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In annual address, mayor pleads for community action on gun violence

Mayor Elaine O’Neal presented a vibrant snapshot of the Bull City in her “State of the City” address Monday, even while lamenting the city’s wave of gun violence. 

O’Neal noted that in the city’s most recent resident satisfaction survey, 82% of residents felt Durham was an excellent place to live. In the same survey, 78% responded that Durham was an excellent or good place to work. “Now, that’s clap-worthy right there,” the mayor said. The crowd promptly applauded.

There were other clap-worthy moments. O’Neal touted a federal grant of over $10 million disbursed to Durham through the recently signed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which will fund public transit upgrades. She also announced that four affordable housing projects currently under consideration could bring 400 units to the Bull City. The city has also made strides towards supporting more small and minority-owned businesses, and through its YouthWorks program, has connected over 700 young people with local internships and jobs.

“Business partners, these bright lights represent your future and our future workforce. Please, this summer, summer’s coming, give them the opportunity to realize their career goals, and you, too, will reap the benefits of a skilled talent pipeline that guarantees our success,” she said.

Yet O’Neal devoted much of the speech to addressing Durham’s struggle with gun violence. The issue carried particular weight in the wake of multiple shootings in the past week. Some 18 juveniles have been shot in Durham this year.

“I have to acknowledge the senseless violence that continues to plague our city and cities all across this great nation. Each person taken away from our community continues to tear holes in the very fabric of who we are,” O’Neal said. City Hall fell still as attendees observed a moment of silence. 

The mayor stressed the urgency of addressing the root causes of violence, including poverty, and praised the work of violence prevention groups such as Bull City United. She also highlighted the city’s new crisis response pilot, known as HEART. By embedding mental health clinicians into Durham’s 911 call center and deploying unarmed crisis responders to respond to calls, this model emphasizes a nonviolent approach to reducing crime.

O’Neal also touched on Durham’s ongoing battle against housing insecurity, highlighting the work of a 12-member task force that is examining barriers to housing in the Bull City. Results should be announced by the end of the year, she said before returning to the city’s most pressing issue. 

As she recounted a family member’s brush with gun violence the day before, O’Neal pleaded: “Let’s not let anyone else’s child have to die on the streets of Durham, North Carolina.”

“We have to figure out why our young people are killing each other and we’re gonna have to take ownership of that,” O’Neal said. “You cannot be afraid of the streets of Durham.” 

She implored Durhamites watching the address to take on active roles in their communities.

“You all have to help us…You cannot expect your government to do it all. And a lot of times we are reacting to an incident. It has to come from our neighbors and from within the communities,” she said. “So I encourage you tonight to think about how you are going to help make these streets of Durham safe for all of us to live, work and play. Bull City strong, everybody.” 

Above: Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal in a past appearance at Duke University. File photo by Josie Vonk — The 9th Street Journal