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.”
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.
At a panel on public-private community partnerships, District Attorney Satana Deberry stood before a lecture hall of Duke students and introduced them to Durham — the real Durham.
“I’m going to take you on a little journey where we will talk about the challenge of our environment…where we live, and who gets to live here with us,” Deberry said.
The event was organized by Duke students from the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Nicholas School of the Environment. Its purpose was to bring together members of the community — public servants, activists, and academics — to discuss cross-sector methods for building a more equitable and sustainable Durham.
But rather than discussing the mechanics of public-private partnerships in her speech, Deberry decided to lay a foundation for the conversation by talking about race and privilege. She made it personal by encouraging Duke students — as Durham residents — to think deeply about the physical spaces they occupy in the community.
Deberry first described the Durham most Duke students know: An up-and-coming city filled with “renovated bungalows, walkable streets, and gleaming new apartments with those saltwater pools.” But she emphasized that those spaces are only for people who can afford an average rent of $1200 a month.
“You live in a space where a bank is willing to give you 700-times the loan that it once provided people who lived in that community just 10 years ago,” she said.
She explained that today’s downtown Durham has transformed drastically, not only in cost of living, but also demographically. When she went to Duke Law School in 1991, people viewed the city as rough and dangerous. In those days, she said, “if you came here to go to college at Duke, you were advised to never leave the confines of the university.”
But in the past decade, as rent prices skyrocketed and squeezed out minority residents, Duke students have been more willing to venture off campus. The Bull City has become a destination; people fly in from all over the world to watch films at Full Frame and hear music at DPAC.
“Now, you live in a physical space that sees you and the space you occupy as cool.” Deberry said. “It turns out that Durham was only a problem when black and brown bodies occupied those spaces.”
She paused for a moment to let that sink in.
Then, Deberry reminded her audience that even though she stood before them now as the district attorney, Durham’s image only changed when people who looked like her were driven out of downtown.
“I am one of those people. I’m black. I’m a woman,” she said. “Had I been sitting in a different space today, you may have understood me to be someone else. I’m not here to serve your food.”
As a black woman from the South, Deberry understands how seeing the word “negro” written on her birth certificate can impact the psyche. She understands what it was like to watch her childhood friends go through the criminal justice system and what it is like to be the great-grandchild of people born into slavery.
“What does it mean for someone who looks like me, with my history, to be D.A. in this community?” she asked. “What does it mean in a place where so many people who look like me are subjected to the vagaries of the criminal justice system?”
By sharing Durham’s history, Deberry helped her audience recognize the racial biases that underpin American institutions, especially criminal justice. Deberry saw that understanding as an essential precursor to any conversation about equity and sustainability.
“When I speak at Duke, I hope that some student hears it and uses it going forward,” Deberry said while reflecting on her speech. “I hope they hear me and recognize their privilege, especially in this community.”
The electric candy-pop of someone’s phone accented the hum of whispers, laughs, and shuffling that was so regular it almost became white noise. There was an anxious itch in the air, each person in a hurry to leave the wood benches as soon as they possibly could. Meanwhile, Judge Doretta Walker bantered with courtroom latecomers, and no one seemed to mind one another.
A middle-aged man, wearing an oversized tweed coat over a grey pair of basketball shorts, stood before the judge ready to present himself in court.
“Go outside and tuck in your shirt, Mr. Williams,” Judge Walker sighed. “I should not see red underwear.”
Her voice was sharp, with the frustration of a parent and the sass of someone who had seen it all before.
On to the next case. “Shantal Parham,” the judge called out.
Parham, a 31-year-old with straight, black hair and a neat pink cardigan, walked up to the witness box to testify at Durham County District Court. She claimed the defendant, Jessica Smith, assaulted and threatened her.
Parham had filed for a restraining order and lodged a complaint with the magistrate months before the trial. Today, she wanted to find a resolution.
Parham spoke to the court firmly and with resolve. She recounted the day of the incident, April 4, which began with a visit to her apartment’s leasing office. After noticing that her rent was higher than usual, she sat down with the leasing agent, Jacqueline Washington, to sort out the bill.
This conversation caught the attention of Smith, the assistant property manager.
Tensions quickly escalated as Parham and Smith disputed the rent prices. Parham told the court that Smith blew up, shouted profanities at Parham, and began to get aggressive. Parham quickly called the police, who then arrived and filed an incident report.
Parham described walking to her mailbox with her children later that day, when Smith ran up to her.
“I ought to whoop your ass!” Smith said. Parham was taken aback.
Smith also suggested that as the property manager, she had access to all the apartments in the complex. “She said she’d watch my apartment, have someone stand in my apartment to watch me,” Parham recounted. “Mrs. Smith spat in my face.”
A collective gasp rose from the back of the courtroom. “Oh my god, that’s crazy!” The once apathetic crowd listened attentively to Parham’s story.
Smith, Parham claimed from the witness box, attacked her in front of her kids. That touched a nerve. She wanted the court to set things right.
“The state calls Jacqueline Washington.” The prosecutor turned his attention to the next witness.
Washington, the leasing agent, was an older woman with graying hair and a cool-toned jacket. She gave her version of the story, backing up Parham’s allegations. Her voice was crisp and dignified, full of the conviction that her truth meant something here.
“The treatment she received was unfair,” Washington said of Parham. “Mrs. Smith was not following the proper procedure.”
