Sylvester Williams lowers his voice and leans across the booth in the dimly lit basement of Triangle Café. “I’ve had a prophet tell me…” – he pauses – “‘Sylvester, you’re going to be the mayor of Durham.’”
It’s a hopeful prophecy for Williams, who has already run for mayor three times and lost decisively every time. In 2017, he received less than 2% of the vote. And this year, he faces Mayor Steve Schewel, who is expected to win by a large margin.
Why run again? Williams says that as a black man who has spent his entire life in Durham, he understands the plight of the city’s disenfranchised. The black community remains “the face of poverty” in Durham and continues to suffer despite the city’s newfound prosperity.
“Nothing has really changed…the poverty rate hasn’t really changed, the homelessness, affordable housing. Those issues are still at the forefront of life here in the city of Durham.”
Progressive voters would certainly rally behind this call for greater socioeconomic and racial equality. But many of his beliefs would give them pause.
Williams, a former financial analyst and current pastor at The Assembly at Durham Christian Center, represents an anomaly in the liberal city of Durham. As a born-again Christian, he remains faithful to a strict interpretation of scripture that rejects many progressive social mores.
Williams, 64, has come under fire for his staunch opposition to gay marriage, abortion and the teaching of evolution. He has described homosexuality as a path of deviance, argued it is incompatible with Christianity, and linked same-sex marriage to Durham’s crime and gang violence.
Williams insists that he’s not homophobic. He doesn’t hate people in same-sex relationships. They just need “saving.”
“I know that there are some that try to present this false narrative about me… ‘He’s full of hate, he’s homophobic.’ No. There’s nothing hateful that I’ve said, no hateful quotes that I’ve made about anyone, ’cause I realize I’m a son of sin saved by grace too. Had my mistakes, had my issues. I wasn’t always with the Lord Jesus.”
Williams lived a life of “rebellion” prior to turning to Christ. He grew up as the son of a preacher in East Durham but did not devote his life to the “Lord Jesus” until his early 20s.
Since then, Williams has preached living and learning Christ’s word – at least his interpretation of that word. He believes the education system has failed its students by neglecting to include biblical teachings. “Pretty much as I went through the school system, I didn’t hear anything about Christ or God…they brainwashed a whole generation of people believing that there’s no truth to the Christian faith.”
He describes the Bible as a matter of “fact” rather than “faith,” and doesn’t want students to learn about evolution. “There was no science behind it,” he says. “Evolution teaches you one race evolved more than the other race.”
He’s just as fervent when it comes to discussing the issue of abortion. Williams says he would support the Trump administration if the president were to come “at us saying he supports ending abortions.”
While Schewel has a Wikipedia page and a robust website outlining his stances on the issues, Williams primarily runs his campaign through his personal Facebook page.
Still, Williams says that he’s in touch with Durham. “I believe that my message has resonated…a lot of the candidates are just there for PR, they’re not really invested in the community.”
When you walk into the square gray box that is the Durham County courthouse, you find yourself in a sterile administrative wasteland of brownish stone walls and cold hard floors. You can feel like you’re in trouble even if you’re just there to visit.
But on the eighth floor, in an office nestled in the back, there is a speck of color on Satana Deberry’s feet – bright red Chuck Taylor high-tops. Before she goes to work as Durham County’s district attorney, she laces up those sneakers to complement her pantsuit and her silver hoop earrings.
Satana Deberry does not resemble the district attorneys you see on crime shows or in most cities. She can be stern and serious when the occasion demands it, but she laughs a lot – so much that her staff tracks her location by the volume of her laugh echoing through the halls. (She’s been a stand-up comedian.)
In addition to being a woman of color in a field where 95 percent of elected prosecutors are white and 76 percent are men, Deberry has a unique way of looking at justice. She is the antithesis of the Harvey Dent-style white knight of Gotham City, intent on locking up all the bad guys. She is part of a national movement of new district attorneys working to address mass incarceration and disparities in the justice system by being more deliberate about prosecutions.
With her policies, persona, and personnel changes – she says there’s been a 50 percent turnover in her office since she arrived – Deberry is challenging the status quo. That makes some people uncomfortable, but she is accustomed to that.
She is a queer single mother of three whose birth certificate categorizes her as “negro” and whose great-great-grandmother was enslaved just two hours southeast of Durham in Anson County. She graduated from Princeton and then from Duke Law School. She has never fit neatly into the box of others’ expectations.
The end game is not convictions, the end game is justice
Prosecutors – the real ones as well as the fictional ones like Harvey Dent – often see their work as good versus evil. But Deberry says it’s more complex and she sees people carrying the weight of their experiences when they walk into the courthouse.
That’s a shift in the script for district attorneys, who often vilify criminals in their campaign ads and boast about high conviction rates.
The “tough on crime” era, beginning in the 1980s with policies such as mandatory minimum sentences and truth in sentencing laws, packed the nation’s prisons. The number of people incarcerated has quintupled in the past 40 years, giving the United States the highest rate in the world, with black people incarcerated at more than five-times the rate of white people.
Prosecutors have tremendous power – not just about which cases to pursue, but what the outcome should be. Through plea bargains and sentencing, they have immense control over people’s futures. Deberry looks at her job holistically. “I’m not the police, and there are not many prosecutors offices who will say that,” she said. “My job is to get to the truth.”
She emphasizes that the prosecutor represents the commonwealth. That includes the victim, but it also includes the community and the defendant.
Deberry said she will focus her office’s resources on prosecuting homicide and violent felonies instead of low-level crimes like marijuana possession for personal use. She also implemented a pretrial release policy that enables people to get out of jail on a written promise to appear in court – limiting the use of cash bail – which has led to a 12 percent decrease in the jail population.
“There are a couple of ways you can do this job,” Deberry said, noting that her approach is more difficult. “It’s a lot easier to be tough on crime because you don’t have to think about your impact on people’s lives or on the community. That makes it easier to do the work and it leaves it on your desk… it’s harder to look at each individual case and look at each defendant as a human being.”
Occasionally you can see glimpses of how she has challenged courthouse norms.
