Life

What I Told My Daughter After Police Pepper-Sprayed Us on a March to the Polls

“Mommy! Why is this happening?”

A crowd of people march down a street with a red, green, and black American flag and a Black Lives Matter flag
Protesters march to the Alamance County Courthouse shortly before police pepper-sprayed them on Saturday. Belle Boggs

The march started peacefully and with prayers.

“Did any of you bring a gun?” the Rev. Gregory Drumwright asked the people assembled for the I Am Change Legacy March to the Polls on Saturday, the last day of early voting in North Carolina. “Did you bring a weapon of any kind? Do you have any intent to harm businesses? Do you plan to pull down this monument?”

“No!” the people answered, again and again.

“Did you come in peace?”

“Yes!”

I kept my hand on my small daughter’s shoulder. She gripped her handmade Black Lives Matter sign as we assembled for the half-mile march to the Alamance County Courthouse, where a 30-foot-tall Confederate memorial stood behind barricades. Citizens and community leaders of this county have been demanding the removal of the statue with increasing urgency, but this march was not about the statue.

It was, as Drumwright said on the day he announced the march, about the systems that “shadow the monument”—bigotry, white supremacy, and police brutality. The nonpartisan march was also about getting out the vote, which was one reason I wanted to bring my 6-year-old daughter. I knew that we’d chant, “This is what democracy looks like,” and I wanted Beatrice to hear that and feel the swell of pride I feel whenever I say those words. Of course I also knew that there would be people jeering from the sidelines or honking horns from Confederate flag–flying pickup trucks. I was prepared for that.

But I wasn’t prepared for what happened.

The police blocked off Main Street for the march, and although Drumwright insisted we take our time—we had elders and babies with us, he reminded us—it took only about 20 minutes to get to the courthouse. Along the way we repeated the names of Black people murdered by police and police violence: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland. We stopped for a talk about Wyatt Outlaw, the first Black town commissioner of Graham, North Carolina, lynched in the town square by white supremacists in 1870.

We sang about being ready for change. “Whose streets?” Drumwright called out. “Our streets!” we yelled back. Police drones buzzed over our heads. Unmasked spectators filmed and photographed us from the sidewalks.

With my hand nestled in Beatrice’s hoodie, I could feel tension coiled in her neck and shoulders. I wondered if the march, with its heavy police presence, was too much for her, especially in a year when she’s already experienced so much sadness—a sick grandfather, first grade reduced to Zoom sessions, no playgrounds or beach trips or play dates. But she kept her sign raised, and we marched along.

We arrived at the courthouse a little before noon and knelt for 8 minutes, 46 seconds—the time it took for the police to kill George Floyd. His family was in attendance, and we were going to listen to them speak.

“I want to go home,” Beatrice whispered, head down. “I want to be in the woods.”

I put my arm around her, still kneeling, and told her she was safe. I pointed out the trees near the street—she thinks of trees as her friends—and the other children who were there. A boy dressed like a “garbage fire” that his mom was putting out with a garden hose of voting. A little girl in a fairy costume. A baby in a stroller. I pointed out an older woman in a beautiful black-and-white dress, also kneeling on the pavement.

At the end of our vigil, we stood and looked around. Drumwright, who’d thanked the police for their escort, told us to wait while the speakers assembled. He had a permit for the march but something about it was complicated—they had not been allowed to set up the PA system and speaking platform in advance.

There were so many police—some of them in regular sheriff’s deputy uniforms, but others in tactical gear, like soldiers. Some of them standing on the roof of the courthouse with guns, like snipers. Some of them chatting amiably with unmasked white bystanders. An officer told the crowd near me that we needed to clear the streets, which were still blocked off. I didn’t hear cars honking, or backed-up traffic, or any warning about what would happen if we didn’t clear the streets, but I wasn’t here to get arrested. I grabbed Bea’s hand and looked for an empty place where we could stand and still hear the speeches.

Maybe 30 seconds after the officer told us to move, the screaming started. And the choking and coughing and crying. My eyes stung and watered, but I could see a cloud of vapor coming toward us, and I knew that we’d been tear-gassed or pepper-sprayed. I won’t forget my daughter’s horrified face when she realized that the air she was breathing was literally choking her. “Mommy!” she cried. “Why is this happening?”

I hoisted Beatrice onto my hip and moved into an alley where another woman was standing with her child. Other people, including children, elderly, and disabled people, were also choking and coughing behind their masks. Someone brought us water, and we drank it and rinsed our eyes. I did not see a single police officer offer aid to any of the 200 protesters now struggling to breathe, see, and comfort loved ones.

“I want to go home,” Beatrice said again. Though I did not want to be intimidated by what I saw as a deliberate and cruel show of police violence, my greater responsibility was to my daughter. Only 6 years old! We began our walk back to the car, the landscape suddenly more ominous.

Why is this happening? she’d demanded to know.

The answer is so dark I’m almost afraid to tell her. It’s happening because some people with power, like police, would rather pepper-spray children, elderly people, and disabled people than wait for them to move. Some people would rather cut the sound to a PA system than hear a faith leader issue a demand for change. And some people would rather arrest peaceful protesters than see them vote.

All of this is, of course, part of the history of racism and brutality against Black people that shadows our country. There was no avoiding that truth as we walked down the street where Wyatt Outlaw was lynched 150 years ago. His blood was “under our feet,” Drumwright said during the march. How do you tell a 6-year-old what lynching is? And that it still happens today?

There’s a saying that Beatrice’s first grade class repeats daily over Zoom: “We can do hard things.” I like the way this saying shifts focus from the circumstances that make things hard, which you can’t always control, to the community of friends—the “we”—that can deal with them. I told Beatrice that I thought it was our job to protest bad leaders, even when it was hard. Did she think this counted as a hard thing that she could do?

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced in real life,” she said, still outraged. But then she softened. “I think the trees would be proud of me.”

Later we talked about the people arrested (approximately 10 percent of the marchers, and including Drumwright), and the others who had to bail them out. But did they do anything wrong? Beatrice asked. No, I said. I don’t think so. We talked about how some of those people, on their way to polls that closed at 3 p.m., would now have to wait in line on Tuesday, maybe for hours. And would they do those hard things? They would.

But those conversations would wait. As we walked away, she spotted a small group of kids and cars in a church parking lot. One of the ministers saw our bedraggled sign and called us over. “Would your daughter like to trunk-or-treat with us?” Each member of the church introduced themselves, and Bea went car to car, trunk-or-treating. Those strangers gave us enough candy to last the whole ride home and even through the rest of Halloween.