“I didn’t like the way the residents were treated,” Washington said. She had since quit her job at Falls Pointe Apartments. This incident with Smith played a large role in that decision.
“Why are you testifying today?” the defense attorney asked Washington.
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
Washington’s words rang in the courthouse, which now stood silent.
The state found Smith guilty on two counts of misdemeanor assault. She would have to attend an anger management class and complete community service.
During the recess, Parham and Washington walked into the hallway together. They greeted each other with a warm hug.
By Ben Leonard, Erin Williams and Swathi Ramprasad
The second day of a hearing in the case of Alexander Bishop, a 17-year-old boy accused of killing his father with a dog leash, was a battle over search warrants.
Prosecutors and Bishop’s attorney sparred over the warrants and the evidence they provided, accusing each other of “fishing expeditions.”
Allyn Sharp, Bishop’s attorney, said some evidence should be suppressed because of misconduct by the lead investigator, Tony Huelsman.
But prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas said there was no proof Huelsman was intentionally misleading when he sought the warrants.
“The claims here are incredibly opaque and getting into semantics instead of getting into substantive material issues,” Hopkins Thomas said of Sharp’s arguments.
Late in the day, Sharp noted that Huelsman had executed about 22 search warrants and asked him to explain what criminal evidence he’d uncovered.
Hopkins Thomas was quick to object.
“Your honor, it’s a fishing expedition,” Hopkins Thomas said. “She is trying to get our lead investigator to lay out his entire testimony before the trial.”
As in the first day of the hearing, Sharp played videos from April 18, 2018, when officers were called to the Bishop home in exclusive Hope Valley. In one video, Alexander’s mother Sharon recounts calls with her son, noting that the first one had connection problems. Sharp raised doubts about the calls because of the connectivity problems, which Huelsman failed to mention in his search warrant. “Isn’t it true that you didn’t include anything about that because you were afraid that would discredit the statement that you were claiming Alexander made to his mother?” Sharpe asked.
“No,” Huelsman responded.
Sharp tried to poke holes in Huelsman’s account, suggesting that he withheld details to bolster his case. She said he conveniently ignored discrepancies about the location of the leash and how it was wrapped around William Bishop’s body.
She emphasized there were conflicting statements about the location of the leash on William Bishop’s arms. In Huelsman’s search warrant application, he included a statement from an anonymous friend of William Bishop who said Bishop had severe nerve damage and reduced mobility in his right arm. But she said Huelsman did not include body camera footage of Alexander telling officers the same detail, which would have bolstered his explanation that the dog caused the strangulation.
Sharp repeatedly challenged Huelsman’s contention that marks on William Bishop’s neck indicated he’d been strangled by Alexander. She said evidence suggested it was possible the marks were caused by the dog pulling the leash.
But Huelsman said, “I’m not sure a dog on a leash could do that damage.”
The search warrants and the evidence used to justify them were the focus of Thursday’s hearing.
One of Huelsman’s warrants cited “suspicious” web history including searches for “how to calculate the value of an estate, the value of the price of gold per ounce, and how to transfer bank accounts after death,” Sharp said in the motion. She said Huelsman purposely deleted a sentence that showed these searches were made after William Bishop, his father, died.
On the stand, Huelsman said he didn’t have a particular reason for deleting the sentence, saying it was common to make edits. Later in questioning, he said he probably got rid of one of the sentences because they “kind of say the same thing.”
“Investigator Huelsman has been picking and choosing what supports his suspicions while leaving out the investigative work he has done that has proven those things to be false,” Sharp said earlier.
Sharp called it “a fishing expedition. These are general warrants.”
Sitting beside Hopkins Thomas, Michael Wallace, head of the Homicide and Violent Crimes team for the Durham County District Attorney’s Office, argued Sharp was really the one with the rod and reel in trying to get the evidence dismissed. Her arguments were really the ones that were false, misleading and disregarding the truth, Wallace said.
“What we’re having right now is a fishing expedition,” Wallace said.
The lawyers also began discussing gold bars that had been listed as “missing” to justify search warrants. After obtaining Alexander Bishop’s cell phone search history that showed him apparently searching for the price of gold, Huelsman said investigators became interested in the location of the bars.
But in fact William Bishop had sold the gold to a Florida coin dealer and police knew or should have known. Sharp argued in the motion that using the purchase order as justification for the search warrant was “intentionally false and/or reckless to the truth.”
On the stand, Huelsman said later in his investigation he found that there are about 50 separate ounces of gold still unaccounted for.
The sparring turned trivial at times.
Hopkins Thomas got tripped up on a name and laughed during Huelsman’s testimony. Sharp objected.
“I’m going to ask that Ms. Thomas try to control the laughter,” Sharp said.
Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. agreed, pausing and softly telling her to control her laughter.
“I was not aware that I laughed,” Hopkins Thomas said.
The hearing came a day after a motion to suppress other evidence was dismissed. Hudson still needs to address other motions, one requesting electronic devices be returned to Bishop and one requesting the full case file. The hearing will resume on Monday.
In photo above, Bishop’s attorney, Allyn Sharp, seen with her laptop, sparred with prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas, center, when lead investigator Tony Huelsman was on the witness stand. Photo by Bill Adair | The 9th Street Journal
Clarification: An earlier version of this article contained a description of a video police interview with Sharon Bishop. The meaning of her comments in that video is unclear, so we have removed that passage.