During homicide status day – which occurs four times a year to give the judge an update on all of the pending homicide cases – Deberry asked a court deputy to retrieve a defendant from jail so he could hear an update on his case. The deputy refused, arguing that it would cause too much chaos in the courtroom. He said they never brought defendants under the former district attorney. Deberry tensed up, frustrated that he would challenge her authority in open court.
After a lot of back and forth, she eventually got her way. But Deberry was not happy.
“Corporal!” She shouted as he was stepping onto the elevator. When he turned around, she looked him in the eye and said,“When I request a defendant, the defendant comes.”
“It is important that a defendant be present for a hearing pertaining to his rights,” she added.
He replied that he was only doing his job to avoid a disruption and that he reports to the sheriff, not her.
“I absolutely respect what you do in there in terms of safety and security,” Deberry said. “But we need to come to an understanding about who is in charge of that courtroom. When I am standing outside on the steps of the courthouse, I defer to the sheriff. But inside the courtroom, I have the final say as the elected district attorney.”
Back in her office, she told her prosecutors about the incident. “I am slow to offend,” she said while leaning on the door frame, but this had irked her.
Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, an assistant district attorney, agreed with her boss and said that she thinks all defendants should be present for homicide status day. “Otherwise they won’t see the light of a courtroom for like two years,” she said.
Deberry said policies have been easier to change than attitudes. “The interaction with the bailiff today shows that the culture in the courtroom hasn’t changed as much as it should have.”
The 50% turnover in her legal team gave Deberry an opportunity to shift the focus in her office. Most of her hires had been defense attorneys or worked in academia, which Deberry says has brought fresh perspectives.
Not everyone believes her new hires have what it takes.
“Frankly, almost everyone with experience has left,” said Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry for district attorney in the 2018 primary. “You need people who actually know the system.”
But Deberry says their experience outside the role of prosecutor is precisely what equips them to implement her reforms.
For example, she hired Beth Hopkins Thomas, former juvenile defense attorney and school teacher, to handle all juvenile cases, from low-level nonviolent crimes to homicide.
Together she and Deberry made the decision to stop taking court referrals for school based-incidents because they believe that students’ behavioral challenges are better handled by educators. Kids who are exposed to the criminal justice system often grow into adults who stay in the criminal justice system.
“I was a teacher before I went to law school and I watched that pipeline stem from my school,” Hopkins Thomas said. “Having the ability to say we are not going to be participating in this pipeline is very empowering.”
Meier said that Deberry’s hires, many of whom come from social justice backgrounds, don’t have the right stomach for prosecuting criminals. He pointed to Alyson Grine — a prosecutor for homicide and violent crimes — as an example. “She went from a liberal position – reform the system, fight racial bias – to having to send people to prison for the rest of their lives.”
Deberry said the heavy caseload can quickly tempt her new hires to be more prosecutorial than they expected, so they are constantly having conversations to ask themselves “not only can we prosecute this, but should we?”
“We see horrible things. It is natural as a human being to respond to those.” She said even if the crime is nonviolent, the desire for retribution is often a natural reflex. “And so we really just want to always be double checking ourselves and saying, is our response getting to the truth? Is it fair? Is it just?”
A national movement
Deberry is part of a new movement of progressive prosecutors. They come together frequently through an organization called Fair and Just Prosecution that is trying to redefine the role of district attorneys.
Members have traveled to Germany and Portugal to compare other countries’ approaches to justice. “The number one thing I learned from both of those places — that I already knew but is driven home when you go somewhere else — is how punitive we are in the United States,” Deberry said. “We really like to punish people and we think of that almost as a virtue.”
Deberry is particularly close to Rachael Rollins, the district attorney from Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes Boston. Rollins took office the day before Deberry and the two have a lot in common.
“Particularly the black female DAs, we have a text chain we are all in. We like to remain in contact with each other. If somebody has a particularly terrible day, we are there for each other, which is really nice,” Rollins said.
As a woman of color from the rural South, Deberry faced countless obstacles to get where she is today. In high school when she interviewed for a prestigious scholarship at the University of Chapel Hill, she was accused of plagiarizing her essay by one of the committee members. “He just could not believe that a black kid from Hamlet could have written it.”
“I thought I was growing up in an America where I could do anything, but really there were other people making these decisions about what schools I got to go to, and what classes I got to take, even what schools I applied to.” When she decided to apply to Princeton, she got a lot of pushback from guidance counselors and teachers. “There was a lot of discouragement because they thought I was doing something that was ‘above my raisin’.’’’
Both Rollins and Deberry also have family members who have been involved with the justice system. After law school and some time practicing in D.C., Deberry returned to her hometown of Hamlet, North Carolina, and she was asked to defend her cousin who was charged with murder.
“I saw people who I had grown up with involved in the criminal justice system, many of whom had never left and did not finish high school,” Deberry said. “I also saw how, in a community that was not majority black, the criminal justice system is almost entirely black.”
Those experiences are why Deberry balks at comments from Meier, who says she “has a fundamental lack of understanding of the system,” and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, who says that the work of progressive prosecutors is “demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety.”
“I would say in response to that, they are the ones who don’t understand the role of the prosecutor,” Deberry said.
“I think we understand fully what the discretion of prosecutors has wrought in this country. There was nothing wrong with the discretion of the prosecutor for the hundreds of years in which it was used to marginalize and criminalize people. Now all of a sudden, because people who look like me have that discretion, they want to paint it as illegitimate.”
She makes a similar point when she introduces herself in speeches:
“I am Satana Deberry,” she says. “I am the district attorney of the 16th prosecutorial district… I tell you my name, not because you don’t know it. I tell you my name because every day in this country and this community there are people who go nameless. People who have been failed by one system after another. People who often look like me.”
Update: This story has been corrected with details about Deberry’s office, her Chucks and the role of prosecutor Alyson Grine.
The record-keeping system at the Durham courthouse is a glimpse back in time.
