After a week of protests against police killings of black people, Durham activist Skip Gibbs and several other members of the grassroots organization Other America Movement (OAM) met with city officials including Durham Police Chief C. J. Davis, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead and Mayor Steve Schewel.
Gibbs said the two-hour meeting was about getting city officials to offer concrete solutions to address systemic racism, police reform and poverty.
“We’re saying: If you guys end systematic racism, if you guys give us resources in our community so we can have better schools, more grocery stores, better-resourced community centers, then we won’t need police in our neighborhoods because we have everything that we need to be functioning people,” he said.
The meeting, held at event space The Fruit (formerly called Durham Fruit and Produce Company), was closed to representatives from several other community groups who wanted to join the conversation, as well as most members of the press.
OAM organized a protest on Monday that blocked traffic briefly on the Durham Freeway at South Alston Avenue. The group demanded police leaders agree to a conversation to discuss solutions to police violence and poverty.
They succeeded in getting the meeting, but it was invitation-only — a restriction Gibbs said was necessary because of limited space. Tim Walter, owner of The Fruit, told 9th Street Journal only 15 people could attend with proper social distancing. About 15 people waited outside, including reporters and activists from other groups.
At first, OAM livestreamed the talk from its Facebook and Instagram pages. But the organization later shut the livestream down.
Gibbs told reporters and activists he cut the feed because “people have a hard time being honest when there’s cameras around.”
The decision to hold the meeting behind closed doors frustrated several community members who gathered outside on the sidewalk.
Michael Taylor, who formed the community group Restoring The Foundation, said that when residents of public housing complex McDougald Terrace — the majority of whom are black — were displaced earlier this year because of natural gas leaks, they went to a city council meeting and were allowed inside to voice their complaints.
“So, when this happened, the same issues, why is it private now?” he asked.
Andréa “Muffin” Hudson, who serves on the Durham Human Relations Commission and directs the North Carolina Community Bail Fund, arrived about an hour into the meeting. She said she came after receiving a call about community members not being allowed inside.
She expressed her concerns to Gibbs when he came outside to speak with activists.
“When you have community members asking can they come in, community members should never be turned away from anything,” she said. “Anytime you shut the community out and you say you’re speaking for the community, the community will turn on you really fast.”
Hudson said she wanted to tell Sheriff Birkhead that public resources should be given to “community-based organizations” such as community kitchens, rather than the police.
“I want them to defund the police and decarcerate Durham county detention [facility],” she said.
Gibbs said he wanted to take a different approach. “If we try to go in and say, oh we’re just going to defund all the police, it’s not going to work,” he said.
After the meeting ended, Gibbs announced that officials agreed to form a committee so community organizers could have a direct channel to discuss problems they faced and work with officials toward solutions.
Gibbs called for unity among organizers and asked those present to appoint a liaison from their groups.
“What’s going to work is us having a unified, solid voice,” he said. “What’s going to work is expressing peacefully to our government officials what we need.”
But some activists expressed skepticism about the process. Taylor, a longtime acquaintance of Gibbs, asked him about the livestream being shut down while city officials stood in silence.
“You don’t think the dishonesty should have been seen?” Taylor said. “These are people who take our taxpayer dollars.”
After the meeting, Sheriff Birkhead released a statement vowing to listen.
“We stand here, right now, to say we are here to help.” he said. “As Sheriff, I am committed to criminal justice reform. As a fellow Durham resident, I pledge to work together to change the status quo in order to level the playing field for everyone.”
Top photo: Andréa “Muffin” Hudson (right) talks with Skip Gibbs (left) and another OAM organizer during an invitation-only meeting with city officials. Photo by Charlie Zong