The agenda for Monday’s Durham City Council virtual meeting listed 27 items, but the topic that weighed most heavily on everyone present did not appear by name.
On the screen, five faces stared straight ahead, elected leaders of a city relieved that a weekend of national protests had been peaceful within Durham, but also troubled by the violent confrontations between police and participants in nearby Raleigh and across the country.
Council and community members took turns sharing stories of pain and hope in the wake of the death of George Floyd, transforming a virtual meeting into a space where their collective emotional toll surfaced and was acknowledged.
“I just wanted to say a few words tonight about the experience that we’re having this past week, in our country,” began Jillian Johnson, mayor pro-tem and co-founder of Durham For All, a multiracial political organizing group.
“As a child in the 1980s, my mother warned my younger brother not to play with toy guns so the police wouldn’t think he had a real gun and shoot him,” she said. “Decades later, the only thing that’s really changed is that the ubiquity of phone cameras and live streaming technologies brought the reality of this experience to a new and broader audience.”
Durham needs to come together to push for change as a community, she said, listing what she views as critical problems: an expanding city police budget, racial disparities in traffic stops and a civilian oversight board she said lacked authority to enforce changes in policing practices.
Johnson urged redirecting the city’s spending priorities to community safety approaches “outside of policing,” though she said that “I want to appreciate the work of our police chief C.J. Davis and her staff in avoiding needless conflicts with demonstrators over the last few days.”
Unlike the police response in Raleigh, which used tear gas, rubber bullets, and riot gear in confrontations with protestors over the weekend, Durham officers did not confront people protesting downtown. Instead they closed traffic on nearby streets and kept a distance.
Not that protests were over in Durham. At 2 pm Monday, a group of over 50 people led by local artist Skip Gibbs had blocked Highway 147 near downtown, at South Alston Avenue. The group demanded a meeting with the Durham Police Chief and Durham County Sheriff about preventing police brutality. Within an hour, both public officials had called the organizers and agreed to a meeting on Friday, and the group moved off the highway.
An hour before the council meeting was set to start at 7 pm, a crowd of several hundred, including students and families with children, started assembling in front of the Carolina Theater downtown. The “#DefundThePolice” demonstration, organized by the Durham chapter of Black Youth Project 100, a youth-led group, walked through downtown toward the Durham County Detention Facility. City police followed, closing off streets to traffic around the crowd, which stretched for several blocks.
With a wavering voice, council member DeDreana Freeman explained that she would likely be off camera at points due to her emotions after the killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, which medical examiners have labeled a homicide.
“I do want to uplift just how hard it is to come face to face with this … uninvited mental health trauma,” Freeman said. “There are no words. I can feel it in my bones, I can feel it all throughout my body. The trauma I’m carrying, it’s, it’s just, in my DNA, and it is the reason I do what I do, how I do it.”
Johnson warned about “paramilitaries and provocateurs” potentially entering Durham and other cities to provoke conflicts with the police. Mark-Anthony Middleton, a council member and pastor, urged city residents to be vigilant and to “keep our eyes open for those who don’t really love us, who don’t care about the Floyd family, who don’t share our tears, but are here to co-opt and preempt us.”
“This is Durham,” Middleton added. “We know the difference between a confederate monument and a mom-and-pop store. We don’t need anyone bringing any more bull to the Bull City.”
Council member Charlie Reese pointed to what he said is the foundation of the police violence being protested across the country.
“This is an epidemic that is, of course, the natural outgrowth of America’s original sins of racism and white supremacy,” he said. “It’s the result of a rampaging, out of control flavor of capitalism that enlists police violence as a means to protect private property, all too often punishing small acts like attempted forgery with the death of those alleged to have committed it.”
Council member Javiera Caballero concurred. “We have seen the response in cities across this country due to the militarization of the police. In Durham, we have tried to take a different approach,” Caballero said.
Caballero also praised Police Chief Davis. “She’s done a remarkable job changing the culture of Durham’s police department,” she said.
However, two of the three community members who spoke during the meeting had called in to voice opposition to increasing funding for the police department. Danielle Purifoy spoke on behalf of Durham Beyond Policing, a local network of activists opposed to policing. In opposing a 5% increase in the $70 million budget for the police, she pointed to the costly evacuation of McDougald Terrace, a public housing complex plagued by unsafe conditions, as well as the high number of evictions in Durham and the $9 million budget shortfall the city faces due to the pandemic.
“My question is what else needs to happen for us to prioritize serving people over punishing people?” she said.
After council members spoke, Mayor Steve Schewel commended their “fantastic, fantastic words” and read the North Carolina Mayors’ Statement on the Murder of George Floyd, which he wrote. “The words are important, and we know we need to do the work along with it,” he added.
As the city council meeting stretched on past 8 pm, the #DefundThePolice demonstration had gathered outside the detention facility, chanting up to inmates who knocked on the windows in response. “Same story every time. Being black is not a crime,” they chanted in unison.
In the setting sun, sounds of cheering, yelling, and clapping filled the evening air.
Above: A screenshot of a moment during Durham City Council’s virtual meeting Monday when council member DeDreana Freeman spoke.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Skip Gibbs’ last name.