A large room in the Durham clerk’s office has drawers full of tightly rolled ribbons of film. An assistant clerk feeds a strip of “microfilm” into an old-fashioned grey machine and turns a knob. The black and white screen shows court records from as recently as twelve years ago.
A few steps over, there are stacks of large judgment books, bound in canvas and leather. Inside the books, in carefully crafted cursive, live the names of defendants and plaintiffs alongside their verdicts from cases until 2007.
The clerk’s office is like a museum of record-keeping from the 1900s, with systems and documents that are reminiscent of generations past. Durham is typical of the rest of the state. It is still reliant on ancient computers and cardboard boxes stuffed with files.
But officials say help is on the way. A new initiative will bring a new electronic records system to Durham and other North Carolina courts over the next five years.
Mending a “Patchwork Quilt”
Archie Smith, the clerk for Durham Superior Court, says the state’s courthouses have been relying on a “patchwork quilt” of technology that “began to show its age.”
In 2015, the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court studied the needs of courts throughout the state. One of the top priorities was technology.
As a result, the Administrative Office of the Courts signed a contract in July with Tyler Technologies, a Texas software company, to move North Carolina to a modernized system using their Odyssey case management tool.
Christopher Mears, a spokesperson for the state office of the courts, said the specifics are still being ironed out.
“We ultimately are paving the way for a virtual courthouse,” he said in an email.
When it’s finished, Durham and other counties will get modern integrated systems so clerks can manage documents, keep track of finances, and help lawyers file their motions online.
The project is expected to roll to a few pilot counties by March 2021.
“From Murphy to Manteo, everyone will be on the same system,” Smith said.
Frozen in Time
Today, clerks are surprisingly dependent on paper and outdated technologies. Consider the situation in Durham’s District Court, which relies on antique-looking monochrome computers and envelopes known as “shucks.”
The District Court clerk’s office first receives law enforcement agencies’ records, which are often adorned with hasty, illegible scrawl.
Clerks then stuff these documents in color-coded shucks: grey for infractions, brown for traffic violations, white for criminal cases, and yellow for DWIs.
An assistant clerk sits in front of a green and black screen, reminiscent of arcade games like “Space Invaders” from the age before color displays. She manually transfers each case’s details the court’s electronic database.
Then, the shucks are moved to cardboard boxes, which fill a narrow room up to the ceiling.
Sometimes, the documents are scanned and put onto CDs. The woman who scans them dips her hands in a pink tub of fingertip moistener, used by archivists who sort through thousands of parchments daily, so she can better grip the paper.
The difficulty in finding an old case depends on how it was archived. If someone requests a file from the late 1900s, staff must leaf through the aged pages of the leather-bound judgement books or hand-spin the microfilm tapes on a machine that bears a striking resemblance to the first television.
Court records are like time capsules, since documents remain in the format they were originally stored, Williams said.
“Helping People at the Lowest Points in their Lives”
The goal of the new system: make the court more efficient.
“I expect that we’ll be completely electronic, other than scratch paper that you’d write notes to yourself,” Smith said. After all, North Carolina courts are running out of space to keep paper files.
Electronic records sound promising. William Sheppard, Chief Deputy of the Dekalb County Clerk of Superior Court in Georgia, oversaw the county’s successful transition to the Odyssey Case Management software in 2016.
He says the system has saved time for the county’s staff and clients. Financial processing that once took two weeks is now complete within a day.
But paper hasn’t disappeared from the courthouse.
“We call it paper on-demand,” Sheppard said. It is still available, but they try to avoid print where possible.
Blair Williams, Wake County’s Superior Court clerk, says he wants the technology to help humanize the court system.
“I want to eliminate the keystrokes because they keep us from doing what we do best: helping people at the lowest points in their lives,” he said.
“It Can’t Tell the Story that the Paper Can”
Williams says it won’t be easy to get court staffers throughout the state to give up their familiar procedures. .
And others are wary about depending on technology. Lynn Vaughan, an assistant clerk of courts in Durham, said,
“The computer system might be great, but it can’t tell the story that the paper can.”
These issues may stem from problems with the Odyssey software, including incompatibility with prior electronic systems or data-entry backlogs that delay cases from getting updated.
Jennifer Kepler, a spokesperson for Tyler Technologies, defends the software. She said that
budget deficits in Alameda accounted for the county’s premature adoption of Odyssey, against Tyler’s recommendation. In Shelby and Marion, Odyssey was being blamed for issues caused by other court technologies, she said.
Today, Kepler says the three counties are “satisfied clients,” with Shelby and Alameda counties winning 2019 Tyler Excellence Awards for their innovative use of the software.
However, possible difficulties with the technology remain on North Carolina’s radar.
“If there’s a failure in the system, the injury to the courthouse process would be colossal in scope,” Smith said. “As cumbersome as the old system was, there was a certain amount of security in that warm fuzzy blanket of paper.” Smith said.
Despite those reports, Smith and Williams agree that the computerized system will be an important step forward.
“North Carolina is blazing a path for the courts of the nation.” Smith said.
But chucking the shucks? That might take a generation on its own.
In photo at top, shucks for District Court cases are stored in cardboard boxes. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad
Adam Merritt caught a ride home from work and pulled up to find his house full of cops. Someone had tried to break into the house and shot Merritt’s roommate.
The police told Merritt that his roommate had just left in an ambulance. Merritt wanted to meet him at the hospital, but he couldn’t. His ride already left and his license was suspended.
“They wouldn’t let me in my house, and I didn’t have money for an Uber. I was just cold standing outside with nowhere to go,” Merritt said.
Over a year later, his roommate has made a full recovery. But Merritt still looks back on how frustrating it was to be stuck in front of his house that day. “That was probably the peak point of how not having a license was just awful,” he said.
Merritt’s license was suspended because he never paid a speeding ticket from 2014. He was 19 years old at the time and he got two tickets in the span of a couple months. After going to court once, he thought he had resolved both charges. Three years later, he was pulled over for driving without a seatbelt and found out that he still had an outstanding charge.
According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, roughly one in five adults in Durham County had a suspended or revoked driver’s license in 2018. Almost 80 percent were people of color.
