If you haven’t already read part 1 from earlier today.
By the time organizers set up on the courthouse grounds police had arrested several people in the crowd, at least two of whom were journalists. Organizers were encouraging people to move from the public sidewalks to the rally permit area before they began speaking and we were faced with a choice – move to the space penned in by barricades where there was absolutely no possibility of social distancing or listen from the sidewalk across the street. In a split second I took in the police officers right off the curb and law enforcement in riot gear lined up on the courthouse steps. I couldn’t take Bear into a space I might not be able to get her out of. We stayed on the sidewalk.
Let me say that again. What I’d seen so far convinced me there was a very real possibility police were herding us into a tight space so we couldn’t escape. In America. At what was supposed to be a peaceful Get Out The Vote assembly.
Reverend Drumwright seemed to have diffused the situation so that speakers could address the crowd and those speeches were about people using their power. That if we wanted to see change in our community then we needed to vote that change into office. One woman spoke about the challenges of having a Black owned business in Graham but that she would continue to speak out and vote because she owed it not only to her ancestors but to the generations to come.
Throughout the speeches there were occasional skirmishes between law enforcement and demonstrators near the sidewalks. Sometimes it seemed like it was because someone stepped off a curb to cross to the courthouse, sometimes there was no discernible reason that some guy was suddenly surrounded and whisked away. Was there yelling at times? Yes. I heard cries of “f*ck the police”, “we have a right to be here”, and “shame on you!” over and over but none of that happened until after law enforcement began using pepper spray and arresting protestors. For people saying well, they must have done something to provoke it I’ll repeat: this was a PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY until law enforcement flexed. We marched in, we planned to listen to the speakers, we planned to march on to the polls. Period.
We were about midway through when Bear asked to cross to the courthouse so we could hear the speakers better. By that point there were a couple of demonstrators standing a few feet outside the barricade and since we could stay distanced we walked over. BrightSide hung back on the sidewalk so he could keep an eye on things. The Black business owner had just finished speaking and they were calling someone else to the microphone when there was a commotion in front of us. We couldn’t see clearly at the time but I’ve since pieced together that sheriff’s deputies started to remove the generator powering the public address system without warning. What Bear and I saw was what looked like one or two young Black event organizers reaching down toward the ground, several officers reacting, and then a struggle.
Bear was yelling don’t hurt him while my brain tried to make sense of it – that’s when I heard BrightSide bellowing LAURA GET OVER HERE over and over again. I thought he was being cautious until I glanced up and saw law enforcement officers in riot gear pouring out of the courthouse door and down the steps toward the crowd. The only reason we were able to get back to the sidewalk was because we’d hovered outside the barricades – the ones trapping people inside a space while what looked like storm troopers advanced on the crowd.
That sounds like hyperbole but if you’ve ever been at something you thought was your run of the mill rally and looked up to see a horde of armed people aggressively coming at you then you know.
Bear and I joined BrightSide on the sidewalk as pandemonium erupted around us. They’d begun spraying tear gas again, this time directly into people’s faces, in clouds so thick there was no avoiding it. The woman on the scooter had gone into convulsions after being sprayed by the courthouse and was carried to the sidewalk where demonstrators gathered around to help. People crying they couldn’t see, others asking what just happened, all while behind us on the courthouse grounds law enforcement in gas masks were spraying screaming demonstrators. It was madness. We started handing out water to anyone who could use it as police violence raged on.
That’s when we heard the police direct everyone to clear out in five minutes, no exceptions.
After helping the people around us we began walking back toward our car. Bear wanted to stay but BrightSide pointed out that we didn’t know what would happen next and some things you can’t unsee. He was right.
I’m furious about that day. I’m pissed for the woman who was on the way to the polls for the last day of one-stop voting where she could register and vote in the 2020 election. I’m livid about the kids traumatized by the “good guys” hurting them. I’m enraged that law enforcement met a pro-vote rally with riot gear and gas masks.
BrightSide’s right, I can’t unsee what I’ve seen.