A police officer grabbed the camera of News & Observer photojournalist Julia Wall to push her back while she filmed a march to the polls and rally in Graham, North Carolina, on Oct. 31, 2020, according to the outlet and an interview with the journalist.
The “I Am Change” march and rally organized to encourage people to vote in the 2020 general election and included calls for accountability echoing recent protests against racial injustice. The News & Observer reported that approximately 200 demonstrators marched from the Wayman Chapel AME Church to Court Square, where the Alamance County Courthouse and a Confederate monument are located.
The Washington Post reported that once there, participants took part in a moment of silence for George Floyd, a Black man, who died during an arrest in Minneapolis in May.
Moments later, the Graham Police Department ordered the protesters to disperse and began pepper spraying the crowd. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker estimates from multiple news reports that at least 10 journalists, including Wall, were affected by the chemical irritant.
The Graham Police Department said in a statement that it issued multiple orders to relocate or disperse before using crowd control measures.
In a video captured by Wall, a group of demonstrators retreats down the sidewalk, with some visibly affected by the vaporized pepper spray used by police. Officers in yellow vests can be heard shouting, “Let’s move, let’s move!”
An officer in a respirator yells “Go!” as he reaches out his hand, covering Wall’s camera lens multiple times.
“I’m going! Don’t touch my camera!” Wall responds as she continues moving back. “I’m not touching your stuff, don’t touch mine.”
The officer continues walking behind the group for a few more seconds before turning back and rejoining his colleagues.
Wall told the Tracker that she didn’t think the officer was trying to prevent her from filming.
“It felt like he was trying to use my equipment to shove me back,” Wall said. “It’s possible that he didn’t think I was media but I have a whole microphone set up, my camera straps say ‘Canon’ — nothing is disguised in any way to look less journalistic.”
Wall also noted that her press badge was “front and center” that day, as she says it always is when she covers protests.
Police arrested at least 12 individuals at the march, The News & Observer reported, including Alamance News reporter Tomas Murawski. The Tracker documented that arrest here.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper condemned the police response in a tweet that evening.
“Peaceful demonstrators should be able to have their voices heard and voter intimidation in any form cannot be tolerated,” Cooper wrote.
The Graham Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include comment from Julia Wall.