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Last Saturday, Melanie Mitchell took her family to the "I Am Change Legacy March To the Polls" in downtown Graham, North Carolina, because she felt it was important for her children and mother to stand with their neighbors in the fight for justice and voting rights.
"We got together as a community," Mitchell said of the initial spirit of the gathering, which was intended to be a simple, all-ages simple demonstration of strength, featuring local speakers highlighting the importance of civic action. Mitchell herself is an organizer with Down Home North Carolina, who organized other demonstrations in Court Square this summer alongside People for Change, but this was the first demonstration she felt comfortable bringing her kids and 61-year-old mother.
"We were all singing and chanting. My kids were super excited."
But things swiftly took a turn for the worst when law enforcement attacked the peaceful demonstrators, many of whom were on their way to vote on the last day of early voting in North Carolina.
George Floyd's niece was slated to speak at the event as well, but the speeches were disrupted when officers started pepper-spraying those gathered for failing to get up quickly enough after eight minutes and forty-six seconds of silence to mark Floyd's final moments.
"Before you knew it, my 5-year-old and my 11-year-old just started choking and coughing," she said. "I was coughing. My 5-year-old took off running to get away from it and I had to chase her down to get her, and you can hear my 11-year-old in the video I have screaming: 'Am I gonna die?' It was like a chaos scene."
According to a statement from the Graham Police Department, "a crowd control measure that consisted of spraying a pepper-based vapor onto the ground" was used after marchers were told to clear the road to allow traffic. Videos circulating social media show police spraying a woman in a wheelchair—and then attacking those trying to help her.
As images of white police officers in gas masks—and some in riot gear—charging at the 100-person crowd marching to vote played out like a scene out of an episode of the civil rights documentary "Eyes on the Prize," volunteers with Down Home North Carolina waited a few blocks over for the influx of voters, but few showed up.
Showing up at Saturday's rally was important to make sure others had a chance to vote, Mitchell said. Unfortunately, many of those present never got the chance.
For two weeks, Down Home North Carolina staff and volunteers focused on creating an atmosphere of joy and safety around voting. Co-founder and co-director Brigid Flaherty recalled seeing drones flying overhead Saturday morning and a mobilization of cop cars nearby. "Any other day that we've been out there for the past two weeks we didn't see any of that," she said.
Flaherty's team not only had safe voter kits including gloves, masks, and alcohol swabs but also snacks and water, and crayons for the kids.
"Our role was to center the voter and keep them safe," she said. But after law enforcement let loose on the crowd, Flaherty's team switched gears to street medic duties, helping people who had been pepper sprayed by police.
"It is no exaggeration that this was 1965 in our face on Saturday," Flaherty said. "The amount of violence that the Graham Police Department and the sheriff used on innocent people who are just trying to march to the polls is abhorrent."
Flaherty said that her group has prioritized poll watching and election protection work because of the state's history of issues with voter intimidation—and that interfering with a group of voters on their way to the only early voting location in the county, on the last day of early voting, serves only one purpose.
"We know that the status quo wants to keep things as they are, and disenfranchisement of Back, brown, and poor voters has always been the name of the game," Flaherty said.
Safety and security is a part of that work.
Law enforcement's justification of the attack on voters and others in attendance based on their failure to immediately disperse after a moment of silence is not a new example of how the law and order mentality is unequally applied to the detriment of those fighting for equity and justice. Similar rationale was used when marchers in Selma, Alabama didn't immediately disperse in what is now known as "Bloody Sunday."
The Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights and the ACLU, as well as the NAACP, have filed a lawsuit on behalf of Justice for the Next Generation and other victims of last week's police brutality. But Saturday's attack on marchers is a part of a longer battle in Graham around dismantling the remaining strains of white supremacy flowing in the city and surrounding county. Marchers gathered in the Graham town square, home to a confederate monument and site of the lynching of Wyatt Outlaw, the town's first Black commissioner.
The Alamance County sheriff has a history of racial profiling and targeting and antagonizing organizers and protesters. Andy Kroll recently wrote about Alamance County's racist history and clashes with white supremacist for the Rolling Stone.
Keeping communities safe is a year-round investment of dedication and commitment. On Tuesday, many of that same group of voters completed their march to the polls yet again, to ensure those previously denied the opportunity to vote could cast their ballot. Recognizing the importance of the moment, Mitchell says that people cannot be silent or intimidated.
"I hope that they see that we don't give up and you can't be quiet," said Mitchell. "[We] have to keep showing up … stay focused on your purpose message.
Down Home North Carolina focuses on building a multiracial, working class organization across rural North Carolina. They launched in 2017 after the group held a listening canvas across Alamance County.
Collective organizing and shared vision is important as communities like Graham work through this most recent incident. "This isn't just about Trump voters doing convoys," said Flaherty. "We're still battling with local law enforcement and police departments that are the ones who are actually stopping voters from voting."
People for Change and statewide organizations like Down Home North Carolina offer an opportunity to challenge and overcome violence from the state in all its forms—including voter suppression and intimidation. Both organizations differ from traditional outreach efforts, prioritizing personal conversations and trusted relationships with established community members in order to move people to action. This work occurs year-round, building on the lessons learned from prior election cycles.
According to Flaherty, community safety needs to be built into the framework of electoral organizing in a way that prioritizes justice on the ballot by winning down-ballot races like sheriffs and district attorneys, so that situations like this do not have the grounds to continue.
"In some of these places that we're in, and these rural and small towns, they are the main people stopping folks from voting," Flaherty said. "It's on my mind. [And] it's a connection that I saw happen over this weekend."