Now Merritt is one of nearly 40,000 people eligible to get their licenses back. The Durham Expunction and Restoration Program was launched a year ago by the city’s Innovation Team, which collaborates with academia, community organizations, and the private sector to research and address social issues in Durham. The “R” of DEAR — license restoration — began under former District Attorney Roger Echols and continued after Satana Deberry unseated him in the 2018 election.
Each charge or conviction revisited must be at least two years old and cannot include high-risk traffic charges, such as DWI or speeding in a school zone. The average case is more than 16 years old.
“I feel like we owe Roger Echols a lot for initiating this, but DA Deberry has been an amazing champion,” said Ryan Smith, project manager of the Durham Innovation Team. “If anything, DA Deberry has leaned more into it.”
Deberry explained that not having a license in a place like Durham is a big deal, especially because the city lacks a reliable public transportation system. “If you can’t drive, you can’t go to work, you can’t take your kids to school,” she said.
After a Durham driver gets a traffic ticket, they receive a court date where they have the opportunity to dispute or ask to reduce their charge. But the fee for appearing in traffic court — not including the traffic fine itself — is up to $188.
“What happens when poor people get tickets they cannot pay? You either don’t show up because you can’t afford it, or you show up and you get hit with the fines and fees and you don’t pay it,” Deberry said. Either option would result in a suspended license.
Since the program started last December, Deberry has been celebrating what she calls the “Year of Jubilee,” meaning a time of forgiveness. In a speech she gave at Duke Law School, she said that DEAR is the most successful initiative that she has ever been a part of.
With the help of a local nonprofit called Code the Dream, DEAR created a website to let people know whether they have benefitted from the mass relief program. Anyone can type in their name and birthday to see if their traffic charges have been dropped or their fines and fees have been forgiven.
Smith, project manager of the Durham Innovation Team, said that his ultimate goal is to expand the program to other counties, especially because people often rack up traffic violations in multiple jurisdictions.
The program is viewed as a success not just within North Carolina but throughout the country. The NC Bar Foundation awarded DEAR the Pro Bono Project of the Year in 2019. What Works Cities — a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative — also announced in November that it will partner with the Durham Innovation Team to help other cities develop similar programs and reform efforts.
But despite the accolades, DEAR doesn’t have data on how many people actually have gotten their licenses back.
According to Deberry, almost no one shows up to the mass relief hearings. People only know they have had their suspensions lifted through visiting the website or the DEAR office. But Smith said only 1,600 people have searched and found their names on the website so far.
Deberry attributed the disconnect to a publicity issue. “If I don’t read the Herald Sun, the News and Observer, or the Independent, if that’s not the kind of stuff that shows up in my social media feed, how would I know?” she asked.
Merritt also didn’t know that his costs had been dropped. He had no idea the license restoration program even existed until he was directed to the DEAR office by the judge in his most recent traffic court hearing.
Merritt’s drivers license suspension was lifted Oct. 24. “[DEAR] helped me a lot… I just had a baby a couple months ago, and they probably saved me around $800, almost $900,” he said.
But Merritt still has yet to get his license back.
“The DMV is another beast,” said Laura Holland, a DEAR attorney. There is a $65 license restoration fee and another $50 fee if the driver did not mail in their physical license before it was suspended. She said that oftentimes she will help people get all the way to the finish line, and then they’ll say, “Well, I can’t afford to pay that $115.”
Smith calls this the last mile problem.
Another barrier is that the DMV updates its records manually, so there is often a significant delay between when the suspension is dropped and when someone can pay to reclaim their license. “They tell me 48 hours, and I’m like, that’s malarkey. Complete malarkey,” Holland said. “We think it is more like eight months, to be honest with you.”
Merritt went to the DMV last week because he has an interview coming up for a job that requires him to have a license. He said he wants to get a better job so he can support his newborn son. But after waiting in line for several hours, prepared to pay the final fee, they told him his name was not in the system and he would have to come back another time.
While the DEAR program has helped lift thousands of Durham residents’ license suspensions, the city can’t track the number of people who have successfully gotten their licenses back. According to Holland, they plan to request that data from the DMV at the end of the year.
“Those same people who we know couldn’t pay the fines and fees also can’t pay $115 to get their license back, or any of the myriad other administrative hoops that the DMV has created,” Deberry said. “But we wouldn’t have known that if we hadn’t done this. This was a start, and now we’ve got to figure out the next step.”
In photo at top, DEAR attorney Laura Holland works on driver’s license restoration cases. Photo by Erin Williams | The 9th Street Journal
Ask random people to compare tap water from Durham and Chapel Hill and expect results as clear as mud.
9th Street Journal reporters learned that last week after setting up a blind taste test outside the Durham Co-op Market.
Tony Krawzzyk said Chapel Hill tap water tasted like something you never want to eat: plastic. His companion, Heather Izzo, found Durham water to be metallic.
The North Carolina American Water Works Association and Water Environment Association does not agree. At its annual conference this month, judges there deemed tap water from the city of Durham more delicious than 10 other competing water systems — including Chapel Hill’s drinking water provider. Why is Durham water, a top winner in 2018 too, tasty? Vicki Westbrook, assistant director for the Durham Water Management Department, credits the source. Durham draws water from Lake Michie and Little River Reservoir, “high quality” human-made lakes in northern Durham County.
“We’re very lucky,” Westbrook said. “The areas around them are relatively undeveloped and they’re the headwaters so they don’t get as much runoff compared to downstream reservoirs like Falls Lake,” she said.
The overall quality and taste of the water in these reservoirs varies from year to year, a fact that may explain Durham’s 12-year drought winning the best-tasting title between 2006 and 2018, she said.
The actual treatment process at Durham’s Daniel M. Williams and Brown Treatment Centers is “fairly consistent” with other public water system techniques, Westbrook said. “We may add some things here or there like other cities, but generally, the process is the same.”
The fact the water department used chemicals to suppress algal growth in the lakes for the past two springs may have helped. “There are a large variety of algae that will grow in lakes, generally because the water is not moving as it would in a river or stream. Algae in the blue-green algae family tend to create taste and odor issues,” she said.
