If you walked into the Durham City Council meeting Monday night the first thing you likely noticed were not the elected officials or 13 members of the New Black Panther Party, it was the little girls.
Ten Girl Scout troops packed themselves into the chambers. Some scouts sat on the floor and others two to a chair to hear March 11 designated the start of Girl Scout Week in Durham.
So it goes at City Council meetings, where topics celebratory and serious rub shoulders, taking observers on a roller coaster of experiences that are inspiring, friendly, somber and, at times, deeply contentious.
In addition to honoring the scouts, Mayor Steve Schewel celebrated recently retired U.S. Circuit Judge Allyson Duncan, Council member Vernetta Alston read a declaration celebrating Women’s History Month, and former Mayor Bell bid farewell to city attorney Patrick Baker.
The tone grew more heated when Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton lamented Duke’s recent refusal to donate a tract of land to the Durham-Orange Light Rail project. It became both somber and angry after Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis presented the city’s 2018 crime report.
“I would like to turn this over to our City Council Girl Scouts,” Schewel said when honoring the gathered Brownie, Junior and Cadette scouts, beckoning Council members Alston, DeDreana Freeman and Jillian Johnson forward.
“You can see in my City Council colleagues what good leadership the Girl Scouts develop. That’s proof right there,” he said.
In keeping with the female empowerment theme, Schewel celebrated Judge Allyson Duncan, a Durham native who recently retired from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Duncan was the first African-American woman to serve on the N.C. Court of Appeals and the first African-American president of the North Carolina Bar Association.
Alston read the Schewel’s declaration marking March as Women’s History Month in Durham, noting that women have had to fight to secure their own rights of suffrage and equal opportunity yet still contributed to business, government, medicine, social justice and more.
Schewel and former Mayor Bill Bell praised Baker, who is leaving Durham to become city attorney of Charlotte. Then Schewel opened the floor to Council members to make public statements.
Middleton jumped in to criticize Duke University’s decision to decline to sign the cooperative agreement with GoTriangle and voluntarily give land to the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project. Middleton suggested eminent domain could be a viable next step to surpass a hurdle that could stop the project.
“I was raised in a community where elders gathered youth at their feet and regaled us with stories of young boys who faced giants, and young girls who went to see kings unannounced. We learned of stories of people, ordinary men and women, who faced down not one wealthy institution, but a nation, an entire legal system, an entire economy that said we were less than,” said Middleton.
He ended his critique of Duke with a joke.
“So I apologize if I have not shown the appropriate amount of deference or fear and trembling in the face of a wealthy institution. I get it from my mama,” he said.
The most tense stretches came after Davis gave presented the 2018 “crime and police measures report”.
Davis reported a decrease in violent and property crime by 13 and 6 percent respectively. Robberies, aggravated assault, burglaries and larcenies all decreased. She also noted efforts by the department to decrease domestic violence such as Safe Spaces in which businesses identify themselves as places offering refuge.
Miguel Stayton, uncle of slain North Carolina Central University student DeAndre Ballard, took aim at Davis and her department for not sharing information regarding his nephew’s death after a security guard shot him in a parking lot of the apartment building where he lived.
Davis said she has been in contact with Ballard’s mother, as department policy dictates. She cannot share information in an investigation unless the primary family contact of the deceased explicitly permits or requests is, she stressed.
“Those individuals are not here tonight. Those individuals do not want to be here tonight. We have been in constant contact with them,” Davis continued, “We trust that individuals that are related are provided the information that the father or mother wants them to know.”
Resident Victoria Peterson, dressed in red head to toe, criticized Davis’ report saying it did not adequately break down where reductions in crime have occurred.
“Crime is still running rampant in the Black community and we have all these African-Americans sitting on the City Council and one Hispanic,” said Peterson, saying the city must increase patrols in her area near Alston and Ridgeway avenues and add 20 additional officers.
Emom Akbar took the podium with 11 members of the New Black Panther Party behind him. He encouraged peace and respect between community members and the police department, which he accused of neglecting Black residents.
Expect these conversations to continue. City Council grapples with the complexity that is the Bull City at 7 pm on the first and third Mondays of each month.
(Photo at top by Pierre Stephan Barbee-Saunders)