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Aware of potential disruptions at polling places, Durham officials quietly made plans to keep the peace

Thousands of Durham residents flooded voting sites starting last week in a tense election countdown that has state and local officials quietly preparing for disruptions. Among the precautions: positioning unarmed security at polling places. 

The first few days of early voting in the county found eager Durhamites waiting in lines by the hundreds, sometimes as long as three hours, masked and socially distant.

“I really think the election in Durham is going to go well,” said Mayor Steve Schewel. “I want to encourage everybody to understand that early in-person voting is safe. It’s safer than going to the supermarket.”

But it isn’t just COVID-19 that has brought worry about voting in person. Around the country, concerns about what may happen at the polls — at early-vote sites and on Election Day — have arisen because of comments from President Donald Trump.

Trump has urged his supporters to go to polling places to expose alleged voter fraud, despite ample studies that show fraud is rare. His campaign has an “Army for Trump” website with videos encouraging loyalists to sign up to join the president’s “Election Day Operations.”

Elections are governed by strict state laws on allowed activities in and outside of the schools, libraries and community buildings where Americans vote, and some worry problems may occur if “Army for Trump” volunteers show up. Except for authorized observers, people are required to stay at least 50 feet away from polling places, for instance.

Last month, Trump supporters in Virginia stood outside an early voting site in Fairfax County, waving campaign flags and chanting “four more years.” Even though the group stood the required distance from the polling place, the demonstration intimidated some voters and election officials opened up part of the government building so people waiting to vote felt safer. 

On just the second day of early voting in North Carolina, an incident in Wake County brought national headlines. A Republican poll observer, former State Rep. Gary Pendleton, was charged with misdemeanor assault when he allegedly pushed an election worker at an early-vote site.  Pendleton was trying to get into a Wake Forest polling site earlier than the opening time, and the worker denied him access. “We are looking for fraudulent activity that might be occurring in polls around Wake County,” Pendleton said.

In downtown Durham last week, a voter made his way to the front of the line, said he wanted to skip everyone, and then verbally assaulted poll workers until he was escorted off the premises, said Clinton Goldston, a security officer stationed outside of the Karsh Alumni Center at Duke University on Monday. The man “presented [their] cane as a weapon,” said Goldston, who wore a neon green vest with the word SECURITY stamped on the back.

State and local elections officials are trying to balance the need for security at the polls with concerns that a visible police presence could, by itself, intimidate voters. Last week, Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections, issued a memo telling local elections officials not to have uniformed police or sheriff’s deputies at polling places.

“In the event a county board must utilize law enforcement for parking and traffic issues at a voting site,” she wrote, “officers must be in plain clothes.”

“Law enforcement may periodically drive by a voting site in the event heightened security is needed,” she added.

Bell’s memo drew criticism from some Republican officials. “The State Board of Elections has no jurisdiction over police matters,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican candidate for governor. “They do not have the authority to mandate when, where or how uniformed police officers do their jobs. This memo is insulting to the men and women in uniform.”

But Schewel agreed with the state board’s approach. “We don’t want to have officers stationed at the polls because we want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable,” he said.

Clinton Goldston of Night Hawk Security & Consulting stands outside of the Karsh Alumni Center at Duke University, an early voting site in Durham. Photo by Henry Haggart

Derek Bowen, director of the Durham Board of Elections, said he has coordinated with local law enforcement to prepare for any incidents at polling stations. “Some of Durham County’s plans are to have unarmed security at polling places, to help mitigate and diffuse anything that may present itself,” he said.

The board has hired a Raleigh firm, Night Hawk Security & Consulting, to provide unarmed security workers outside the polls to help with traffic, enforce social distancing and prevent interference with voting.

“We are in discussions with the [Durham Police Department] with regards to responding to an incident that may require them, but we will not have any officers on site,” Bowen said.

Why Durham matters

The past year has been a challenging one for law enforcement around the nation due to protests and violence around police shootings and the emergence of right-wing groups. Now police are confronted by a polarizing election. Trump’s claims about voting fraud risks and his hints that he may not give up power if he loses have raised fears of disorder. Concerns extend beyond Election Day on Nov. 3.  The massive number of mail-in absentee votes may delay results for days.  


Voters fill out ballots in voting booths distanced six feet apart in the Duke Karsh Alumni Center. Photo by Henry Haggart

Durham County could play a significant role in the outcome of a close U.S. Senate and presidential race in North Carolina. Hillary Clinton’s  narrow loss of North Carolina, a key battleground state, helped Trump win the presidency in the Electoral College. Yet she won Durham County with more than 77 percent of the vote. 

North Carolina this year, with 15 electoral votes, is again one of a handful of swing states that will decide the presidency. Most scenarios for a Trump re-election require him to win North Carolina again. And continued Republican control of the U.S. Senate could hinge on whether Senator Thom Tillis beats Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham.

Ready if needed

Durham law enforcement agencies say they are ready if needed during early voting, on Nov. 3, and in the days after the election.  

“I understand this election is critically important,” Durham County Sheriff Clarence F. Birkhead said in an email. “My office has been in contact with our state and federal law enforcement partners, and we have not been informed of a specific threat against any of our polling locations.”

“I support the needs of the Durham County Board of Elections and the State Board of Elections as they ensure a safe environment for all citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” Birkhead added.

Durham Police Lt. J.E. Werner said her agency has been communicating about the election with the elections board and the sheriff’s office about “best practices and procedures,” as well as state public safety officials. 

Although she declined to discuss plans or tactics, she said the department, with 550 sworn officers, has “the personnel and resources to respond effectively” to any disturbances.  

Wanda Page has been Durham’s interim city manager since the retirement of Tom Bonfield last month. When asked about possible election-related problems, she said: “We talk about a lot of things in the city, and yes, we have had these conversations in some of our meetings. But I’m not really sure if there’s, you know, additional detail I can provide about that.”

At the state level, the Department of Public Safety typically focuses on providing assistance when bad weather threatens to disrupt elections, and works with other state and federal agencies to protect elections from cyber attacks.  But DPS also houses the State Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies that are available to help local law enforcement deal with major disturbances. 

“We must always be ready to stand in support of our communities if any issues arise,” said DPS spokesman Sgt. Christopher Knox. 

Despite all this readiness, Schewel expressed optimism that the election will be free of disruption.

“I don’t have any major concerns about it in general,” he said. “I certainly think it’s possible.  But I think it’s unlikely that would happen in Durham. And I think it’s especially unlikely to happen in a significant way.”

9th Street Journal photographer Henry Haggart contributed reporting to this article. 9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

At top: Poll volunteer Emma DeRose wipes down a voting booth after a voter leaves. Photo by Henry Haggart.

As gentrification marches on, Braggtown is latest Durham community fighting back

Braggtown, like many predominantly Black neighborhoods in Durham, was settled by formerly enslaved people. 

Liberated from the vast Stagville plantation at the end of the Civil War, these men and women migrated south of the Eno River a few miles to what was then a rural Durham County crossroads.

Today, residents of Braggtown are at another kind of crossroads for their community: the proposed development of hundreds of upscale homes and apartments that could level forest land in the neighborhood, cause property taxes to rise, and squeeze out low-income residents.

It would be the kind of transformation that has hopped around Durham for years, as the city’s resurgence has made overlooked – and often neglected – neighborhoods targets for private investment. 

There was a time, 12 years ago, when downtown was pretty boarded up [with] not much investment,” former City Manager Thomas Bonfield said in August, shortly before retiring.  “People wanted Durham to be different. And I think that we have worked really hard across a lot of sectors to create a different Durham.”  But this transformation, Bonfield said then, means the city and its communities need to determine what they want from Durham’s growth. 