Durham’s water supply is not free of any trace contaminants. Westbrook said the city is working to maintain quality water in part by protecting its sources. “We’ve been trying to preserve the water quality by purchasing the surrounding buffer areas around the lakes,” she said.
The North Carolina American Water Works Association water-tasting competition isn’t scientific, but it’s surprisingly systematic. “The folks who have been managing this contest have a very specific ritual they go through,” Westbrook said.
During the weekend conference, all tap water submissions must be turned in by 5 pm on Sundays. Samples are refrigerated at a consistent temperature until Tuesday when the water is tasted after reaching room temperature.
The water is served in cups no bigger than Robitussin cups, said Westbrook, and judges use a swirl and swish technique familiar to wine tasters. Judges eat little crackers between each sample to cleanse their palates.
Some of the judges have tasted water for this competition, which Chapel Hill water’s provider has won in the past, for over 25 years. Outside the co-op, things were looser. Anyone willing was invited to stop by a dark brown card table, take sips poured from identical blue jugs and join a makeshift case study.
Allison Sokol and Chase Johnson, two Duke University public policy graduate students, preferred a Durham sample — marked A— to water from Chapel Hill — marked B. Sokol displayed how fine-tuned some people’s water palates are today.
“Sample A is better. It tastes more like spring water to me. And Sample B tastes more like tap; like filtered. Sample B tastes more stale to me,” Sokol said.
Johnson agreed, Sample B is “kind of heavy” whereas Sample A is “a little lighter,” she said.
But after an hour of canvassing, the final results were four votes for Durham, four for Chapel Hill, suggesting the two might not be that far apart.
As she left Joe Van Gogh across the street from the co-op, Heidi Kippenhan had only nice things to say about Durham water, despite preferring what Chapel Hill serves up. “I drink water straight from the tap all the time and I have no complaints,” she said.
At top: Alison Sokol points to an unmarked jug holding Durham water during an impromptu taste test while her companion, Chase Johnson, makes up his mind. Photo by Kathleen Hobson
District Attorney Satana Deberry always wears a red beaded bracelet with a little white elephant. On its own, this might seem like an odd choice for a progressive Democrat. But Saturday, as a sea of red sweaters, Greek letters, and all forms of elephant decor filled the conference room in the Durham County Human Services Complex, the bracelet made a lot more sense.
The elephant is the unofficial symbol of the historically black Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, of which Deberry and Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis are both alumnae. The sorority’s Durham Alumnae Chapter hosted a panel discussion called “Sister to Sister: A Talk on Sexual Assault.” The discussion was moderated by fellow sorority sister Jasmine McGhee, who is special deputy attorney general and director of the Public Protection Section at the North Carolina Department of Justice.
Deberry lauded her sorority sisters and fellow panelists for their accomplishments, and emphasized the significance of them holding those positions as women of color.
“The chief and I are unicorns almost,” Deberry said. “It is rare that you are in a jurisdiction in which the chief of police and the district attorney are not just women, but black women.”
She said that this is particularly significant in a conversation about sexual assault in a southern state, where sexual politics have been deeply intertwined with racial discrimination. The history of the American South is rife with the sexual exploitation of black women – free and enslaved – and their inability to access the protections of the criminal justice system. Deberry emphasized that the South is also a place where false accusations of sexual assault have been used to justify the lynching of black men.
Davis said, “Being an African American female in this work I think is quite relevant. I think we are lucky when we have African-American women who don’t just know what they are doing, but they can also make their work personal.”
According to Deberry, black women today are typically those who pay bail, visit people in jail or prison– and are increasingly incarcerated themselves.
“To the extent that the criminal justice system has a customer, it’s black women,” she said.
“But the dirty little secret of the criminal justice system is that black and brown women are also the people most likely to be victimized,” Deberry said. “And we are the least likely, especially when we are children, to be believed.”
In 2017Youth Risk Behavior Survey of Durham Public School students, black high school students were nearly twice as likely as white students to report being raped; Latinx students were almost three times as likely.
The audience included educators, social workers, public health advocates, and survivors of sexual assault. Their questions ranged from what to do in situations when a child is sexually assaulted to how immigrants who are living in the country without legal permission should handle an assault.
Deberry responded that when survivors come through her office, she will not ask about their citizenship status. “It does not matter one bit to us,” she said.
Another audience member asked about the statute of limitations for criminal sexual assault in North Carolina. The panelists said that, unlike other states, there isn’t one.
Before ending the talk, the panelists emphasized this issue concerns men and boys, too.
“We talk about believing women and girls, but also talk to your sons,” Deberry said. While more than one in three women have experienced some form of contact sexual violence, almost one in four men have too, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
While the audience was mostly women, there were some men too — most notably Clarence Birkhead, the Durham County Sheriff. He was invited to say a few words to introduce the panel and he stayed until the end. “It is a really awesome team of law enforcement officials that you all have here in Durham, with me being right here with them working hand in hand,” he said.
As the panel concluded, Deberry emphasized that her office is working with the Sheriff’s Office and the Durham Police Department to address sexual assault. The Special Victims Unit of her office now works closely with Chief Davis’ Special Victims Unit.
“That has not generally been how it works,” Deberry said. “But that trust goes a long way in getting your cases dealt with.”
Editor’s note: Voting tallies Durham today will decide whether three incumbent City Council members keep seats that three challenger candidates very much want. They will also decide the fate of a $95 million affordable housing bond that Mayor Steve Schewel and City Council members support. 9th Street Journal reporters are covering today’s election results as they unfold. Follow their reporting here.
Top vote-getters: Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece The election night celebration at 106 Main ended in cheers, hugs and excitement as unofficial vote tallies had City Council members Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece, and Javiera Caballero keeping their seats.
Johnson and Reece, who maintained fairly steady leads throughout the night, expressed gratitude for getting the chance to continue to represent Durham residents.
They also addressed the discontent that some community members voiced throughout the election cycle.
