It was mild weather for Halloween. North Carolina is always a toss up – either you’re arguing with a kid about wearing a coat over their costume or you’re strolling along in seventy degree weather, there doesn’t seem to be an in between. This year was in the sixties which was nice since we’d decided to participate in the “I Am Change Legacy March To the Polls” in Graham, NC.
We had a long talk with Bear about this. BrightSide and I were concerned the presence of Ben Crump and members of George Floyd’s family brought national attention which might increase scary counter-protesters. This area has a strong KKK history as well as Daughters of the Confederacy and ACTBAC so we were worried about who might show up. We couldn’t rule out the Proud Boys either, but Bear felt strongly about going. So did I.
But sitting here in my super-whiteness I never – and I mean never – imagined we should have been afraid of the police during a march to the polls.
We gathered in a church lot at 11am to listen to speakers before beginning our march. People of every race bowed heads to pray. We were young and old, struggling and well off, college students and kids and adults alike, all there to show our support.
As we set off toward the courthouse square I paid attention to who was close by. An elderly Black man beside Bear used his cane for the walk. Some people brought their kids – one woman was pushing a stroller, another had two elementary aged girls munching candy as they walked. There were teens like Bear, not able to vote but passionate about justice. There was chanting and singing. We are a people ready for change.
We paused before entering the final block to honor Wyatt Outlaw, the first Black man elected to be Graham’s town commissioner and constable. On February 26, 1870 the KKK dragged him from his home and hung him from an elm tree in the courthouse square. No one was ever tried for his murder.
As we marched the final leg to the courthouse I remember thinking how odd it was that the confederates weren’t gathered on their typical corner. They showed up in force at the July 11th rally and maintain a presence there most Saturdays, but on Halloween? They were gathered on the opposite side of the courthouse. That should have been my first warning.
Reverend Greg Drumwright requested we stand in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to honor George Floyd, kneeling in respect for the last minute, but the majority of the crowd knelt silently in the street for the entire time. After we finished he said to enjoy each other while they set up for the rally so we stood up to look around. That’s when things began unraveling.
There were snipers on the courthouse roof. Police were on all sides of us – on the courthouse steps and down both sidewalks – and their demeanor shifted. BrightSide, Bear, and I were dead center in the street – if you’re local, we’d been kneeling right behind the center crosswalk that leads to that confederate statue, so there were about ten to fifteen people between us and the nearest police officer. Within thirty seconds of standing up there was what I can only describe as general confusion. I heard a muffled shout and could tell we were supposed to do something but honestly had no idea what that was.
Side note: I had my fourteen year old daughter there for her first real march so you can be damn sure I was paying attention to everything. There were no audible police instructions where we were.
After about ten seconds of watching the crowd bumble about in confusion I realized police wanted us on the sidewalks and started shepherding Bear to the side. We were almost there when I felt something funny and the woman with a stroller pushed past us saying, “We have to go, they’re pepper spraying.” I barely had time to register what she’d said before I felt a sharp burning in my throat and my eyes teared up. Bear started coughing and I pushed her back against a storefront, handing her a bottle of water and telling her to drink.
I looked back and tried to make sense of what I saw. Organizers were talking with police about using crowd control weapons on a peaceful march, trying to deescalate the situation. The elderly tried to get to the sidewalks but could only move so fast. Parents frantically guided their kids as every once in a while a white mist blew through the crowd. Pepper spray is a riot control agent. Which of these people were threatening enough to warrant that? The older Black woman who marched in her long white and black dress carrying a folding stool for resting? The disabled woman on her wheelchair scooter? Or maybe the 3-, 5-, and 11-year-old children who began vomiting after breathing in the spray?
The organizers were setting up on the courthouse grounds by then and we wanted to stay. We wanted to march the rest of the way to that early voting station. We wanted to bear witness for our Black brothers and sisters in the square. I had no idea how bad it was going to get.