“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Constance Wright, vice chair of the Braggtown Community Association.  “It just hurts to see how all the different parts of town that I’ve lived in has been either gentrified, or a highway has gone through it, or the houses are no longer there.”

“And then when you hear a city council member tell you that if somebody buys an empty lot beside your house,” said Wright, “and wants to build a million-dollar house beside your house, that your property taxes are gonna go up because of that house and there’s nothing you can do about it. I mean how does that sound?”

Already, community opposition led the Durham Planning Commission in August to vote against two adjacent rezoning proposals that would allow nearly 900 apartments, townhouses and single-family homes on around 180 acres, mostly woodlands, in Braggtown. The majority of the land is owned by Leonard B. Shaffer of Joven Properties, a longtime developer in Durham.

Despite the commission’s vote, the planning department staff says that the development is compatible with city guidelines, and the matter goes next to the City Council. A hearing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 16.

Vannessa Mason-Evans, pictured in the pavilion of Lakeview Park. Photo by Henry Haggart

Life in Braggtown

Over time, parts of Braggtown have become a vibrant commercial hub with hundreds of businesses catering to a predominantly Black and Hispanic clientele. 

It is a reminder for some of the other communities of color that were displaced in the 1970s by urban renewal and the construction of the Durham Freeway.  Those are painful memories for longtime residents such as Wright and Vannessa Mason-Evans, chair of the Braggtown Community Association.

“I have lived in Braggtown all my life,” said Mason-Evans.  “I am a descendant of slaves from both sides of my family. My mother’s side were slaves from Granville County and my father is a descendant of slaves from the Chatham County area.”

Gentrification, by its very nature, targets communities that don’t have a lot of resources to put up a fight. They are often neighborhoods that have struggled to gain political power and win amenities and attention from City Hall.

Braggtown residents are mostly lower-income and people of color. According to census figures, the typical median household income is around $32,000, less than 60 percent of the county average. More than a third of the residents live below the poverty line. Housing is modest. The median value of owner-occupied homes is $108,000, about half the county average, and three-quarters of the community’s housing are rentals.

All this makes it a challenge for people like Mason-Evans and Wright, who are trying to convince politicians and potential allies that Braggtown wants to shape its own destiny.

For years, they haven’t had much help.

“We’ve been wanting a community center for years ever since I was a little girl; my parents wanted a community center,” said Mason-Evans. “But the city has never given us that, and they’ve always said we were annexed out. And they have never wanted to give us any type of funding,” Mason-Evans said. 

So getting after-school programs and other services has been a struggle, she said. The only community space available to a select few residents was a private recreation center at the Oxford Manor apartments. 

Braggtown’s boundaries, found on the Dataworks NC website.

A community organizes

In an effort to revitalize and beautify the community, Mason-Evans helped found the Braggtown Community Association four years ago. Wright would join the Association shortly after.

Mason-Evans has worked with the Parks and Recreation Department to clean up Lakeview Park, to reopen a closed-down county library branch this year, and to establish a Braggtown community garden.

In Red Maple Park where Wright lives, the community holds neighborhood clean-up events and has been working with TreesDurham, an advocate for urban forest preservation, to plant trees in a park rebuilt in 2015. 

“My dream has always been to have an eating community where, you know, people can just walk and pull food off the trees,” Wright said. 

This was the community trying to improve Braggtown, Mason-Evans points out, actions that have increased local developers’ interest in the neighborhood.

In an effort to save the history and heritage of Braggtown, the community association zeroed in on the proposed housing development along East Carver Street and Old Oxford Road. It would remove a broad swath of woodlands at a time when one of the city’s highest priorities is the preservation of its tree canopy

This has brought on a partnership with TreesDurham. One of the developers originally agreed to preserve about 20 percent of the trees. Community opposition boosted that commitment to 21 percent.

“The environmental justice concerns of clear-cutting forest within a historically Black neighborhood are . . . important to consider,” said Jason Arrol, a Braggtown resident and community association member during the August planning commission meeting.

“We’re getting development that is centered around urban sprawl,” said Katie Rose Levin, executive director of TreesDurham. “The main purpose is to build a lot of houses very quickly with the most profit for the developer. The design aggravates climate change, cements a reliance on fossil fuels, creates flooding and heat islands and heat sickness because there’s no emphasis on conservation.”

The community is dissatisfied with this 21 percent increase, calling for at least 35 percent. They’re also calling for guarantees of affordable housing.

“In the beginning, they only want to give us 10 affordable houses,” Wright said. “That was a slap in the face. Then they turned around and they said 20 affordable houses. That’s still a slap in the face.”

“We’re trying to collaborate and make a beautiful community for Black and Brown people,” said Mason-Evans. “We’re trying to make sure we have affordable housing for people and that we’re not just making our community beautiful for [the city] to come push us out and let white people come live in this community.”

A template

The fight for Braggtown has become a template of sorts for other neighborhoods looking for a more equitable development process. 

Three miles to the southeast, across I-85, sits the Merrick Moore neighborhood, where resident Bonita Green is worried about 400 acres of woodland purchased for development in her community and surrounding ones. 

“Our concerns are around safety as well as the environment and affordable housing,” Green said, noting that as trees come down and developments go up, property taxes have also increased.

Like the Braggtown residents, Merrick Moore won a recent rezoning skirmish. At a Sept. 22  meeting, the planning commission voted unanimously against the Merrick Moore rezoning proposal. A final decision, as with Braggtown, will come from council in six to eight weeks. But Green described the vote as a victory. 

The Walltown community has also been working with the city and developers to understand what the renovation of Northgate Mall will mean for them. Dataworks NC, which seeks to empower citizens, highlighted community concerns around resident input during this development. One typical comment gathered by the group: “I’m concerned that the developer does not respect or understand the community, and as a result will change the community for the worse.”

The view from the planning commission

The planning commission, an advisory body made up of community experts and residents, is calling for a system for development that prioritizes public input. 

After the Aug. 11 commission meeting, planning commissioner Nate Baker outlined his concerns with Durham development in a recommendation letter to the city council, explaining that although the developer has met all city requirements, the considerable community push back is indicative of a broken system. 

“Durham needs significant overhauls and comprehensive amendments to its development regulations that make Durham more green, walkable, sustainable, and equitable. That overhaul would benefit neighborhoods like Walltown and Braggtown, who are fighting for things that could simply be requirements.”

He said that more needs to be done proactively by governmental institutions to support community efforts, noting that although the increases in trees saved and in affordable housing are good, they “STILL not are not good enough”.

Levin echoed Baker’s sentiment, highlighting that although the planning commission has been consistent in its call for systemic change, the planning department has been consistently pro-development. 

“The planning department needs to work with the communities to create a vision of what they want to see, and then the planning department should clearly articulate those visions to the developers,” Levin said. “Right now the planning department just starts with what the developers want, and then works backwards to see how they can make that work.”

The planning commission’s votes against the Braggtown and Merrick Moore rezonings do not guarantee a rejection of the proposals by the city council. 

The City Council perspective

Ward 2 council member Mark-Anthony Middleton says he’s been speaking with the residents of Braggtown for quite some time. 

“Many of the residents feel that this development will not only further the march of gentrification, but do violence to the culture, the feel, and flavor of that community,” he said. 

Middleton commended the Braggtown community for their passion and hard work and for the progress they’ve been able to make in getting compromise from the developer without a push from the city. 

Many in the community call City Council pro-development, with a seeming readiness to approve rezoning requests. 

“There are some developers who feel we’re very anti-development,” Middleton responded. “I think one thing that people have to realize is that capitalism is pro-development. People need to understand that their government . . . we’re not as powerful as people think we are.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said something similar. “The problem is that the city doesn’t have the authority to regulate the housing market in any way that can prevent gentrification. We cannot tell a property owner that they cannot build at all,” she said. 

