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City of Graham, law enforcement agencies, civil rights group settle lawsuit over 2020 protest

Rusty Jacobs, WUNC.
The early-voting site in Graham that marchers were headed to is seen on Nov. 1, 2020.

A city and two law enforcement agencies in a North Carolina county will pay $336,000 to a group of plaintiffs to settle a lawsuit stemming from a 2020 protest in which demonstrators were pepper-sprayed during a get-out-the-vote rally.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and a Chicago-based law firm announced the agreement in a news release on Wednesday. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in November 2020 and named as defendants the city of Graham and Police Chief Kristi Cole, 15 police officers, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson and 15 deputies.

“It is outrageous that people marching to the polls to cast their ballot were met with police brutality. The right to gather and march in support of a shared cause is at the core of the First Amendment,” Chantal Stevens, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said in the news release. “This agreement is a step in the right direction, but it’s insufficient to reckon with the violence and trauma that these community members endured at the hands of police.”

Neither Graham Town Manager Megan Garner nor Acting Alamance County Attorney Debra Bechtel immediately returned telephone calls seeking comment Wednesday.

The three groups represented 17 individuals, as well as, community groups that had organized with hopes of bringing racial justice and ending police violence and other forms of racial oppression, the news release said.

Police had said participants in the Oct. 31, 2020, rally were pepper-sprayed and arrested because they were blocking a street without permission.

Graham police said at the time they issued several warnings to the crowd at Alamance County’s courthouse to move from the street before releasing pepper spray and later making eight arrests.

A police department press release said the Rev. Greg Drumwright initially asked police and the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office if authorities could block the street for the demonstrators, but the request was never completed because Drumwright “missed the deadline,” Graham police said.

Police said protesters stopped in the street for about nine minutes, creating traffic backups “in all directions around court square.” At the time, Drumwright said the group was permitted to stand in the courthouse square and was escorted through the streets by police. He also said that the group had “no intention” of having the rally in the street.

Later, police asked the crowd to disperse, giving them a five-minute warning to leave the roadway. After the time passed, police said, they released the spray toward the ground, not “directly” toward any participant. They have said there were small children also present.

Last year, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported that both the police department and the sheriff's office failed to comply with a court-ordered deadline for releasing videos that show officers using the pepper spray. The video was to be released to a coalition of news organizations.

In addition to the financial settlement, Cole agreed to have an on-the-record meeting with any of the plaintiffs who would like to join within 60 days in the final resolution of the lawsuit.

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