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Law Enforcement Allegedly Pepper Sprays 'I Am Change' Marchers

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to tell you about something that happened earlier today in Graham, N.C. A group of about 200, which included children and seniors, set out on a march to encourage people to vote. It was called the I Am Change march. The march began at an AME church and headed to the courthouse.

Unfortunately, at some point, chaos ensued. Law enforcement officers sprayed the marchers in the vicinity - at least, sprayed in the vicinity of the marchers with pepper spray. We do understand that some people were arrested. The Reverend Gregory Drumwright was one of the leaders of today's march, and he is with us now to tell us more.

Reverend Drumwright, thank you for joining us. How are you doing?

GREGORY DRUMWRIGHT: I am a bit shaken and torn, but I'm still alive.

MARTIN: I understand that you were arrested this afternoon. Is that true? Where are you now?

DRUMWRIGHT: We are just outside of the county jail waiting for the remainder of those who were also arrested with us to be released.

MARTIN: And what were you - why were you arrested?

DRUMWRIGHT: Oh, we were charged with failure to comply with - I'm sorry. Failure to disperse on command was the charge that I have received - failure to disperse on command.

MARTIN: And is in - is your - what is your response to that? Is that accurate?

DRUMWRIGHT: We were being imposed upon, and we were being confronted by the same law enforcement agencies that we had coordinated with to protect and serve us for a rally that we were permitted to have. We were being dispersed or forced to disperse in the midst of our peaceful protest.

We were to leave that rally in a - in just a few more minutes and head to the polls. This is something that we have worked on for the greater part of this month with the law enforcement agencies. And we begged them not to come in with militia force to oppress and suppress our march to the polls.

MARTIN: So let me - forgive me, you're saying you had a permit, and you had law enforcement - a law enforcement escort. Is that accurate?

DRUMWRIGHT: That is correct.

MARTIN: So what happened? How did that occur, that pepper spray, then, was deployed against the marchers? Why? What was the stated reason?

DRUMWRIGHT: We do not know. It is the practice of our organization, Justice 4 the Next Generation, to do things in community with the law enforcement. And we were meeting with the law enforcement throughout this month and asking them to not do what they essentially did.

This city - this is my home city. I live about 35 minutes away now, but this is where I was born and raised. This city has targeted people of color at disparaging rates, at disproportioning rates, for years. This sheriff was sued by the Obama administration. A federal court case was brought against the sheriff for arresting and imprisoning Black and brown people at a rate of 4 times to 1.

MARTIN: Forgive me, Reverend. I have to interrupt just because I've just received a copy of the statement by the City of Graham Police Department. It's their response to these events with their description of these events. It's quite lengthy, and I'm just reading through it as we are speaking. But as I understand it, the gist of it is that they're saying that you missed a deadline for permission to have a temporary road closure to accommodate the march.

I - and I'm seeing that they're saying that you were given a command to clear the roadway, that you didn't have the - a permit to use the roadway and that they say that they asked you to clear the roadway and that you didn't disperse in a timely fashion. And they say that is why they used pepper spray. They also say they didn't spray any individuals. They sprayed the ground. But they do acknowledge that they used pepper spray against...

DRUMWRIGHT: Oh.

MARTIN: ...Marchers. What's your response to that?

DRUMWRIGHT: My comment to that is, first of all, your listeners can refer to the Facebook video live feed of our event, which demonstrates that we were not in the road. We were actually on the courthouse sidewalk when their law enforcement agencies began to pepper spray our crowd. There were two events that happened, and this was the second of the two.

MARTIN: Before - and forgive me, Reverend, but before we let you go, though, do you think this was an effort to keep your group from getting to the polls to suppress voting? Or is - do you believe...

DRUMWRIGHT: I cannot say that that was what it was, but I can say that's what happened. There are people that did not get to vote today because they ended up in jail. There are people - yes.

MARTIN: Forgive me, reverend. I'm sure that we'll be talking more about this in the days ahead, so thank you for giving us this information just as soon as you were released. As we said, it's a developing story.

DRUMWRIGHT: Thank you.

MARTIN: That was the Reverend Gregory Drumright. He's a civil rights leader who led the I Am Change march that took place earlier today in Graham, N.C.

Reverend Drumwright, thank you so much for joining us.

DRUMWRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.