Middleton went on to say that the proposal is not a done deal. Between now and Nov. 16, the developer can come back with revisions that better incorporate community demands. 

“I don’t want folks to be discouraged by the seeming appearance of a Goliath-type developer with all his money. And I know that that’s a very real dynamic. But this is Durham, where we elect people that we vet and we expect to listen to people and to represent Durham values.”

Even if the city council rejects the proposal, the developer still owns the land and can do whatever they want with it within city laws. Middleton pointed out that this concept of “by-right development” is one part of the capitalist system which often leaves people out of conversations. 

“The City Council needs to refuse rezonings, unless they provide what is needed for Durham,” countered Levin.

She explained that although a developer who owns land can legally develop the land without city approval, they are limited in what the city’s Comprehensive Plan and Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) outline can be done with that land. Levin points out that very often, the land cannot be developed in a profitable way unless developers go to  council for rezoning. 

Rezonings like this are often the best way to provide more affordable options for residents, said Johnson. “When we don’t rezone in cases like this what we’re likely to get is actually less homes and less affordability. Even though what we’re getting if we do rezone is not as much affordability as we would want.” 

On properties like the Old Oxford Road tract, the current zoning under the UDO would allow for the development of bigger and fewer homes on larger lots, Johnson said. As a result, rather than developing cheaper, higher-density duplexes and apartments, the land as currently zoned can be used for expensive single-family homes. Johnson explains that without a rezoning, property values, and taxes, could only rise further. 

Higher-density residences are better for the environment, Johnson said, a statement that Levin disagreed with. 

“The City Council and the developers have created this narrative that more housing, or more density, equals better for the environment, better for the community, but that’s not correct,” Levin said. 

Middleton and Johnson said they are still waiting for more information on the development before deciding how they’ll vote. 

“I think people just don’t understand that we cannot prevent development by not rezoning something,” Johnson said, noting that a historically Black neighborhood like Braggtown expressing substantial concern for the loss of homes and livelihoods because of development is something she takes very seriously. 

“I think what I need to understand more about before deciding whether this proposal is a good idea is what’s option B? I find the question of ‘what gets built there by default’, very concerning” Johnson said. 

“The people of Braggtown certainly have my ear and have my attention,” Middleton said. 

“Can the system be made better? Absolutely. And does money make a difference? Absolutely. But I think one lesson we can take from Braggtown is that an organized, impassioned community can meet big money toe to toe,” he said.  

Vannessa Mason-Evans looks out across Lakeview Park. Photo by Henry Haggart

On the horizon

The 9th Street Journal reached out to Horvath Associates, the civil engineering and landscape architecture firm working on the Braggtown development on behalf of Joven Properties. Tim Sivers, president of the firm and lead on the project, said he was unable to comment on the project or community concerns at this time. 

“Developers should be willing to sit down and talk with community members,” said Mason-Evans,  “to see what their needs are and what they would like to see in their community, but so far the people that we’ve talked with, they didn’t come to us. We went to them.”

When developers were holding their community meetings, they notified residents within 1,000 feet of the project.  Although this distance is above the city’s requirements,  Mason-Evans said many people still didn’t hear about the meetings because “there’s nothing but woods around the particular area that they invited.”

“Laws are made to protect white people, or to make their lives easier, but it makes our lives hard under the laws of the white man,” said Mason-Evans.

“We’re doing a lot of fighting. It’s not just for affordable housing. We’re fighting for the rights of people to have a place to stay and live comfortable and not feel like they are not included.”

9th Street journalist Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

At top: A section of East Carver Street where both sides of the road are included in development plans. Photo by Henry Haggart.

Durham leaders: Night of vandalism at odds with racial-justice movement

By Cameron Oglesby
and Henry Haggart

After Durham’s most violent night in months of protests, Mayor Steve Schewel blamed unidentified outsiders for busting windows, spray-painting graffiti and hijacking “righteous” dissent.

“The people who inflicted this damage last night are not advancing the cause of justice,” Schewel said Thursday during a press conference. “What they’re doing is co-opting this movement for racial justice for their own purposes.”

Street protesters Wednesday damaged at least 13 buildings, both public and private, and left a church with repairs that will cost tens of thousands, the mayor said. 

Because the police department had no warning of what was coming, they were unable to arrive in time to stop the vandalism, Durham Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said.

For months, police have steered clear of confronting peaceful protesters calling for fundamental changes to policing locally and nationally. That’s because the department supports their free speech, Davis said.

From now on, officers will be more visible, she vowed.

“That is the strategy that we feel that we have to take at this point, not in an antagonistic way, but in a manner that our community members know that we are there and we’re paying attention,” she said.

Neither Schewel or Davis offered any specifics on the identities of the people they accused. Most in the crowd participated in the vandalism, Davis said.

“The folks that were just inflicting the damage last night were white, I just want to be really clear about that,” the mayor said. “This is an attempt to co-opt a racial justice movement.” 

A left-behind banner lay crumpled on the ground after Wednesday’s vandalism spree downtown. Photo by Henry Haggart

On Wednesday night, an estimated 75 or more people gathered at CCB Plaza downtown for a protest advertised to express outrage over a Kentucky grand jury indicting only one of the three police officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor in her home on March 13.

Chanting “No Justice, No Peace” and “Defund the Police,” the group of mostly white men and women marched through the center of downtown Durham, making stops at the police department headquarters and the Durham County Justice Center. 

As the march progressed, protesters at the back of the group threw trash cans, scooters, traffic cones and other objects they found on the streets into roadways to block police patrol cars following them. Officers exited their vehicles to clear the obstacles but kept their distance.

Occasionally, small groups of protesters would run to a sidewalk, umbrellas raised to conceal their faces, and spray paint messages like “say her name” and “burn it down” on the sides of buildings

Protesters with umbrellas also harassed members of the press trying to photograph or film them, including following and briefly surrounding a 9th Street journalist.

The Rev. Paul Scott, founder of the Black Messiah Movement in Durham and a Black nationalist, was downtown Wednesday to observe the protest.

“They got a Black Lives Matter rally going on. As usual — no Black people. See they got a civil war going on. And they’re doing these things in our name, in the name of Black Lives Matter. But no Black people!,” he said during a video he made Wednesday night and posted on Facebook. 

When asked Thursday if the city police could have handled Wednesday night any better, Scott said this: “I think if they were Black teenagers, they would have been dealt with a lot more harshly. I think there’s a double standard. And I think it’s a classic example of white privilege.”

He noted how police officers approached three youngsters with guns drawn at a city apartment complex last month while looking for an armed suspect. A 15-year-old, the oldest in the group playing outdoors, was handcuffed. Wednesday night was “white anarchists getting a police escort,” Scott said.

The assault on property downtown by a majority white crowd comes just as many restaurants and other businesses are beckoning paying patrons to return after six months of bleak disruption from the coronavirus pandemic.

Just last week, Downtown Durham Inc. launched The Streetery, a project to transform downtown into a socially distanced and entertaining eating experience, equipped with lights and performances on Friday and Saturday nights.

A front window of Viceroy, an Indian restaurant and British pub on West Main Street, was damaged Wednesday night, said co-owner Smita Patel. The restaurant’s landlord asked them to put up plywood, but she and her team do not feel unsafe.

“Overall, I think we still feel safe, we always have, and Durham is doing a good job of keeping people together,” Patel said. “It does affect our business, of course, the boards being up, but we’re hoping that we won’t regress back to how it was a couple months ago.”

Thursday’s press conference was a short, solemn event, with Chief Davis saying she didn’t view violence during Wednesday’s protest as a response to what many consider inadequate action against officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor. Instead, it was people “taking advantage of an opportunity to express other ideology.”