“Tonight’s election shows us that there is strong public support for the Bull City Together Platform, but also that there are people in this city who don’t feel heard by our current political structure,” Reece said.
Both incumbents spoke about the importance of direct community engagement in the next four years to address concerns brought up in the last few months. Reece made clear he knows plenty of work awaits. “I ran for re-election not because we had fixed everything in four years but because we were making great progress and we wanted to keep doing this work,” Reece said.
Probably loudest among the criticism in recent months was disappointment by some that the incumbents who won Tuesday had opposed hiring more police officers this year. “We can do a lot more and there are a lot of good reasons for us to invest more in community engagement, I think it makes for a stronger democracy,” Johnson said.
But first it was time to enjoy a victory.
“I definitely feel relieved, it feels good to have it all over with,” Johnson said. — Cameron Oglesby
Gunn’s non-concession speech
Tucked away between two brick walls at the Boricua Soul restaurant on an otherwise quiet and empty American Tobacco Campus, Joshua Gunn addresses his crowd of unwavering supporters seconds after votes from all Durham precincts were reported.
Gunn had notched 18,490 votes, putting him in fourth place just below Councilwoman Javiera Caballero, with 18,885 votes. Beer bottles and a stray bag of Joshua Gunn for City Council pins sat on a nearby wooden table, under strings of glowing yellow lights. Although all precinct votes were in and Gunn is still 395 votes shy of a council seat, he spoke with determination and a cool, calm confidence.
“We have provisional ballots and we have absentee ballots, that have not been counted,” Gunn said. “We can make up this margin with those votes.”
Applause erupts from the crowd as Gunn continues. “We are far from a night of concessions, to be clear,” he said.
Earlier in the night, Gunn had slipped for a bit into third place, pushing Caballero down to fourth with 63% of precincts reporting. The margin was razor thin, as Gunn was ahead by less than 50 votes.
“I’m excited,” he said then. “This is just exciting.”
As more votes were processed, however, Gunn fell behind Caballero once again. With 95% of precincts reporting, Gunn had notched 18,076 votes against Caballero’s 18,287.
With the race drawing to a close, nervous energy and excitement radiated from the small crowd. Supporters turned their heads away from their conversations with each other to fix them on a TV screen updating results.
When the screen read that 100% of the precinct votes had been counted, Gunn didn’t miss a beat. He grabbed a microphone and spoke to a crowd still filled with hope.
“We got 19,000 votes in the 2019 general election for city council,” he said. “In the primary, we got 6,700 votes. We tripled our votes.”
Applause momentarily drowned out Gunn’s voice. The 4% margin between Gunn and Caballero is well beyond the range of a recount, Gunn said. He tells his supporters that he’s not giving up yet.
Although the first-time candidate noted he is unfamiliar with the recount process, Gunn said he believes this election warrants a double check.
On Nov. 14, the board of elections will meet to tally up any outstanding ballots, including provisional and absentee ballots. They will determine then whether a recount is called for.
About 20 minutes after Gunn made his speech, the watch party began to thin out. Gunn, surrounded by an intimate group of supporters and his wife and two young children, looked tired, but not defeated.
“It’s hard right now to appreciate the fact that almost 20,000 people voted for a first-time candidate,” Gunn said. “I’m trying to remind myself of the scale of what we have accomplished, but ultimately, you want to win.”
“I’m going to go home tonight, lick my wounds, say a prayer, and hope we wake up in the morning to some good news,” he said. — Caroline Petrow-Cohen
In a dark, loud pub on East Main Street cheers erupt as the polls close. The Bull City Alliance is victorious, with incumbent city council candidate Javiera Caballero appearing to beat challenger Joshua Gunn by less than 500 votes
After a close vote with precinct 3 and 31 casting the deciding votes, Caballero emerges from the corner of a booth she was sheltered in, and the crowd erupts.
“I feel good but we have a little work to do. One step forward in accomplishing the work we need to do,” Caballero says.
Amongst the cheers, Caballero stands up on the table, the Durham city flag centered behind her.
After being appointed to Steve Schewel’s vacant city council seat in 2017, Caballero explains that she chose to do something different with her city council appointment. She specifically chose to work with co-council members Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson, also winners Tuesday.
The three of them even campaigned on a shared Bull City Together platform. Through their 98 proposed policies, Caballero tells the crowd that they are choosing to do something “different, harder, and more courageous.”
Caballero ends her victory speech with a deep breath and a long list of thank yous. Her family, her campaign manager, the Bull City Together team.
Despite a tumultuous campaign, including an accusation against her citizenship with no evidence offered, Caballero says she is particularly grateful for those who stood by her campaign. “It was bullshit but also emotionally tragic,” she says.
“Pick people who love you, respect you, and hold you in dignity,” she says.
A cheer of “te quiero” breaks through the crowd in response: “I love you.”
And as she steps off the table into the crowd of supporters, the rhythm of “si se puede,” chants and claps permeates the pub.
“Yes you can.” — Michaela Towfighi
Mayor gets $95 million housing bond
Steve Schewel was elected to a second term as mayor, as expected. But he had even more to celebrate Tuesday night.
In February, during his city address, Schewel introduced a plan for a $95 million bond. An ambitious and aggressive solution to Durham’s affordable housing crisis, the bond is expected to create 1,600 affordable housing units, among other initiatives.
Today, the bond passed with 75.89% of votes in favor. Schewel can confidently say he now has the funds and resources to accomplish his housing goals.
The bond is a “big bite out of the apple,” for an affordable housing issue that has permeated all corners of the city, the mayor said.
In a victory speech following incumbent re-elected candidates Javiera Caballero, Charlie Reece, and Jillian Johnson, Schewel thanked the crowd for their continued support of him as mayor and for voting to enact the bond.
Schewel said the City Council worked to prepare the city for the bond and make the case for the affordable housing solution. “Everyone knew the problem but we needed a big, bold solution,” he said.
The next step for Schewel and the City Council is to ensure the bond is implemented according to their five-year plan.
“It is going to be hard, we are going to make mistakes but with our leadership it will work,” he said. — Michaela Towfighi No upset by a hair?
