On Monday afternoon, in the sweltering heat, hundreds of people — many of them low-wage and frontline workers during the pandemic — gathered in front of the McDonald’s on West Morgan Street in Durham as part of the “Strike for Black Lives.”
The event was organized by the group NC Raise Up, which is connected with the national organization Fight for $15 that advocates for living wages, workers’ unions and workers’ rights. It was one of a series of demonstrations in over two dozen cities across the nation on July 20.
The workers demanded the minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour and asked for hazard pay and better protective equipment during COVID-19 pandemic. Speakers said they wanted employers of essential workers during the pandemic to commit to economic and racial justice.
A new street mural reading “STRIKE FOR BLACK LIVES” in large red letters was painted at the intersection of Morgan Street and Rigsbee Avenue before the strike. The mural is not the first to show up on the roads of Durham or other cities. It’s part of a nationwide trend in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following weeks-long protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville, Kentucky police.
9th Street Journal photographer Henry Haggart can be reached at email@example.com.
After a week of protests against police killings of black people, Durham activist Skip Gibbs and several other members of the grassroots organization Other America Movement (OAM) met with city officials including Durham Police Chief C. J. Davis, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead and Mayor Steve Schewel.
Gibbs said the two-hour meeting was about getting city officials to offer concrete solutions to address systemic racism, police reform and poverty.
“We’re saying: If you guys end systematic racism, if you guys give us resources in our community so we can have better schools, more grocery stores, better-resourced community centers, then we won’t need police in our neighborhoods because we have everything that we need to be functioning people,” he said.
The meeting, held at event space The Fruit (formerly called Durham Fruit and Produce Company), was closed to representatives from several other community groups who wanted to join the conversation, as well as most members of the press.
OAM organized a protest on Monday that blocked traffic briefly on the Durham Freeway at South Alston Avenue. The group demanded police leaders agree to a conversation to discuss solutions to police violence and poverty.
They succeeded in getting the meeting, but it was invitation-only — a restriction Gibbs said was necessary because of limited space. Tim Walter, owner of The Fruit, told 9th Street Journal only 15 people could attend with proper social distancing. About 15 people waited outside, including reporters and activists from other groups.
At first, OAM livestreamed the talk from its Facebook and Instagram pages. But the organization later shut the livestream down.
Gibbs told reporters and activists he cut the feed because “people have a hard time being honest when there’s cameras around.”
The decision to hold the meeting behind closed doors frustrated several community members who gathered outside on the sidewalk.
Michael Taylor, who formed the community group Restoring The Foundation, said that when residents of public housing complex McDougald Terrace — the majority of whom are black — were displaced earlier this year because of natural gas leaks, they went to a city council meeting and were allowed inside to voice their complaints.
“So, when this happened, the same issues, why is it private now?” he asked.
Andréa “Muffin” Hudson, who serves on the Durham Human Relations Commission and directs the North Carolina Community Bail Fund, arrived about an hour into the meeting. She said she came after receiving a call about community members not being allowed inside.
She expressed her concerns to Gibbs when he came outside to speak with activists.
“When you have community members asking can they come in, community members should never be turned away from anything,” she said. “Anytime you shut the community out and you say you’re speaking for the community, the community will turn on you really fast.”
Hudson said she wanted to tell Sheriff Birkhead that public resources should be given to “community-based organizations” such as community kitchens, rather than the police.
“I want them to defund the police and decarcerate Durham county detention [facility],” she said.
Gibbs said he wanted to take a different approach. “If we try to go in and say, oh we’re just going to defund all the police, it’s not going to work,” he said.
After the meeting ended, Gibbs announced that officials agreed to form a committee so community organizers could have a direct channel to discuss problems they faced and work with officials toward solutions.
Gibbs called for unity among organizers and asked those present to appoint a liaison from their groups.
“What’s going to work is us having a unified, solid voice,” he said. “What’s going to work is expressing peacefully to our government officials what we need.”
But some activists expressed skepticism about the process. Taylor, a longtime acquaintance of Gibbs, asked him about the livestream being shut down while city officials stood in silence.
“You don’t think the dishonesty should have been seen?” Taylor said. “These are people who take our taxpayer dollars.”
“We stand here, right now, to say we are here to help.” he said. “As Sheriff, I am committed to criminal justice reform. As a fellow Durham resident, I pledge to work together to change the status quo in order to level the playing field for everyone.”