Police are investigating whether they can identify those who did the damage, a group that, she said, dispersed quickly.

“We are still looking at the video footage,” Davis said, to identify who they can.

9th Street reporters Rebecca Schneid and Charlie Zong contributed to this report.

9th Street journalists Cameron Oglesby and Henry Haggart can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu and henry.haggart@duke.edu

At top: Two men clean up broken glass Thursday outside 5 Points Gallery on East Chapel Hill Street. Photo by Henry Haggart

Durham’s plan to plant 1,500 trees a year may face funding, development challenges

For almost three years now, the city of Durham has committed to planting 1,500 trees a year, nearly all of them in low-income communities. 

The city’s initiative to add more street trees is an effort to maintain Durham’s canopy and address historic discrimination that extended even to the ground between streets and sidewalks.

But this ambitious program faces questions about how it will be funded, and whether the rapid development in Durham’s booming real estate market will uproot trees as quickly as new ones are planted. 

“The city is doing more and they have this goal,” said Katie Rose Levin, executive director of TreesDurham, an advocacy group. “It’s just a matter of ‘Now that you know the right thing to do, you actually have to pay for it.’” 

When the program was launched in 2018, the plan was to pay for it with a mix of private and public funds, according to Durham Mayor Steve Schewel.

Schewel said the city never intended to pay for the program by itself. “I don’t think it’ll ever be true that there won’t be private donations for tree planting,” he said. “But I’m sure that the city will continue to fund more and more trees. I agree that we need to be increasing public funding for it.”

Slightly more than half the funding this planting season, around $65,500, will come from nonprofit Keep Durham Beautiful, which works very closely with the city. In fact, its executive director, Tania Dautlick, is paid by the city and works in the city’s General Services building.

The rest of the money, around $60,000, is supposed to come from donations to the city, which is cobbling together its share from tree-planting donations citizens make in their water bills, stormwater funds and donations from Duke, through its carbon offsets program. 

There is no sizable, recurring line item in the city budget for the tree initiative. Last year, the city came up with its share, nearly $68,000, through the participatory budgeting process, a one-time community budgeting source.

When asked if Keep Durham Beautiful had the same understanding of where funding would be coming from and the nonprofit’s role in funding this program as Schewel, Dautlick said: “The City continues to support the tree planting program, while leveraging additional community resources to meet its goals. The City has always worked closely with Keep Durham Beautiful and other community partners, as part of its ongoing tree planting partnerships and will continue to do so in the future.”

This lack of a guaranteed source of city funding worries tree advocates inside and outside City Hall. The city’s share of the funding for this year has not started flowing yet, and planting season begins in November.  

“We actually don’t have funding for our tree-planting program as of right now,” said Daniel Hickey, the city’s tree-planting coordinator.  “We were expecting to get it this year, but due to COVID, there’s been a lot of, you know, stalls with funding,” said Hickey. 

Dautlick said that Keep Durham Beautiful will continue to support the project every year. But Hickey worries about the impact of the pandemic.

“I think my concern is how many years in this post-COVID economic depression are there still going to be donors,” he said. “If we don’t have a tree-planting budget and the donors dry up, we’re going to have to get really creative.”

Kevin Lilley, director of Durham’s General Services Department, and Mayor Schewel are confident in the city’s ability to maintain city funding.

“Durham will continue to have a tree-planting program.” said Lilley, whose agency includes the city’s urban forestry unit. “We have a remarkable staff and wonderful community partners who find creative ways to fund the program,” he said in an email. 

Schewel agreed. “The city is 100 percent committed to planting at least 1,500 trees a year. That’s a commitment of the City Council,” he said. 

Towering trees extend over houses and the road in Trinity Park and a view of downtown Durham seen from South Street in a formerly redlined area. Southside has changed dramatically in recent years due to the Southside Revitalization Project. Photos by Henry Haggart.

Schewel has made the 1,500-tree initiative one of his signature programs, an effort to not only  beautify Durham and provide shade, but also to provide a measure of social justice. The goal of the program is to plant 85 percent of the new trees in low-income neighborhoods. 

“Durham street trees are about 100 years old. They were planted about 100 years ago and they were planted in primarily white neighborhoods,” explained Levin of TreesDurham.

TreesDurham, an environmental justice non-profit dedicated to protecting forests and creating environmental equality across Durham, was established in 2018, when the city had no formal plan for its tree plantings. Without Durham’s former urban forester, Alex Johnson and Keep Durham Beautiful,  dying trees wouldn’t have been replaced at all, Levin said. 

However, it wasn’t enough to replace dying trees; historic redlining practices had left many low-income and minority communities without much needed greenspace. 

“When the research came out showing the racial distribution of trees . . . if we just replanted the trees where they died, we perpetuated this racial inequality,” Levin said. 

“We have two problems,” said Schewel. “One of our problems is that we’re losing our tree canopy, but an equally important problem is that our tree canopy is inequitably distributed. This is a racial justice issue, and we have to be able to help correct that inequity.”

But the reality facing the tree-planting program, besides the need for long-term funding sources, is  the impact of the bulldozers and chainsaws that have been reshaping the urban landscape. 

Only stumps remain of trees recently cleared from the property of Grace Baptist Church. Photo by Henry Haggart.

As developers have discovered Durham over the past two decades, the fate of the city’s trees has become bound up in concerns about growth, gentrification, and the health of neighborhoods.

In addition to their aesthetic appeal, trees provide important health and air quality services for Durham locals. 

The coronavirus pandemic has made apparent the need for tree cover and greenspace in urban settings and in lower income communities. Tree cover helps to reduce urban heat island effects and local air pollution, lowering air and ground temperatures through shading and the absorption of carbon dioxide. 

“If you live in a place that doesn’t have trees, your house and your yard is 10 degrees hotter than people who live around trees,” said Levin, noting that those communities without adequate tree cover are also known to have higher rates of asthma, diabetes, or immune-compromising conditions. 

“The way that we’re developing is killing us,” said Levin. “In fact, Durham has such a bad tree cover, our developed spaces are up to 20 degrees hotter than the surrounding areas. This is the difference between life and death for our vulnerable residents. Trees are the difference between life and death.” 

Several neighborhoods including Braggtown, Walltown, and Merrick Moore are currently fighting developers that plan to cut down local woodlands. 

“We can’t plant our way out of this, we have to preserve trees, and we have to stop emitting,” Levin insisted. 

Schewel said that when land is developed, about 85 percent of the trees, on average, come down. “With so many people moving here, we’re not trying to stop development. But what we do need to do is strengthen our regulations around tree preservation.”

When he began advocating for the tree initiative Durham was planting around 750 trees annually. Doubling that was a start.

Since the program’s inception, the city has been on track to meet its 1,500-a-year goal, with 1,275 planted in those communities that have historically gone without trees. Ninety percent are planted along streets; the other ten percent are planted in public parks. 

Schewel has modeled the program after a similar one in Charlotte that also depends in part on private contributions, and his goal is to eventually get to 3,000 trees a year.

Durham’s 36,000 acres of tree canopy currently covers around 52 percent of the city. The goal is 55 percent by 2040, a challenging goal given the pace of development.

Hickey, the tree-planting coordinator, questions the value of that metric.  

“I don’t think that we should have a canopy on our plan,” he said. “It just makes no sense because so much of the land in Durham is privately held and developers are just going to do whatever they want anyway.”

9th Street journalist Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

At top: March 7, 2020 tree planting at W.G. Pearson Elementary in partnership with TreesDurham. Image provided by Tania Dautlick.

Pierce Freelon joins Durham’s City Council

After months of waiting, the City Council filled its vacant Ward 3 seat, appointing local artist and activist Pierce Freelon.

