WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (Reuters) - A 78-year-old white man accused of punching a black protester in the face during a rally in North Carolina for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been arrested on an assault charge, a local sheriff’s office said on Thursday.
Rakeem Jones, 26, was being escorted from the rally on Wednesday night by sheriff’s deputies in Fayetteville when John McGraw hit him, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office said.
Video of the incident recorded by bystanders showed deputies pinning Jones to the ground, prompting social media criticism on why swift action was taken against him instead of his assailant.
“He had no right to put his hands on me,” Jones said in a telephone interview.
McGraw also was charged with disorderly conduct and communicating threats. Detectives added the latter charge after seeing video of McGraw saying he enjoyed hitting “that loudmouth” and threatening next time “to kill him,” the sheriff’s office said.
The office said it would conduct an internal investigation, adding that deputies accompanying Jones did not see the assault.
Sheriff Earl “Moose” Butler called the attack cowardly.
“Regardless of political affiliation, speech, race, national origin, color, gender, bad reputation, prior acts or political demonstration, no other citizen has the right to assault another person or to act in such a way as this defendant did,” Butler said.
Asked about the incident during the Republican debate Thursday night, Trump said he did not condone violence but said that some protesters “are bad dudes.”
Trump’s campaign rallies are boisterous, with the billionaire businessman often pausing to scold protesters and ask security officers to take them away. At a rally last month in Nevada, he said of a protester: “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
Trump is the front-runner to be his party’s nominee for the Nov. 8 presidential election.
His hour-long speech in the packed North Carolina arena was interrupted at least 16 times, according to a Reuters reporter who attended.
A friend of Jones, Ronnie C. Rouse, said they attended the event to observe, not protest, and were told to leave after an exchange with another man who Rouse said used a racial slur.
Jones, who works for an inventory company and as a tutor, said the punch came out of nowhere.
“The whole arena cheered as I was being escorted out and even more so after I got hit,” he said, adding his right eye was swollen and bruised.
Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Frances Kerry, Peter Cooney and Leslie Adler