Top photo: Andréa “Muffin” Hudson (right) talks with Skip Gibbs (left) and another OAM organizer during an invitation-only meeting with city officials. Photo by Charlie Zong
An American flag flails halfheartedly beside the demonstration in downtown Durham. A Pan-African flag — larger and catching more gusts of wind — is paraded through the crowd.
In the heart of downtown, where Main Street meets Morris Street meets Chapel Hill Boulevard, Durhamites have gathered in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation. Under a gray sky, they wear masks and hold signs. The air is ripe with electricity and anticipation, like we are on the brink of a storm.
“End White Silence,” demands one sign, written in red, white and blue.
Another sign simply says, “GEORGE FLOYD,” potent with a power that has mobilized millions.
Beside the woman holding this sign, a fellow protestor holds a piece of cardboard. In Sharpie, it begs the question that has brought so many people from the virus-protected safety of their homes out to this demonstration and others like it.
“Are me and my family next?”
They’re here because they saw it on social media – first the horrific video of Floyd being pinned under a police officer’s knee while he gasped “I can’t breathe!”, and then the call to action for protesters, which spread quickly through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
One participant mentions that she saw a post online about protests in Raleigh on Monday, which she also plans to attend. As she says this, someone sitting nearby asks for logistical details.
The protest has no agenda, so people in the crowd just speak up.
“Ain’t nobody gonna save us but us!” shouts one woman, standing in the center of the demonstration. Others circle around to listen as she calls for community action, for holding each other accountable, and for getting out the vote.
“We didn’t fight each other, we fought for each other,” she says. The crowd echoes her passion, chanting “No justice, no peace.”
More protestors take their turns sharing stories and making short speeches. On the outskirts of the crowd, an older gentleman wearing a blue plaid sportcoat adorned with a “F— Trump ” button, is offering everyone squirts of hand sanitizer.
Beyond frustration though, many in the crowd are angry.
“F— the police,” rings out occasionally from the protestors as cops on motorcycles loudly circle on neighboring streets.
Talking through his mask — blue, with the word “Democrat” patterned across it— Jan Cromartie, who mentions that he is a candidate for the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District, says he appreciates the way the community has organized to support the movement, but hopes to see grander, institutional changes as a result.
“Rhetoric is good,” he says, “but I believe in action.”
Droplets of rain start to fall as the protest continues into the evening.
In photo at top, demonstrators held a peaceful rally in downtown Durham on Saturday. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal
The white plastic tables in the basement of Refiner’s Fire Community Church remain mostly empty on this Wednesday night, giving the Durham Transportation Department open house the feel of a high school prom. Soft jazz from the congregation’s nearby choir practice wafts in and plays into the flirtatious energy. Durham is dancing with change: potentially re-striping lanes along East Main Street, from Elizabeth to Alston.
Spectrum News shows up for the occasion, which gives the room a sense of importance. A videographer captures the action at the sign-in table as people start to trickle in.
Across the room, to the subtle melody of a hidden chorus, people discuss where the painted lines should go on Main Street. The Transportation Department has set up two folding tables with mirroring displays of the proposed projects. They show a birds-eye view of the road with the potential changes. One option provides parking on the north side and a buffer to protect cyclists in the westbound bike lane. The other offers parking on the south side and protects eastbound bikers.
Durhamites in business casual stand around them, looking puzzled and clicking their city-issued pens contemplatively. At one table, a few landlords and developers from the area chat up transportation representative Ellen Beckmann about unmarked loading zones. At the other, cycling safety carries the conversation.
Bike Durham board member James Nishimuta is here to represent the cause. He decided to get involved after moving here from San Francisco and noticing the “lack of bike infrastructure.”
Bike Durham is advocating protective measures, such as four-foot lanes with protective buffers on both sides. But Nishimuta, helmet in hand, says the group is often frustrated with the city’s tired response, “That’s not what we do.”
The distant vocals start to fade as the meeting comes to a close. The project blueprints, pristine and promising at the start of the evening, have been marked up. Red pens lay strewn across the table, exhausted from the night and all the mansplaining. Beckmann says that the evening was a success, but the department has plans for further outreach. This is only the beginning.
In photo above, open house attendees appear engaged as Transportation Department representatives explain where paint will dry. | Photo by Carmela Gualiano, The 9th Street Journal
It’s dinner time in downtown Durham when Michael Youakim drives slowly past the glass facade of Pizzeria Toro, instantly grabbing the attention of everyone inside the restaurant. His silver Lexus is covered with Christmas-themed lights, stickers, and wrapping paper, as well as a miniature plastic pine tree strapped to the roof with more lights. Customers and waitresses pull out their phones to take pictures.