Sworn in today, Freelon was selected in a 4-2 vote Monday, taking the position left empty when Vernetta Alston was appointed to the NC House representing District 29 in April.

Freelon pointed to poverty as one of the biggest challenges facing the city in his online interview with council members last week. “Poverty is a policy choice,” he said, tying violence, crime, the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on Black, Indigenous, and communities of color and a shortage of affordable housing to poverty.

He said Durham must acknowledge the city government’s historic role in zoning and development that harmed communities of color and push for inclusiveness, such as multi-class, inter-generational involvement in city decisions. 

Freelon also said he favors alternatives to reducing gun violence beyond policing, such as more counselors, vocational training, and recreational opportunities for young people.

During the interview, Freelon said his budget  priorities include ensuring no city workers will be laid off because of the pandemic, supporting Durham as a cultural and artistic center, and continuing the COVID smart response of the current council. Freelon also drew parallels between COVID-19 and the racism experienced by communities of color. 

“Because when you’re black and you get hit by the storm, it’s not just the rain and the wind, it’s the tempest of racism,” said Freelon. “When you’re black and brown and there’s a virus, the diagnosis itself can be dire, but it’s the plague of white supremacy and poverty that exacerbates the havoc that black folks are experiencing,” he said.

Five finalists addressed council members last week, including Anita Daniels-Kenney, Leonardo Williams, Sarah Sinning, and Shelia Huggins.

Council members DeDreana Freeman and Mark-Anthony Middleton voted for Daniels-Kenney, a clinical social worker who for many years has worked to expand mental health and addiction treatment, among other things.

With a 4 to 2 vote, Pierce Freelon was appointed to represent Durham’s Ward 3 on the City Council.

During the council interviews, Middleton questioned Freelon on his residential status. The two went back and forth for about four minutes, with Middleton asking whether Freelon moved to Ward 3 this year to seek the appointment. Freelon said he has lived at his current address since March of this year. He also said he’s lived in the ward for a total of 10 years at various times.

After the first vote, Schewel gave council members the chance to make the vote for Freelon unanimous. Middleton and Freeman did not respond, producing an awkward silence.

Schewel praised Freelon after the vote. ”Pierce Freelon emerged as the council’s choice because he is generous, brave, straightforward, incredibly knowledgeable on the issues that face us, and a powerful voice for the new generation of Durham,” he wrote in a press release.

Freelon’s appointment comes after two unsuccessful runs for office in Durham in the last three years. Schewel thwarted the first in 2017 when Freelon finished third out of six Democratic candidates competing to succeed former Mayor Bill Bell. In March, Freelon finished second to Natalie Murdock in a primary race for the District 20 state Senate seat.  

Ward 3 stretches north and south on the western side of Durham, from below Route 54 to above Interstate 85. Although Freelon ran on the principles of black liberation and reparations, the ward, which includes Duke University, is majority white.

Freelon, 36, is a Durham native and the son of the late architect Phil Freelon, who spearheaded the design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and Nnenna Freelon, a Grammy-nominated jazz singer.

A musician, he is founder of the digital maker space and creative center, Blackspace, whose artistic workshops offer youth of African descent “a breathing space to manifest their dreams by any medium necessary”.  He and his wife, Katye Proctor Freelon, have two children.

Freelon’s appointment runs through 2021. If he wants to remain on the council, he’ll need to run for re-election in November.

9th Street reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu

At top: Pierce Freelon wore an agbada, a robe worn by men in parts of West Africa, when sworn in a new City Council member on Friday. He is facing his wife, Katye Proctor Freelon. Photo courtesy of the City of Durham

Saying goodbye: Q&A with City Manager Tom Bonfield

After 12 years as Durham’s city manager, Tom Bonfield is retiring, effective September 30. Bonfield has worked 42 years in public service. He cited a “variety of personal and professional reasons” as his reasons for leaving, including being at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 now that he is 65, and wanting to spend more time with family. 

The 9th Street Journal interviewed Bonfield about his career journey and his next steps. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

9th Street Journal: What made you decide to go into municipal government work? 

Tom Bonfield: Well, it was a long time ago. I kind of got into local government accidentally. I was originally planning on going to law school after undergraduate, and I got sidetracked a little bit with a fairly brief career in minor league baseball. So I delayed going to law school. 

In the meantime, I began working during the off season part-time in a city manager’s office in the town I grew up in, a small town called Gulfport, Florida. And it was there that I first got exposed to the challenges and the fun of thinking about making a difference in communities and local government. So instead of going to law school, I went to grad school, and pursued degrees in business administration and public administration. And 42 years later, I have worked in local government, and certainly been completely satisfied and know that this was the thing I was supposed to do. 

9th Street: Why Durham? What was it about this city that encouraged you to work for city government for 12 years?

TB: I moved to Durham in 2008. I was recruited to come to Durham to be the city manager. 

Before Durham I was the city manager in Pensacola, Florida for about 10 years. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a change of career or change of jobs. And I had never been to Durham … [with] the Research Triangle, I had heard a lot about being in the government business, but I really hadn’t focused as much on Durham. 

I wasn’t sure I was interested, but when I came and visited I just saw a lot of really interesting dynamics of progress and people and energy that I really loved and decided it was a good fit. And as it turned out, it’s been way — way better than I ever had envisioned.

9th Street: In what important ways do you think Durham has changed since you’ve been here, for better or worse?

TB: Back in the 2008 and around that time Durham was, you know, not necessarily that well thought of in the Triangle. And the progress that has been made as it relates to the community being incredibly desirable — in fact, maybe one of the more desirable destinations or locations for people to live and be a part of — has been fun. Obviously the last five-six months of COVID haven’t been all that fun, but I feel confident that it will return. 

9th Street: Are there any moments or memories in that time that really hit home why you decided to work in city government?

TB: I don’t know that there’s any one thing that I would say that was the magic moment. Everything about the city — whether it’s the diversity, whether it’s the broad economic opportunities, or the vibrant universities — there’s so many aspects of it that I don’t think I could really say there’s any one thing that said this was the moment. 

That’s just kind of what happens when you have enjoyed your job as much as I have.

City Manager Tom Bonfield.

9th Street: Why are you deciding to leave at this moment, especially considering the stress and chaos associated with the coronavirus pandemic, protests, etc?

TB: You know, it was the reality that my contemplated work horizon, at best, might have been a couple more years, just because of my age and things I’d like to do in life. But it was the fact that these are huge issues that are critically important, and it’s going to be really in the city’s best interest for the person who is developing these responses to also be responsible for implementing them. I just came to the conclusion that it really wasn’t fair for me to continue to be developing strategies that I was going to then turn around and pass on to somebody else to implement them. 

The community is better served if the person who’s going to implement these strategies is working with the City Council to develop them. 

9th Street: Are there any decisions or actions that, in hindsight, you wish you could have done differently?

TB: You know, the biggest disappointment that I have had with Durham is that we have not been able to really make a significant change in the direction of violent crime. I had worked in communities in Florida and had been exposed to some difficulties associated with crime but really nothing that I experienced like when I first came to Durham in 2008. I hadn’t really anticipated that. And it’s something that I’ve been actively involved in, with Gang Task Forces and violent crime reduction roundtables and various other initiatives associated with the root causes of crime. I just feel like we really have not been able to make the changes or turn the corner in that regard. Despite all of the huge amounts of effort in that 12-year period, that’s probably my biggest disappointment or frustration. 

I think that a significant issue facing the city is that there are a lot of varying opinions about what the approaches are to solving this. I think that it has got to be a multi-faceted solution. That includes longer term root cause, social service kinds of initiatives. But it also has to, at least in the short-term, include a criminal justice system that responds to situations where people know that there are consequences for behaviors. 

