‘The whole story’: Trial begins for NC pastor who led voter march that was pepper-sprayed

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Greensboro pastor Gregory Drumwright sat at the defense table in Courtroom B of Alamance County’s criminal courthouse on Wednesday flanked by some of the nation’s highest-profile lawyers.

He faced three misdemeanor charges — resisting, delaying or obstructing a law enforcement officer; public disturbance; and failure to disperse on command. They all stem from an Oct. 31 march to the polls that made headlines worldwide when law enforcement released waves of pepper fog, sending a woman in a motor scooter into an apparent seizure and young children into fits of coughing and vomiting.

The day’s events prompted two federal civil lawsuits and brought intense scrutiny to law enforcement agencies in Alamance County, which largely serves as a bedroom community for cities in the Triad and the Triangle. In May, The News & Observer and ProPublica published an investigation and a documentary about how Court Square in Graham became the site of one of most persistent Black Lives Matter protest movements in the country.

When Ben Crump, an attorney for the family of George Floyd and many others killed by police and memorialized in the past year’s racial justice protests, walked into the courtroom Wednesday, Judge Lunsford Long addressed him right away.

“I think I recognize you from the national news,” Long said. “You’re Mr. Crump, aren’t you?”

Attorney Ben Crump, who represents the families of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and has now joined Rev. Greg Drumwright’s legal team, concludes a news conference outside the J.B. Allen Jr. Criminal Courthouse in Graham, N.C. on Wednesday, December 2, 2020.
Attorney Ben Crump, who represents the families of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and has now joined Rev. Greg Drumwright’s legal team, concludes a news conference outside the J.B. Allen Jr. Criminal Courthouse in Graham, N.C. on Wednesday, December 2, 2020.

Joining Crump at the defense table was Christopher Knight, an attorney at the Chicago law firm Mayer Brown; Elizabeth Haddix, a veteran civil rights attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; and Jason Keith, a criminal defense attorney based in Greensboro.

Not a typical day in court

The unmistakable display of legal firepower was not the only thing that distinguished the day’s proceedings from a typical Wednesday in Courtroom B, which for months has been the setting of protest-related trials. Dozens of demonstrators have been arrested during the marches, vigils and other events held by Black Lives Matter organizers in Graham since Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. For more than a month last year, protest in the town was effectively banned, leading to a legal challenge in which Drumwright was one of the named plaintiffs.

During many of the trials, law enforcement officers huddled together near the side of the courtroom, conferring in whispers. This week, however, the judge instructed witnesses not to talk to others about their testimony and prospective witnesses were not permitted to stay in the room.

The presence of Tony Biller, a private attorney representing Graham in protest-related matters, and Sheriff Terry Johnson’s chief deputy, Cliff Parker, in the viewing gallery further illustrated that the stakes in this case went far beyond the consequences for a run-of-the-mill misdemeanor. Major public spending, political careers and a community’s sense of itself was on the line.

The opening statements highlighted the dueling narratives that have riven the town.

Prosecutor Kevin Harrison told the judge to expect to hear testimony about a violation of a county-issued permit that prohibited gas-powered generators and “at minimum interference” in law enforcement officers’ duties. “At worst, I think you will hear testimony that the defendant assaulted law enforcement,” Harrison said, adding that he would not be proceeding on that charge Wednesday.

The Alamance County District Attorney’s Office failed to secure a grand jury’s indictment of Drumwright on a felony charge of assault on a law enforcement officer, and it chose to drop an earlier charge of felony obstruction of justice based on a change in case law.

Keith said in the opening statement for Drumwright’s defense, “We’re coming to give you the whole story of what happened on Oct. 31.” He pointed to a racial climate that nearly prevented the march from taking place at all.

Several sheriff’s deputies took the witness stand, fielding questions about how they planned for the Oct. 31 event and what happened after Drumwright led marchers, including two of Floyd’s relatives, up Main Street for a moment of silence in honor of Floyd in front of Alamance County’s Historic Courthouse.

Sequence of events

Harrison’s questions prompted deputies to state that their actions were not calculated to violate Drumwright’s free speech rights and were in line with routine practic. Defense attorneys sought to highlight that Drumwright was leading a march to the polls and that the march’s participants were prevented from exercising their fundamental rights as Americans.

Keith repeatedly contrasted deputies’ characterization of a sequence of events at the foot of the historic courthouse steps with drone video.

The footage showed a line of deputies leaving the courthouse and approaching a generator in a purple cloth wagon to the side of the stage on which Drumwright stood holding a microphone. Deputy Chad Martin’s move to seize the generator precipitated a scuffle. Corporal Barbara Tomey ended up on the ground. She and others deployed pepper spray and pepper fog.

Why and exactly how each of those things happened has been in dispute in court and public statements for months.

Martin faced a battery of questions from Keith after he said in court that Drumwright grabbed his arm. Martin didn’t mention that in the report he composed about the events of the day.

“You didn’t think that was worth noting?” Keith asked the deputy. “Is this your only report?”

Keith played and replayed video footage that showed Martin’s hand on Tomey’s shoulder. Cords, gravel and a curb were visible underfoot.

“Isn’t it true that Officer Tomey tripped over that cord?” he asked. “Is it possible you pushed her?”

Later, the judge asked Keith, “Your suggestion is that she was walking backward and tripped over the curb?”

“Your honor, I’m suggesting that the state has to prove ...” Keith said. Then he paused. “But yes.”

“That’s what it looks like to me,” Long responded.

Keith subsequently used the same footage to probe a different deputy’s assertion that the crowd aggressively advanced on them after the scuffle around the generator.

He asked Deputy Daniel Nichols to indicate where he saw that happening.

Nichols conceded that the footage did not show anyone moving toward them after deputies began to move away from the audio equipment.

After the day’s testimony, defense attorneys held a press conference at which they highlighted the importance of video evidence for illuminating truths.

‘A video is worth a billion’

“If a picture is worth a thousand words,” Crump said, “than a video is worth a billion.”

“Release the tapes” has become a rallying cry among Graham’s Black Lives Matter activists since it became clear in early July that local law enforcement agencies would not release their full footage from Oct. 31 anytime soon.

A judge ordered its release in response to a petition from a coalition of news organizations, including The News & Observer.

But Graham appealed the order and asked that no footage be turned over until the Court of Appeals can take up the case.

Drumwright’s trial will continue for at least one more day of testimony, now slated for Sept. 8.

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