The Slatest

Police in North Carolina Pepper-Spray Protesters Taking Part in Peaceful March to Polls

A "Vote Here" sign next to a curb
A polling place in Yadkinville, North Carolina, on Saturday. Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Around 200 people took part in a march to the polls Sunday in Graham, North Carolina. But what was supposed to be an effort to encourage people to vote ended in chaos and arrests as law enforcement officers suddenly began pepper-spraying participants, including children, after they held a moment of silence for George Floyd. Police apparently told the crowd of people to move to the sidewalk after the moment of silence but soon began spraying pepper spray, reports the News & Observer.

Participants say police began unleashing the pepper spray for no apparent reason, and several children in the crowd were hit. A reporter with the Burlington Times-News who was pepper-sprayed said they did not hear any warning before the police took action. Video showed a woman in a motorized wheelchair apparently suffering an adverse reaction from the pepper spray. “They didn’t warn us or anything,” one participant, who alleged her 3-year-old great-nephew started throwing up from the pepper spray, said. “We were just sitting on the wall.” Another woman who participated in the rally said her 5-year-old and 11-year-old daughters were pepper-sprayed shortly after the moment of silence ended.

After the spraying stopped, the marchers were able to get together in the town square to take part in a rally with a stage and speakers. But after 45 minutes, the police seemed determined to end the rally, and sheriff’s deputies told the crowd to disperse even before the speeches ended. Reports claim the police just started arresting people, including at least one person who was apparently just listening. A video posted on social media appears to show police arresting two people, including a child who seems to have been thrown to the ground and handcuffed before he was taken away. Floyd’s niece was scheduled to speak but was not able to.

At least 12 people were arrested, including a reporter for the Alamance News newspaper. Although some who participated in the march did end up making it to the polls, others didn’t in what was the last day of early voting in the key state. “I think it was their intention, from the moment this march was announced, that we don’t get to the polls in numbers,” one rally participant said. North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein characterized the events as “troubling.”

The Graham Police Department issued a statement that said the marchers didn’t have the appropriate permits to close the road. “Those plans detailed that the blocking of a roadway by participants was a prohibited activity that would be strictly enforced,” the statement said. Protesters had knelt in the street for 8 minutes and 40 seconds in honor of Floyd.