With all precincts reporting, it looks like incumbent Javiera Caballero just squeaked by challenger Joshua Gunn. Our reporter Kathleen Hobson is checking whether a recount will be required with such close results. And whether all absentee votes have been tallied.
Checking the Duke student vote
The cricket chirps were especially loud outside Precinct 5 tonight. The Patterson Community Center along Crest Street was nearly empty except for the occasional passing car or student voter walking up to cast a ballot. Among the visitors were Duke Professor Gunther Peck and Democratic U.S. Rep John Sarbanes of Maryland.
Longtime friends and former college roommates, they are avid promoters of voter rights. They dropped by the voting station to check on Duke University student voter turnout. In the recent past, Duke students could vote at early voting sites on Duke’s campus. Like others, Peck, who is director of Duke’s Hart Leadership Program, and Sarbanes say loss of voting on a college campus can be a barrier to student turnout. Peck was a catalyst for Duke’s decision this year to provide free Lyft rides to get students who live on West Campus to Patterson, their assigning voting spot. He’s one to do anything he can to get people to vote. “It ought to be as easy as possible. The fact that you don’t have a car shouldn’t be the reason you don’t vote,” Peck said. This belief is what motivated Peck and Sarbanes to stand on the sidewalk outside of the precinct and ask students about their Lyft and voting experience. Sarbanes is sponsor of “For the People Act of 2019,” a bill that passed the House but has been blocked by Senate Republicans. The bill would make Election Day a federal holiday and require more political organizations to disclose the names of donors.
“Ideally voting is and can be the most empowering thing you do as a citizen,” said Sarbanes.
A total of 230 ballots were cast at Precinct 5 before it closed at 7:30 pm. Larry Partee, chief judge for Precinct 5, said that this was about a fourfold increase from primary voter turnout. He noted a large number of those votes were cast by Duke students, a fact facilitated by advocates like Peck.
“We’ve seen a lot of elections that turned on just a few votes at all levels, so the notion that every vote counts is just a part of our DNA,” said Sarbanes. — Cameron Oglesby
Early voting results suggest that re-election of all three City Council incumbents may not be a sure thing. Incomplete numbers have incumbent Javiera Caballero barely beating challenger Joshua Gunn.
It’s Election Day in Durham. So what’s at stake?
Citizens will decide if three City Council incumbents running on one campaign platform keep their seats. Or if any of three challengers take office instead.
Voters will also say yea or nay to a $95 million housing bond that Mayor Steve Schewel says Durham needs to expand affordable housing during a Bull City building boom.
Schewel is on the ballot again and is expected to easily win his second term. Here’s our update on how the mayor has fared so far on his 2017 campaign goals. You can learn more about Sylvester Williams, the mayor’s one challenger, too.
Sitting at a large oval table in his City Hall Office, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel pauses and gazes out the window at the city he first moved to in 1969. The clock on his office wall ticks as he takes time to carefully consider how to phrase his priorities for local government.
“I prioritize them by what the needs of our community as expressed by our community,” he said.
In his run for re-election against long-shot opponent Sylvester Williams, Schewel’s top three priorities are ensuring Durham remains affordable, diverse and safe for everyone who calls the city home.
“We want Durham to be a welcoming city for all people and we want everyone to know that whether they are a refugee, or they have lived here all their life they are welcome here and that we love them, and we want them,” he said.
Schewel is still working on completing the goals he promoted during his 2017 campaign, which moved him from a City Council seat to the mayor’s office. Two years ago his platform focused around eight central issues – transportation, jobs, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, police reform, housing, and trash, trees and trails.
After two years in office, here is a loose accounting of progress made or not made from some 2017 goals.
“Durham needs a mobility strategy for the next 50 years. I am proud to have led our region’s support for the 18-mile Durham-Orange light rail project, and this year we must push it over the finish line for federal funding. We must also provide an expanded, efficient bus network for our 22,000 daily riders—and it’s time to begin the work to make the system fare-free.”
Schewel said he is looking for alternatives to what would have been the core of his transit plan. He supports the Commuter Rail Transit project which would connect Durham to Raleigh on existing train tracks. Transportation development will now be integrated in the city and county’s comprehensive plan. In this plan, Schewel still hopes to advance his second goal of expanding the local bus service so that is accessible to all residents. Expansion would include creating more routes and infrastructure such as bus shelters. “We need a beautiful phoenix to rise from the ashes of the light rail,” he said.
“Durham needs strong council and community oversight of our police force to ensure that everyone lives free from fear. I support Chief C.J. Davis’ reform of our police department and her emphasis on de-escalation and racial equity training. I will continue to work towards a police force that effectively fights violent crime while actively seeking to build the trust of our entire community and enforcing the laws free from racial discrimination.”
Despite Schewel’s support of Davis during his 2017 campaign, the mayor could not convince all city council members to give her more police officers this year. Council members rejected Davis’ budget increase request to hire 18 additional police officers with a 4 to 3 vote in June, something Schewel has said was a mistake. That said, Schewel praises Davis for multiple changes at the police department, including enforcement of the council’s written-consent-to-search policy, decreasing traffic stops and car searches (a study before she took over detected bias against black drivers with such stops), and outreach to minority communities members, including LGBTQ groups, among other things.
“We must double our local expenditure on affordable housing this year from $2.75 million to $5.5 million. We must support the redevelopment of the aging Durham Housing Authority units that serve 6,000 of our most vulnerable residents. We must leverage publicly owned land downtown to build affordable units. We must support our local non-profits as they build new units and preserve the affordability of older ones.”
Alongside city council candidates, a $95 million-dollar housing bond will be on the ballot on Tuesday. If this bond passes, Schewel can confidently say he has money needed to tackle his 2017 housing goals.
With these funds, Schewel outlines the city’s plans to construct 1,600 new affordable housing units, preserve 800 affordable rental units, among other construction plans.
“It will be a really big bite out of the apple in terms of our affordable housing work,” Schewel said.
The bond would also support first-time home buyers, efforts to house the homeless and an expansion of construction jobs in Durham.
