Members of the march said they were listening to speeches about racial justice and the importance of voting when officers began to yell at them to disperse.
The officers then began firing the spray, according to witnesses. “All the marchers were doing was listening to the lady talk,” said Christopher McCauley, who participated in the event.
In a statement released late Saturday afternoon, Graham police said they made eight arrests. The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for information about its arrests.
The Rev. Greg Drumwright of nearby Greensboro, N.C., the march’s organizer, said on a Facebook video Saturday evening that he was among those arrested and that he had been released and ordered not to return to Graham for 72 hours.
“We’re shaken. We are tattered. We’re torn,” he said. “There are people that did not vote today because the police released tear gas and pepper spray.”
One man was taken into custody after an officer told him to move off the sidewalk.
“Is that why you are going to arrest me — because I’m Black?” he shouted. The officer cuffed him and led him away as activists, watching from across the street, chanted, “Let him go” and “What did he do?”
Kyesha Willis of Burlington, her mother, Angela Willis, and her 3-year-old son were all at the march and were sprayed. Kyesha Willis said her family had gotten to the monument 10 minutes before police started trying to disperse the crowd.
“I heard people screaming, ‘You can’t be in the road,’ but I wasn’t in the road,” she said. “We walked further and further away but it kept coming at us.” She said she vomited and tried to cover her son’s face.
Supporters of the Confederate memorial watched from outdoor tables at a soda shop on the court square.
One man shouted, “Get off the streets!” A truck with three Trump 2020 flags drove slowly around the courthouse during the rally.
The Graham Police Department said that traffic near the courthouse had backed up when marchers paused quietly at the monument to mark the length of time a police officer kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck after arresting him on a street in Minneapolis.
“The assembly reached a level of conduct that led to the rally being deemed unsafe and unlawful by unified command,” the statement said.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat up for reelection, called the incident “unacceptable.”
“Peaceful demonstrators should be able to have their voices heard and voter intimidation in any form cannot be tolerated,” Cooper tweeted.
The march was organized by Drumwright, who planned to lead the group from a Black church to an early-voting site. Participants included relatives of Floyd and the parents of Christian Griggs, a Black man killed by his White father-in-law in North Carolina in 2013.
“I’m out here voting for those who cannot vote today: my son, Christian Griggs, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin and all those others who have died at the hands of police or have had their lives impacted by an injustice,” said Griggs’s mother, Dolly.
The crowd invoked the name of Wyatt Outlaw, a Black town commissioner who in 1870 was kidnapped from his Graham home by the Ku Klux Klan and lynched outside the courthouse, not far from the present-day monument.