Updated as of Feb. 10, 2023 at 12:20 p.m. to include additional information from attorney Jamie Paulen.
Hundreds of names are etched into the lifeless, marble stone of the Alamance County War Memorial. “This memorial is dedicated to the honor of all the brave men and women of Alamance County who fought in service to their country and in memory of those inscribed here who died in defense of their freedom.”
If it hadn’t been overcast Thursday, those words would have been in the Rev. Gregory Drumwright’s shadow as he urged the Alamance County district attorney to drop all outstanding charges against individuals arrested at the Oct. 31, 2020 “I Am Change” march to the polls. Just three days after he was found not guilty for “resisting a public officer” at the October 2020 protest, and six days after his “failure to disperse” charge was dismissed, 19 individuals stood in front of the memorial as Drumwright demanded justice for the vocal minority who put their lives at risk for change and equality.
“I want to encourage all of the organizing bodies and the brave people who have put their bodies on the line for the last three years to keep up the pressure and keep up the fight,” Drumwright said. “We are here standing up for the fact that Black lives still don’t matter to law enforcement here in Alamance County.”
Drumwright held a press conference alongside lawyers, defendants and local activists involved with the 2020 protest on Feb. 9 at the Judge J.B Allen Jr. courthouse in Graham. After Drumwright’s acquittal of all charges, attorneys Jason Keith, Heather Rattelade and Jamie Paulen announced the dismissal of the same charges for six other defendants on Feb. 8 who were arrested alongside Drumwright over two years ago.
Of the 23 people arrested and 12 charged with misdemeanors at the 2020 protest, only one defendant still has on-going “failure to disperse” charges.
“We implore Alamance County officials, Alamance County law enforcement, to reflect and reconsider how you police the community — how you police protests. Whether you prosecute peaceful protesters, whether you arrest peaceful protesters, we implore you to take a good hard look at yourself and make some changes for the better,” Rattelade said. “At the end of the day, the power is in the people. And it doesn't matter how many times you arrest them. It doesn't matter how many times you pepper spray them, they will keep telling the truth.”
Drumwright said he reached out to Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson and Graham Police Chief Kristy Cole weeks before the 2020 protest to coordinate his efforts and demonstrate a “good faith gesture for a peaceful event.”
“It didn't matter in Alamance County. The preschool kids that they pepper sprayed did not matter to police in Alamance County. The elderly legacy marchers did not matter to police in Alamance County,” Drumwright said. “The only university here, Elon University college students — peaceful protesters — did not matter to law enforcement in Alamance County.”
In October 2020 — as Elon juniors at the time — Hannah Garcia and Tim Olson were two of the three people arrested during the march who pleaded for a prayer for judgment continued — a ruling unique to North Carolina and available in some misdemeanor cases, allowing a person to plead guilty and ask for mercy from the court. If granted, the offense would not be entered against the person, yet Paulen said that a PJC is the functional equivalent to a conviction.
Drumwright also spoke out against North Carolina House Bill 40, which passed in the House Feb. 8 and would increase penalties for rioting or inciting rioting that “causes damage to property, serious bodily injury, or death and assaulting emergency personnel during a riot or state of emergency.”
“House Bill 40 deems that anyone at a protest for any reason could be considered as rioters, and it could also charge them with a felony. Now, I need to clarify for you all, anyone at any protest,” Drumwright said. “It does not have to be about civil rights. It could be about reproductive rights. It could be a protest about equity. It could be a protest about LGBTQIA rights. It could be a protest about access to educational rights. Any protests for any reason could be charged. Any protester could be charged and deemed a felon.”
When Drumwright received his not guilty verdict, he said he hugged his mother and thanked the Lord before returning his attention to the people who were not yet acquitted.
“Alamance County has a long history and a very deep rooted problem with Black people who stand up for themselves and speak out about what is not right and about the disenfranchisement of their rights here in Graham,” Drumwright said. “The reality is that the charges that I was cleared up, particularly failure to disperse and obstruction of justice, was pinned on more than 12 other peaceful protesters that day. That a court cannot find me not guilty, and not find everybody else guilty of the same charges — Alamance County, you must drop all the charges.”
Despite one moment of victory, Drumwright told Elon News Network there is still work to be done.
“We came together for there to be a peaceful event on Oct. 31,” Drumwright said. “Our reputations and our professional livelihoods has been smeared, and I'm not going to rest until everybody's case is dropped.”