Two civil rights groups are suing Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson and Graham Police Chief Mary Kristy Cole after officers pepper-sprayed voters, including children, and arrested them during an October 31 march to the polls.

The federal lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of North Carolina and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, alleges law enforcement violated three U.S. constitutional amendments and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which was enacted to protect formerly enslaved people from voter intimidation and harassment.

“The police violence in Graham, North Carolina perpetrated against a group of peaceful and primarily Black protestors over the weekend is yet another clear violation of the right to free speech and the right to vote,” Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee, said in a press release. “We will not stand back and let the voices of voters continue to be suppressed just hours before Election Day. Racially motivated attacks on peaceful demonstrators is a form of grotesque voter intimidation and we cannot continue to let these acts of violence continue.”

Reverend Gregory Drumwright, the main organizer for the event, Ann Jones and a group of community organizations, referred to as Justice for the Next Generation are listed as plaintiffs on the case. They allege the departments violated the First, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments by restricting freedom of speech and deterring several marchers from voting, including Drumwright.

The Monday night lawsuit cites footage from The News & Observer where one officer shouts “Get moving, you f-g pricks.” In another instance, a marcher tells an officer that he pepper-sprayed a child. He replies, “I did.” Footage also shows at least one person being pepper-sprayed in the face, despite the sheriff’s office claims that they didn’t aim at any face or body.

Twenty-three people were arrested at the march: 15 by the sheriff’s office and eight by the police department. The majority of those arrested by the county were charged with failing to disperse on command. The Graham Police Department did not respond to request for arrest warrants.

The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office held a press conference Monday afternoon to run through the events. The nine-minute event was primarily led by Michelle Mills, the department’s community engagement and diversity coordinator. Reporters were not given the opportunity to ask questions of Sheriff Terry Johnson or Byron Tucker, the department’s public information officer.

The sheriff’s department claimed Monday that the officers were responding to an unauthorized gas can and generator and the shoving of a female officer when they pepper-sprayed the 250-person crowd, leaving voters and children vomiting in the streets. On Saturday evening, the office said they were reacting to the group being too close to the road, and trying to control the crowd.

U.S. Representatives David Price, G.K. Butterfield, and Alma Adams released a statement Monday in support of the marchers. The trio is demanding an investigation into the two law enforcement offices through the U.S. Department of Justice. 

“What took place in Alamance County on Saturday is one of the ugliest instances of voter intimidation and voter suppression I have ever seen,” said Adams in a press release. “Chemical agents should never be used on people exercising their First Amendment rights and they should never be used on people going to vote.”

Multiple lawsuits have been filed against Alamance County and the city of Graham in 2020 over civil rights issues. The Alamance chapter of the NAACP recently settled with the city of Graham over its protest ordinance, which required organizers to apply for a permit with the police department before any events.

Drumwright is organizing an Election Day march to the polls in Graham, beginning at 3 p.m. at Wayman’s AME Church.

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