Law enforcement officers wearing military-style gear on the historic courthouse grounds in downtown Graham. The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office and Graham Police Department both deployed pepper spray against protesters on a march to the polls on Oct 31, 2020. Screenshot from bodycam footage.

Note: The videos contained in this post include obscene language and violence and may not be suitable for all audiences.

A judge declined Wednesday to force the Alamance County Sheriff’s Department and the Graham Police Department to turn over body camera footage from an October march that he previously ordered be produced to a coalition of news media organizations.

Superior Court Judge Andrew Hanford said the matter is now under the jurisdiction of the appellate court. 

“There’s one order,” Hanford said. “It’s been appealed. Let’s see what the Court of Appeals has to say about what happened.”

Despite the legal setback, the public will see some of the bodycam footage from the Oct. 31 I am Change: March to the Polls event in Graham because an individual charged in the incident has released footage obtained in her case to Carolina Public Press and other news agencies. 

These videos show officers deploying pepper spray on a Black-led group of marchers that includes children, the elderly and people with disabilities.  

Graham police arrested Kelly Skahan, a lawyer who volunteered as an election observer for the Democratic Party, on since-dropped misdemeanor charges when law enforcement attempted to clear downtown Graham.

Skahan, based in Washington state, received the body camera footage from the Alamance County district attorney’s office as part of her successful legal defense.

Skahan released the videos to Carolina Public Press and other news media outlets because the prosecutorial process has been unusually opaque, she said. Several protesters are still facing criminal proceedings, and their lives are being interrupted, she said. 

“I think it was important for the public to see what was on the body camera videos that the county and the city have had the whole time,” she said. “And what the evidence is that’s supporting so many of these prosecutions.”

Legal maneuvers

Following the October event where Graham police and Alamance sheriff’s deputies arrested 20 protesters, a coalition of news media organizations, including Carolina Public Press, asked the court to require the law enforcement agencies to turn over footage of the event. 

After a hearing about the footage in mid-June, Judge Hanford ordered that the tapes be turned over no later than 2 p.m. June 25, nearly eight months after the incident. Neither agency complied.

Attorneys for the agencies told the court Wednesday that they advised their clients not to turn over the footage while they filed motions asking the court to stay the order or to allow for redactions of officers’ faces. They argued the officers’ rights to privacy must be protected. 

Mike Tadych, an attorney for the coalition, told the court no one on the streets that day had an expectation of privacy. 

“Given that all of this took place on the streets and sidewalks and public areas of Graham, North Carolina, … there was no expectation of privacy whatsoever on anyone involved in the public streets, whether they were part of the march, the police officers or other law enforcement or people just happened to be looking at what was transpiring,” he said.

The media coalition asked the court to require the agencies to show cause as to why they did not comply with his order. Hanford denied the motion to modify his earlier order and denied the motion to show cause. He declined to explain either decision during the hearing.

Video already obtained

The public will not see the entire footage from both the Graham police and Alamance sheriff’s deputies unless the Court of Appeals denies the law enforcement appeal in a process that could take several months, but an individual with access to some footage from the Graham Police Department released it to Carolina Public Press and other news organizations. 

None of the videos are from Alamance County, which has sheriff’s officer body camera footage, drone footage and video taken from cameras on the courthouse, according to court documents.

As an election volunteer, Skahan was assigned to North Carolina by the Democratic Party. Skahan was arrested by Graham Police on Oct. 31 on misdemeanor failure-to-disperse charges, which were dropped by the district attorney’s office. 

As part of the legal proceedings, the district attorney’s office provided Skahan with body camera footage of her arrest from cameras worn by members of the Graham Police Department.

Skahan gave Carolina Public Press permission to share the videos publicly.

The protest, which the Rev. Greg Drumwright led, began in the late afternoon. Drumwright had organized protests in the city for months, including a July 11, 2020, event that took a similar path and for which the Police Department closed part of the roundabout circling the historic courthouse downtown.

Organizers have said they hoped October’s event would serve three functions: to protest the treatment of Black people by police; to call for the removal of a Confederate statue in Graham; and to encourage people to vote at one of the last opportunities for early voting. 

After winding down several streets, the crowd knelt in the street in memory of George Floyd, a man killed by police in Minneapolis in May 2020. 

Protesters marched down the center of city streets with police officers blocking traffic for several blocks before stopping at the historic courthouse in downtown Graham, where Drumwright addressed the crowd. 

While Drumwright secured temporary road closures on the march’s path to the historic courthouse and a permit to be on courthouse grounds, the Graham Police Department did not agree to close the roundabout in downtown and instead created designated areas on the downtown sidewalks where protesters would be allowed to stand.

Participants took a knee in front of the Confederate monument for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, a symbolic reference to the amount of time then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. 

Then protesters returned to their feet, chanting in call-and-response, “Say his name.”

“George Floyd.”

Then, “Whose streets?”

“Our streets!”

One minute later, police began clearing protesters from the road.  Another minute after that, police deployed the first use of pepper spray, quickly followed by several more in short bursts. These can be heard on the video above and seen in the next.

Police officers told protesters to clear the street and then began to disperse the crowd with pepper spray. No warning was heard to notify protesters that pepper spray would be deployed, though officers were clearly brandishing the canisters.

The video above shows the first apparent use of pepper spray on the courthouse square, county property where Alamance County sheriff’s officers were stationed.

In the video, several protesters carried a person across the street and called for emergency medical services. She is identified in other footage as an elderly woman who uses a wheelchair. 

Moments after the Alamance Sheriff’s Department deployed pepper spray on protesters on the courthouse square, the video above showed officers over the radio saying, “All right, the Sheriff’s Department gassed them,” and “There’s a lady down … need EMS.” 

A group of people carried the woman, who appears to be an elderly Black woman in need of medical attention from pepper spray, across the street.

Later, Julius Walton and Olivia Davis were arrested after a scuffle with police. They walked together, and the officer reached toward Davis and told them to clear the street. In the video, it appeared Walton reached back, shoved the officer and said, “Don’t touch her.”

The video showed other officers bringing Walton to the ground and putting him in handcuffs. The two were taken about a block away before they were put in police cars. 

Fifteen minutes after the start of the video above, which showed the call for assistance for the woman, Graham police announced on a PA system that the gathering is considered an “unlawful assembly” and people must clear the downtown area.

In the minutes after the Alamance Sheriff’s Department deployed pepper spray on protesters in the square, protesters appeared confused and distressed. Some called for medical treatment.

The officer in this video wore a gas mask and repeatedly used pepper spray to clear protesters from downtown. In several cases, the protesters were already walking away at the time pepper spray was used. 

As Graham police used pepper spray to clear the downtown square of protesters, a group of protesters walked away. In the video above, protesters yelled at a Black officer who wore a gas mask. The officer directed pepper spray up into the air before aiming at the ground.

One officer told people to clear the road and then pepper-sprayed their feet. People in the video appeared confused by the order. Kelly Skahan, who was later arrested, is shown in the video above. 

The same officer who arrested Walton and Davis in earlier footage talked with fellow Graham police officers about why he made those arrests. 

“He f—ing hit me, so I f—ing hit him,” the officer said. The officers also discussed why the sheriff’s office pepper-sprayed protesters and declared an unlawful assembly, though the exchange is difficult to hear.

See full videos:

Editor’s note: Camila Moreno-Lizarazo and Anna Deen of Carolina Public Press contributed to the reporting for this article.

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.