Melanie Mitchell says that when the police began pepper spraying the ground near her and her children’s feet, her five-year-old daughter was the first to feel the effect. The young child, terrified, took off running across the road. Mitchell’s 11-year-old daughter felt the effects next. She began crying and vomiting so badly she asked her mother, “Am I going to die?”
Mitchell was furious. She and her children had been taking part in a peaceful march from an AME Church in Graham, North Carolina, to an official Alamance County polling station, where some of the marchers would vote. The Oct. 31 rally, fully permitted, made a planned stop at a Confederate statue in Graham, where the marchers stopped to observe a moment of silence for George Floyd—some of Floyd’s relatives were in attendance. Mitchell says that as the moment of silence was ending, police began ordering people out of the street. She says before the marchers could even respond, police began blasting pepper spray on the ground. Dozens of peaceful marchers—many of them Black and Latinx—were afflicted by the caustic spray, and police also forcibly detained and arrested some of the marchers.
“I feel that it was voter intimidation,” says Mitchell. “There were people who were walking with us who were going to vote. And I was there because I was determined to get them to the polls.” On Monday, the day before the election, Mitchell told Prism that, as a mother of two biracial children, it felt like “our lives literally depend on this election.”
While shocked and terrified for her children, Mitchell says that in some ways she wasn’t surprised by the police’s action. Alamance County has a long history of political violence against Black people: In 1870, Wally Outlaw, the first Black person to be elected town commissioner and constable of Graham, was lynched. White supremacists hung him from an elm tree, which stood just steps away from where Mitchell and her children were pepper sprayed last weekend.
Outlaw’s murder was not an aberration. During the Reconstruction period and the Jim Crow era, the KKK and other white supremacists used terrorism and murder to keep Black politicians from achieving office and to scare Black voters away from the polls. Just 100 years ago in Orange County, Florida, a KKK chapter organized a white mob to attack Black voters who had refused to leave a polling station in the small city of Ocoee. The mob killed as many as 50 Black people, in what became known as the Ocoee Election Day massacre. No one was ever convicted of any of the murders.
Mitchell says that in Alamance County today, this history does not feel like the past. The current Alamance county sheriff, Terry Johnson, has been accused by many in the county of pursuing a far-right, racist agenda.
And it’s not just activists in the county who have levied that charge. Immigration and Customs Enforcement once canceled a partnership with Johnson’s police department over what ICE called “discriminatory practices.” A lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice (and settled out of court in 2016) accused Johnson’s police department of racial discrimination, finding that Latinx drivers in particular were 4 to 10 times more likely to be pulled over. The DOJ’s investigation also alleged that he had told officers to “go out there and get me some of those taco-eaters.”
As Prism has reported, Johnson fits into a pattern of white sheriffs finding a home among the far right, including with white surpremacist groups. This August, Johnson was photographed with his arm around the shoulders of the leader of a local neo-Confederate group.
Anti-racist advocates in Alamance County say it’s critical to understand what happened at Saturday’s march on a continuum with North Carolina’s—and the nation’s—history of white supremacy. In 1870, fear of Black elected officials led to Outlaw’s lynching; today, some in Alamance worry that the presence of multiple Black candidates on the local ballot is what provoked responses from both far-right groups and Johnson’s police officers.
“There has been a groundswell of support for Black candidates, and you can’t divorce that prominence of Black political leaders from what happened,” says Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, the communication director for Down Home North Carolina, an advocacy organization that works to build mutliracial, working class coalitions in rural and small towns in the state.
On the day prior to the election, Mitchell told Prism that, while she believes the police’s actions were attempted voter suppression, it would not deter her from helping her community get out the vote.
“I work a full-time job, and I’m raising two kids, but I’m still out protesting because I think it’s that important,” she says. “Alamance County needs to be put on the map like it was Saturday because the racism here and unfairness is just ridiculous.”