There’s a lot of different opinions about it and a lot of competing opinions and now … as a result of the social justice issues associated most recently with George Floyd’s killing, there’s a huge push to defund the police. And I just think it’s got to be multifaceted. It can’t just be one thing or the other, and it’s something that we just all have to be open and honest and willing to talk about.

9th Street: You haven’t necessarily seen eye to eye with certain members of the City Council in regards to policing. For example, that rebuttal to Jillian Johnson’s essay on policing. What has it been like working with a left-leaning City Council, and did that influence your decision to leave at all? 

TB: The answer is no. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have worked for a lot of elected officials and several mayors, and have really been fortunate to have a great relationship with them that has been respectful and professional. There’s been many times that I haven’t agreed with them or they haven’t agreed with me, but in all cases we have respected each other’s place. 

Our job as professional administrators is not to provide judgment about people’s persuasions or politics. It’s to help the collective City Council move and develop programs and initiatives for services that they put forth to respond to the community. Ultimately, they’re the ones that are responsible. I’m responsible to them. 

9th Street: As someone who has worked with so many different elected officials and mayors, how do you feel about the direction Durham has taken in these spaces, like environmental action? 

TB: I think it’s entirely appropriate. Part of my job has been to help bring practicality to the ideals. It’s not to challenge the ideals, but to help think about what are the administrative systems and the administrative practicalities that are associated with, with some of these ideals. It’s not our job to push back, it’s our job to just kind of temper some of the things that sometimes can be great ideas and great aspirations. But to implement them, there are certain challenges that everybody has to be willing to acknowledge.

I’m extremely proud of the work we’ve done with things like the Sustainability Road Map and that was something that the staff and everybody put together well in advance of the council, stating it as their their goals.

9th Street: What has it been like working in this crazy time, with fundamental changes from the pandemic and protests?

TB: This has been something that wasn’t in the playbook or wasn’t in any of the materials that traditionally managers learn about. But the roles of city government have continued to expand across the country. And, this situation reinforces what I’ve always believed: that the local government is where true change in people’s lives and communities can happen. 

This has caused all of us to continue to learn to be willing to adapt and, as I sometimes like to say, embrace ambiguity because we don’t know all the answers but we have to be willing to learn and be willing to accept the things that don’t work and change. 

I could never have predicted something like this pandemic would have happened in my 42-year career. I would have been disappointed if I didn’t at least get to experience some of it because it’s been definitely a challenge. It’s definitely something new for everybody. 

9th Street: What do the next two months look like for you as you wrap up your time as city manager?

TB: So there are two primary things. As soon as the City Council names who will be the interim city manager, once I retire, I would want to work very closely with that person to be sure there’s a very smooth handoff. And then the second thing is, I’m currently talking with the City Council about what are some really important things that they would like me to spend my time on over the next couple months. 

This is the third time in my career that I’ve transitioned from a job to another job with 60 or 90 day transition period, and one of the things that I have found is that it’s really not productive to go on doing your day the same, kind of just running out the clock, as I say. It’s better to try to transition and move to the things that other people are going to pick up sooner rather than later. That helps [provide] continuity.

I don’t have what I’ll be working on exactly yet because I’m still in conversation with the council, but it will certainly be something that we’ve been working a lot on: reopening city government as a result of the shutdown. 

9th Street: Are there any issues or topics you see city residents needing to pay particularly close attention to in the coming months and years?

TB: I think one of the challenges that I see — and I don’t know what the answer is, but I certainly have seen it shift in the last couple of years — is just this reality of what people want Durham to be. There was a time, 12 years ago, when downtown was pretty boarded up [with] not much investment … people wanted Durham to be different. And I think that we have worked really hard across a lot of sectors to create a different Durham. But as a result of that, that has made Durham a much more attractive place, and has led to obviously a huge influx of new residents. That’s had other consequences, like driving up prices, causing housing to go up in price and people feeling like there’s been gentrification. 

Now I see quite a bit of pushback from people saying, “Maybe we didn’t want all that after all, maybe it was better off when Durham was the way it was 12 years ago.” Ultimately, I think the community and residents need to grapple with the balance of economic progress that’s going to support initiatives that are important to people versus some of the realities of what happens with economic progress.

9th Street: Do you have any goals for after you retire? Travel is not really an option right now — but any other post-retirement plans?

TB: Yeah, I mean obviously, I thought a lot about that and COVID has caused some detours on some of those plans. I want to take some time this fall to just reflect and regroup and spend some time with my wife. And then, hopefully [around] the first of the year, COVID issues will become clearer to me, as will the kinds of [professional] things that I might want to dabble in here and there. We do plan on staying in Durham. 

9th Street: Is there anything else you would like to touch on? Comments? Advice? Thoughts for the people of Durham? 

TB: I have worked for four jurisdictions over 42 years and my time in Durham has been the most rewarding and enjoyable time, across the board. The totality of my time in Durham, primarily because of the staff that we have and the relationships in the organization that we have built, as well as as the community, has been what I know I come back to as having been the most enjoyable period of my entire career.

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu.

Top photo: Bonfield preparing to deliver his recommended 2020-21 budget over Zoom in an empty city council chamber. Photo courtesy Tom Bonfield

Durham launches new mask campaign supporting local businesses

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, masks of many colors, patterns and materials have become ubiquitous — or at least, they’re supposed to be. 

In April, Mayor Steve Schewel mandated masks in public, making Durham the first city in North Carolina to do so. In early July, the city required all businesses to post signage telling their customers to wear masks in an effort to slow the rise of COVID-19 cases. 

Now, the city and county have jointly launched a campaign in an effort to promote local businesses and unify the city around wearing masks to protect each other, called Durham Has You Covered.

“Durham Has You Covered is one part of a larger strategy for helping residents comply with local face covering orders,” said Ryan Smith, Innovation Team Project manager for the city and a member of the Recovery and Renewal Task Force. “We want to make it easier for residents and small businesses to find face coverings and at the same time we also want to support our local producers.”

Smith added that there is a certain level of accountability and heightened quality of products when people are able to buy local. 

The city and county are working with Cover Durham, a community health coalition, on the campaign. The initiative provides the latest federal and state recommendations on personal protective equipment and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Durham Has You Covered also provides contact information for 20 local mask suppliers, in order to help support businesses that may be struggling during the pandemic. 

Megan Eilenberger is one of those business owners. She enjoys sewing in her free time, and, like many others, began making masks for friends and family in March once the pandemic started getting worse. 

“We experienced job loss in our family due to COVID,” she said. “In order to somewhat replace some of that income, I started to charge.”

Megan Eilenberger is selling her homemade masks through Durham’s new campaign. Photo courtesy Megan Eilenberger

Eilenberger said she has already sold around 400 colorful, custom masks for $8 each and donated 50 others. She is hopeful this campaign will boost her business. 

Other companies in Durham have pivoted to making masks. Talib Graves-Manns’ luggage manufacturing company, Life on Autopilot, started losing business because of the pandemic.

“We’re not selling much luggage,” he said. “So we repurposed our sewers to do masks.”

He said they manufacture around 5,000 masks a week, which are being sold in bulk to medical suppliers and bodegas in Durham. He hopes to get a larger deal with the city to grow this new business, called the Masked Buddha. 

Another supplier is Ngozi Design, a 10-year-old African-inspired clothing and graphic design company run by Andrea Carter. Ngozi has sold over 3,000 custom face coverings in 23 states since the start of the pandemic. Although it’s too early to tell how Durham’s campaign has impacted her sales, she attributes her success to word-of-mouth, her website and this new initiative. Her team “can’t make them fast enough,” she said.

“I’m always encouraged that I can do something to help,” she added. “I’m just grateful that I can make the masks, and hopefully they help men, women and children.”

