise peaceful demonstration into a very confusing and scary event for a lot of the participants,” Haddix said, and she believes the video will show the decision to pepper-spray the protesters was unreasonable, unnecessary and dangerous.

Neither the Graham Police Department nor Alamance County responded to requests for comment for this story. 

Charges have already been dropped against many of the higher-profile people arrested during the protest, including Drumwright.

He was initially charged with a misdemeanor failure-to-disperse charge and was later charged with two felonies: obstruction of justice and assault on a law enforcement officer. 

The district attorney decided to drop the obstruction-of-justice charge due to insufficient evidence and failed to secure an indictment from a grand jury on the assault charge, according to court documents

Haddix accused the district attorney’s office of filing the charges as a form of retaliation against Drumwright’s advocacy in the county. 

The district attorney’s office also dismissed misdemeanor charges against Tomas Murawski, a senior reporter with the Alamance News, and Samson Asiyanbi and Kelly Skahan, both election observers for the N.C. Democratic Party. 

Twenty others were arrested, primarily on misdemeanor charges of failure to disperse or resisting an officer.  

Some of those charges have been dismissed, while other protesters have been found guilty and are appealing their cases to be heard by a jury in Superior Court, according to Haddix.  

An order to disperse has to be lawful for the state to charge and convict people of misdemeanors for failing to disperse, Haddix said.

The protesters were exercising their First Amendment rights in a public forum, and that is why the release of video showing what triggered law enforcement to take action is so important, she said.

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.