“If we do it right, we can leverage the affordable housing bond into a really good program of employment and economic development for low income people in Durham,” he said.
“We can support the Living Wage Project’s recruitment of businesses to voluntarily comply with the $15 minimum. We can work with the schools and Durham Tech to make sure that our young people are educated in the skills they need to get the great jobs available in Durham. We can ensure that the City’s job training programs are effective and that our NCWorks career center does a great job connecting job-seekers to local employers.”
Despite failing to fund more police hires, the June budget approval devoted money to support local business in Durham and to expand the $15 hourly minimum wage already established for full time worker to include part-time and seasonal city employees.
With the creation of Bull City Foundation, which was a $300,000 dollar initiative, Schewel’s city council approved increased support for female and minority owned businesses through training in accounting, marketing, and finance.
Schewel hopes his next step will be establishing a debt and equity fund over his next term that would provide financing to these businesses. However, he recognizes this big goal is “difficult to do”.
The budget also included funds to support the Summer Youth Work Internship Program, which will allow for 50 additional students to be hired in paid summer internships in Durham. Currently 300 students have participated in summer internships, within a five-year goal of hiring 1,000 students. He hopes that skills learned in the classroom can be translated to local jobs for students in Durham.
“We can make sure that we have a pipeline between our schools and our good jobs we have here,” he said.
“Yeah, law school sucks a little bit, right?” Satana Deberry said to a room full of Duke law students. Her audience chuckled.
The Durham district attorney spoke Thursday to Social Justice Lawyering, a class co-taught by Anne Gordon and Jesse McCoy, attorneys with backgrounds in public interest law.
A graduate of Duke Law School herself, Deberry admitted that she told her parents after her first reading assignment that she was bound to flunk out. “Every word in those 10 pages was English, but together they made no sense,” she said.
The students she was addressing have experienced their own challenges in adapting to law school.
Professor Gordon said that many wrote personal essays about how law school is much different than they expected. They entered with goals of pursuing justice and making a difference, but they feel “social pressure, pressures even from the (school) administration and faculty” to choose less civic-minded paths.
The district attorney said she could relate to that.
“Duke has a certain corporate bent that you may or may not know before you get here,” Deberry said. She also mentioned that the lack of diversity in student aspirations corresponds to a lack of diversity in the student body. “When I was here – I don’t know how it is now – but there were only 12 black kids in my class,” Deberry said.
While the Social Justice Lawyering class was racially diverse, Duke Law’s student body is actually not much different than 25 years ago when Deberry graduated. One student said there are only 16 or 17 black students in her graduating class of 223, while another, Ana Maganto Ramirez, said the numbers are about the same for Latinx students.
Deberry encouraged the students not to give up on their dreams of pursuing social justice. “Just be committed to whatever goal you set for yourself,” she said.
“For me, I ended up in law school because I thought the Constitution was the most amazing thing I had ever read,” Deberry said. “I was like, ‘What?! We were guaranteed these rights? They are self evident? What? Who ever thought of that?’”
She said she has dedicated her career to protecting those rights.
“My unwavering commitment has always been to justice,” she said. It sounds corny, but that is what I decided to do when I was corny. That is the benefit of being a kid. You’re like, ‘I want to uphold the Constitution of the United States doggonit!”
In the photo above, Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry speaks to students at the Duke Law School. Photo by Erin Williams – The 9th Street Journal
It was hanging off the door Williams used to enter Courtroom 4D. “Pull your pants up and tuck in your shirts,” it said in Comic Sans. “If you are not dressed appropriately your case WILL NOT BE HEARD…”
If he saw the sign, he didn’t follow its rules. When his turn came to face District Court Judge Brian Wilks, Williams ambled to the center of the room, a pink sweatshirt hanging untucked on his lanky frame, boxers peeking over his jeans.
The bailiff took one look at Williams and heaved a long, loud sigh.
“Out,” he grumbled, gesturing for Williams to leave the courtroom, fix his appearance, and then return. Williams gave a half shrug, grabbing distractedly at his unfastened red belt and walking back into the hallway.
When Williams strolled back in, he’d fulfilled half the requirements on the sign: the red belt was tighter around his waist, the boxers now safely tucked beneath jeans. “Straight?” he asked.
The bailiff wasn’t satisfied.
“OUT!” he shouted at Williams, directing him back into the hallway, eyes wide in disbelief. “Tuck the sweatshirt!”
The courtroom erupted in giggles. Judge Wilks rested his head on his knuckles.
“Ahh,” Williams turned around for his second try, stumbling to the door of the courtroom as he shoved his pink sweatshirt into his jeans. He returned to the dias looking uncomfortable, a stray rumple of sweatshirt spilling over his belt.
The courtroom chuckles subsided as Judge Wilks leveled his gaze at Williams, who rocked from foot to foot, waiting for his scolding.
“Man!” the judge suddenly exclaimed. “This is no fashion statement!”
Williams stopped rocking.
“I guarantee you, if you see me not in this robe, off this bench, I won’t have my shirt tucked in!” the Judge joked. “Guarantee! ‘Cause it’s not cool!”
There came the wave of giggles again – muffled laughs into shirt collars, hearty guffaws from the back, and even a snort from Williams’ attorney.
But the judge said there was a good reason for the rule on courtroom attire.
“The climate we live in these days… you never can tell what people got,” he said. “I’ve watched the safety video, and no lie – a gentleman as slim as you are, right? He had on a sweatshirt, and he pulled out about 19 guns and knives from around his waist. He even had a shotgun down his pants!”
At that image, two ladies in the front bursted into laughter, shoulder-to-shoulder in chuckles.
“See, if something pops off in this courtroom, I can dive behind my desk,” the Judge mimed bending over. “But that’s not gonna protect you all
“My job, and the deputies’ job, is to protect you. And to protect everybody that, unfortunately, has to come into this courtroom.
Back to business. “So,” he turned to look at Williams, “This is a motion to continue?”
Elsewhere in the courtroom, several other defendants waiting their turn before the judge quickly but quietly tucked in their shirts, sweatshirts and jackets.