Some of Andrea Carter’s mask designs. Photo courtesy Andrea Carter

Smith, from the city, said the campaign has emphasized businesses owned by people of color. “I think that it is putting our equity values into action and into practice to lift those historically marginalized businesses up, and we feel that that is always important,” he said. 

The new campaign is one of many strategies the city is using to ensure residents and city staff stay safe during the pandemic. 

In conjunction with mandates, the city is printing posters in Spanish and English and distributing them to local businesses, along with mask sets that they can hand out to customers.

The city, county and Durham Public Schools have contributed $67,000 to Cover Durham to purchase and distribute about 4,000 masks. Duke University also matched that donation in mid-July, and the city hopes to use it to purchase additional masks in the next few weeks, said Smith. 

Eilenberger said initiatives like this have made her proud to be a Durhamite. 

“I see people who post outside of Durham in neighboring counties who complain about residents not wearing masks and I can always comment on social media and say, ‘well, you’re clearly not living in Durham because that’s not the case here,” she said.

If you’re in need of a mask, you can order through the Durham Has You Covered website. Local businesses or individuals interested in donating masks can contact The Scrap Exchange.

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu.

Top photo: Andrea Carter, who runs mask supplier Ngozi Designs. Photo courtesy Andrea Carter

How a Durham artist tracked the city’s public safety budget for a decade

Andrea Cobb, a nationally known artist based in Durham, collected and filed away the annual property tax notices she received in the mail for more than a decade. She carefully examined each, paying particular attention to the chart at the bottom of the page explaining how the city spent its general fund — taxpayer money that covers core city services.

“I wanted to know where my taxes are going,” said Cobb, a 55-year-old Durham native whose art clients include Burt’s Bees, INDY Week, Whole Foods and Kleenex.

Self-portrait by Andrea Cobb. Courtesy of the artist.

She saw a glaring trend in the numbers: In 2009, 35% of the general fund spending went to public safety, which includes the city’s police department, fire department, 911 call services and emergency management. 

That public safety spending rose steadily over the years, reaching a high of about 52% in the 2017- 2018 fiscal year.

Durham’s final city budgets over the same period show that about 60% of public safety money went to the police department each year.

In 2019, property taxes in Durham paid for half of the general fund’s budget. About 50% of the general fund was allotted to public safety at large, and $65 million of that went to the police department — about 61% of the total public safety budget last year.

Cobb said the realization that a decent chunk of her taxes were going to police, rather than public services like education and social services, concerned her.

“It’s a lot of money,” Cobb said. “And, you know, it’s abusive what police departments are doing, and there’s people in our city that have been killed by police.”

Over the years, Cobb has repeatedly asked city officials publicly and privately about the way the city spends property taxes. She’s still grappling with one question: Why is such a large proportion of taxpayer money going to public safety? 

City manager Tom Bonfield told 9th Street Journal that there are several reasons for the increase, including annual raises for police officers and firefighters. “That’s something like a million dollars a year for both the fire department and the police department,” he said. 

There are also specific expenses that account for changes over the years, he said. In 2009, the city scaled back the number of police officers covered in the general fund budget for several years and then added them back in later, which led to increases in the public safety budget. In 2017, the city built a fire station and hired 60 firefighters.

“To take a 2009 number and a 2020 number and then try to run the math without going in and looking at every year, it is a significant oversimplification,” he said. 

Cobb’s concern about the police budget is one that has been discussed in Durham for years. And this year, it’s top of mind for many residents and officials amid protests against police brutality and the City Council’s recent decision to increase the police budget by 5%.

Gathering the data

Cobb has been a resident of Old West Durham since 1994, and said that illegal activity took place in the duplex she called home for years. One incident involved her neighbor; she called the police due to her suspicions about drug dealing. But she said not much changed after that.

“I got to a point where I’m paying the police to keep me safe, and I don’t feel safe,” she said.

So she started saving her tax notices.

Durham General Fund 2019 expenditures, seen at the bottom of Cobb’s tax notices. Photo courtesy Andrea Cobb

In 2011, she reached out via email to Steve Schewel during his City Council campaign to ask about the budget. According to their email correspondence, he told her to contact him again if he won. 

So Cobb emailed again the next year about the suspected drug dealer, writing that she was “a bit peeved with the police asking me to keep helping them given 45% of property tax is paying them to keep [the] district safe,” according to an email she shared with 9th Street Journal. 

In 2014, her questions came up in a more public way when the city held a virtual town hall to discuss increasing city property tax rates to pay for voter-approved debt and public safety spending. 

Interested residents were asked to submit their questions for the town hall via email or twitter, so Cobb sent an inquiry to former assistant director of Budget and Management Services, John Allore, asking why there was a need for an increase when “so much of taxpayer funds were going to public safety.”

Former mayor Bill Bell told attendees that public safety is a combination of many departments. “I constantly remind others that it’s not just a law enforcement piece alone,” he said, adding that the police budget included enough funding to pay the number of officers the department requested.

Don Moffitt, a City Council member at the time, said the city could always do more to keep the public safer and encourage the police to engage with the community more. “Are we doing enough? That’s what you’re asking, and the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ We try to hit the balance.”

Graphic by Cameron Oglesby.

(For more information on the city expenditures above, click here for an interactive graphic.)

Cobb said that she gave up on contacting city officials after that, since no one followed up with her about her data. “I just got really discouraged by the responses,” she said. “After a few years of persistent effort, I became disenchanted being a lone seeker.”

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson was not on the council at the time Cobb brought up her grievances. She told 9th Street Journal that the annual police budget increases this year were largely due to an increase in retirement benefits and an increase in health insurance — things she said the council doesn’t have “much control over.” 

“Even if we never hire another police officer in the city of Durham the cost of employing the police officers that we already have will drive the budget up every year,” she said. 

Bonfield also said that most social services are covered through Durham County’s budget, and can’t simply be switched from public safety to other areas. 

“To say, ‘I don’t want to pay for the police, I just want that money to go to education,’ [is] a  misnomer because that’s not the structure of the way the state of North Carolina is around public services,” Bonfield said. 

Hope for her hometown

While Cobb has continued to save her tax statements, she isn’t as vocal about it as she used to be. She tries to keep the conversation going with her friends and family. She’s also created more artwork centered around guns, drug use and systemic racism, and said she is open to working with the city should they desire art focusing on these concepts for awareness. 

Cobb said it’s “too much” to go out and join protests against police violence at her age, but she supports the effort to pressure cities to defund city police departments. 

The work to evaluate police budgets and responsibilities, which has been a years-long conversation among city officials, is progressing in Durham. The City Council recently launched and funded the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force to figure out how to redistribute police services and funding.

Painting by Andrea Cobb

City officials will look at their recommendations and determine whether they are financially and operationally feasible. Bonfield said that from a budgetary perspective, conversations about police defunding will not end with the task force recommendation. 

“There was an acknowledgment that this wasn’t going to happen overnight and this was an aspiration, not a guarantee,” he said.

Cobb is hopeful that in sharing her tax statements and the observations she’s made, she can help advocate for more clarity from city officials during this time of social unrest, and move towards redistributing police funding.

“My place in Durham’s community is tiny, although I have contributed a lot of artwork for businesses here,” she said. “If I continue to live in Durham, I want to cultivate a bigger purpose.”

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

Pandemic litter? It’s here

If you’ve walked down almost any well-traveled street in Durham during the last four months, you’ve likely seen wadded up masks or disposable gloves along with typical roadside litter like candy wrappers and soda bottles. 

The coronavirus pandemic has brought environmental benefits such as reductions in air pollution, carbon emissions and environmental degradation. But littering, with pandemic-linked waste in the mix, has increased.

Across the country, cities have reported higher rates of discarded personal protective equipment like gloves and masks, or PPE, along roads, in parking lots, by bus stops and in waterways. 

“We’re really trying to discourage people from doing that because it’s not fair to whoever needs to come along and pick it up afterwards,” said Tania Dautlick, executive director of Keep Durham Beautiful.

In addition to PPE litter, Durham has seen an uptick in all types of trash tossed where it should not go. The city collected 30 tons of litter a month since the pandemic started — four tons more than average, said Phillip Powell Sr., assistant director for Durham’s Department of Public Works Operations and Street Maintenance Division. 

People concerned about litter have observed an increase in illegal dumping of household goods and other trash too, according to Dautlick, whose nonprofit group has organized volunteer cleanups of public and private land across the City of Durham and Durham County for decades. 

In March, the city’s Waste Disposal and Recycling Center closed to the public, restricting trash and recycling services to curbside pick-up. Residents have been disposing of more items, sometimes leaving trash along roadsides or in the woods. 

“People have likely had some extra time to clean up their homes and clean out, and they’ve been looking for a way to get rid of things,” Powell said. 

Keeping up with this has proven difficult. In the earlier months of the pandemic, Powell said. That is because operations were scaled back. Employees only cleaned up bus stops, city streets, curbsides and sidewalks along the over 3,000 streets that Public Works maintains when essential. 

Keep Durham Beautiful volunteers took a break, too. The nonprofit, which helped mobilize 3,290 cleanup volunteers last year, only recently started handing out its pickup kits again, which contain protective gloves, neon vests and trash bags. 

“We had stopped for a little while because we just wanted to support everybody staying home,” said Dautlick. “We also weren’t sure what sort of exposure people could have from litter because we were still learning more about how long the virus lasts on surfaces.”

Keep Durham Beautiful is encouraging residents via social media, bi-weekly newsletters, and their website to get out and collect litter on their own.

For the environmentally conscious, cleaning up litter on roads or trails is a habit. But uncertainties about the new coronavirus pandemic brought a degree of fear to that practice. 

Today guidance from public health organizations, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, says SARS-CoV-2 spreads most easily from person to person rather than from contaminated surfaces. But the true risks that objects and surfaces pose were not clear at the start of the pandemic.

Luckily research suggests that the virus does not last long in direct sunlight, a fact that quelled some of Keep Durham Beautiful’s members’ fears around picking up roadside litter, Dautlick said.

Still, Dautlick encourages volunteers picking up other people’s trash to “handle it as little as possible, to wear gloves and put it straight into a trash bag, and then don’t sort through it.” 

Her organization also urges social distancing and volunteer outings close to home. “We are having a lot of family groups or small friend groups or neighbors going out, up and down their street, but staying socially distant,” she said. 

Powell and Dautlick are hopeful that the amount of litter, PPE and illegal dumping will decrease again as more Durham businesses open back up. As people return to work, they will spend less time at home cleaning. And as recycling and trash services get back to normal, litter hauls should return to pre-COVID-19 numbers, they said.

“My hope, certainly, is that people continue to become more aware of the negative impacts of littering and begin to reduce,” Dautlick said.

9th Street reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu

At top: A discarded mask on the ground not far from Duke Health’s coronavirus drive-up testing site off Erwin Road. Photo by Henry Haggart

Durham task force will assess community safety, police funding

Just over a year ago, the grassroots coalition Durham Beyond Policing proposed that Durham launch a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force to help transition some public safety responsibilities — and eventually, funding — away from the police department and towards social services.

The proposal was in limbo until late March, when the council passed bylaws for the task force that outlined broad objectives and set expectations for appointing members.  

Then, the coronavirus pandemic happened, halting any more progress on it. 

But on June 10, as protests against police violence began ramping up in Durham and across the U.S., the city council approved $1 million to officially launch the task force. 

“The renewed interest in the task force was directly tied to spikes in violence here in our city and shootings here in our city,” said Mark-Anthony Middleton, council member representing Durham Ward 2

“I guess George Floyd has sort of put it on steroids now,” he added, referring to the death of Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police in May. 

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson said some ideas for Durham’s task force include creating a new City Department of Community Safety that would specialize in the transition away from policing; establishing an Office of Violence Prevention like Minneapolis, which is trying to reduce the risk of community violence; or hiring consultants to communicate with other cities and counties working to reallocate police budgets. 

She said Durham is also moving forward with evaluating police departments to see where there may be opportunities to transfer responsibilities to other agencies, and auditing 911 call systems to begin the redistribution of call responses for non-violent crimes. 

The county, city and the school board will each appoint five people to the task force. Johnson said there are certain requirements for representing community members of diverse ages, races and expertise. For example, the task force must have two people under 25 and at least three people who focus on racial justice

According to the bylaws, members are expected to work together to conduct a “comprehensive review of existing institutional and community-based public safety and wellness resources,” hold three listening sessions in 90 days and make recommendations about how Durham can become safer without using policing, incarceration or other punitive measures. 

Johnson said the $1 million will be used as monthly stipends for task force members as well as for the implementation of the group’s recommendations. The task force is expected to have completed its evaluation and given recommendations within two years of member appointment

“We’ll be relying on the task force to direct the work,” Johnson said, adding that any significant next steps for public safety reform will be decided by the group.

There is no official timeline for appointing members and beginning recommendations. However, Johnson said she is confident it will move forward quickly because of the increased scrutiny of police departments. 

That process is already beginning. On June 25, the school board unanimously voted to support the task force. 

Natalie Beyer, a community volunteer and advocate who is a school board member, told 9th Street Journal that the board hopes to find nominations for the task force from high school principals and equity leaders within the public school system. She added that they will likely announce their choices in August

“I think we can do things better in Durham and I think that’s what this task force could help us imagine,” she said. 

Durham Beyond Policing, which originally proposed the idea, is concerned about whether $1 million is enough to do meaningful work — especially since the city council voted to pass a $70 million police department budget this year. 

“The $1 million felt like an odd sort of consolation prize,” said Durham Beyond Policing organizer Danielle Purifoy. “It just feels like an empty kind of gesture.”

Johnson said the $1 million is just a start. As the task force starts providing recommendations and public safety services are transferred to other departments, she said she anticipates the financial investment to increase. 

Purifoy also raised a concern that some city council members share: Ensuring the task force represents community members most affected by policing.   

Middleton vowed to make sure members are diverse. “It’s absolutely critical to the efficacy of this task force that the people on it are the people that are most impacted by police contact,” he said.

One way to achieve that goal, Purifoy said, is to ensure meeting times accommodate working people and offer fair compensation. 

“We have not placed a strict timeline on this because we felt like there’s going to be a lot of back and forth that we’re going to need to do in order to make sure that the task force is in the best position possible to to do the work that it needs to do,” Purifoy said. 

The task force is part of Durham Beyond Policing’s broader plan to get the city to divest from the current police system and redistribute funding to services that address mental health, homelessness and addiction. 

Finding alternatives “that are going to actually work in the city and be as well-funded and as well-supported as the police” will take time, Purifoy said. “It’s a trade-off between making sure that this is an urgent thing, but also not pushing so fast that we end up with something that won’t work.”

Durham city council members say they’re committed to continuing the debate about how communities should spend money instead of policing. 

Middleton wrote in an op-ed recently that it would be irresponsible for the city to immediately cut police funding without first gradually transitioning services to other departments. 

“My belief is that if the initiatives have the expected impacts there will be an almost naturally occurring defunding effect as the mission of the police department is fine-tuned and right-sized,” he wrote.

Johnson, who is also pushing for gradual defunding, said this work has to “create the space for these kinds of conversations in our community around how we stay safe, around what the most effective ways to stay safe are and about how we can do things differently.”

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

Top photo: Artwork by Sonofsimba. Photo by Henry Haggart.