Enjoying the crowd’s reaction, Youakim stops the car. This quickly results in angry honking from the drivers behind him, but he doesn’t care. The 31-year-old Uber driver lowers the windows, blasts the music, and pops his door open so he can dance for his audience.
Though it’s only the first week of December, buildings and plazas all around Main Street are covered in twinkling lights. So far it’s been a slow month for his business; partygoers and young socialites are Youakim’s primary demographic, and he suspects they prefer to stay home in the cold.
He gets a rider request from the Durham hotel, only a few blocks ahead. On the drive over, pedestrians point, laugh and take pictures, which is exactly what he wants. “It’s about making people laugh, giving them something to look at and just smile about.”
Kim and Dave Bingel, 30 and 35, emerge from the lobby and hesitate for a moment before climbing into the Uber. In the backseat, they find wigs, glasses, a Minion stuffed animal, and two tablets installed with a classic Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Kim instantly puts on a blue curly wig and picks up one of the remotes. “I haven’t played this since I was twelve,” she says.
Youakim asks them for song requests, points out where the water bottles are, and plays around with the level of the bass. “Best Uber ever?” he asks.
Dave, Kim’s husband, who is also playing Nintendo, agrees. “Best Uber ever,” he says.
After leaving Kim and Dave at their home in Colonial Village, Youakim drives around the dimly-lit neighborhood waiting for another request, the lights from his car illuminating the street. It’s only 8 p.m., and the Uber app predicts there won’t be much business until 10. He slows to study some red Christmas lights on the sides of somebody’s driveway.
He has always loved lights and their ability to make things brighter, happier. His sneakers have light-up soles. His car is filled with an array of illuminated items, including a neon sign in the back that says “Lit.” “I’m catering to the people who are going out and trying to have a good time,” he says. “The ones who see me and think, I need to be in that Uber. It may look cheesy, but I just want to make people’s day, get them hype, prepare them to go have fun in my own city.”
Standing in front of a bright blue Butterball truck, Mark-Anthony Middleton declares that Durham doesn’t measure its greatness by the size of its buildings, the cuisine of its restaurants, or who’s playing at DPAC.
What matters, the City Council member says, is how it treats the most vulnerable residents.
Outside Urban Ministries, near some of the city’s public housing, Middleton is presenting 200 turkeys to organizations that feed the hungry. Seventy-five of them and 345 pounds of sandwich meat will go to Urban Ministries.
“Let’s get the birds,” says Middleton, vapor coming out of his mouth.
Less than a week before Thanksgiving, Middleton tells the small gaggle of reporters and onlookers that nearly 17 percent of Durham residents live in “food insecurity.” More than a dozen onlookers dressed in ragged clothing across the street listen intently.
Middleton then reads a proclamation from Mayor Steve Schewel, declaring Nov. 16 to be “Butterball LLC Triangle Donations Day” in Durham. He warns that if he slurs a little, it’s because of the cold.
Without slurring, he proclaims that Butterball, the nation’s largest turkey producer, makes more than one billion pounds of “healthy, wholesome” turkey per year.
“We own this holiday,” says Butterball representative Ron Tomaszewski, vice president of human resources. “To be recognized specifically for it is outstanding.”
Formalities over, it’s turkey time.
There are three pallets of boxed turkeys in the back of the refrigerated truck. (Did we mention the turkeys are Butterballs?) Volunteers heave and push the cardboard boxes to the edge and load them in carts.
Betty Finoh, a social worker, loads one of the carts with frosty turkeys.
With the help of two other people, she pushes the cart up the curb, but it gets caught in a rut and nearly tips over. They rescue it and push it a few feet further to their car.
Donning a bright blue Carolina Panthers hat and sparkling earrings, Finoh loads the back seat of a sedan with 30 turkeys. There are so many she’ll have trouble looking back through the rear view mirror.
“This is great,” Finoh says. “We can put food on the table for people who can’t afford it.”
For Halloween, Gunther Peck and his family planned to carve pumpkins. But his 12-year-old daughter had a different idea. How about they make a spooky sign? So the family got a big sheet, some glitter and colorful paint. They hung the banner over the entrance to their home in Trinity Park.
It said, “Vote! Before it’s too late.”
At eight o’clock the next morning, Peck, a Duke public policy professor and volunteer for Durham for Organizing Action, pulls into the Durham bus station in a teal decade-old Subaru Forester. It’s abuzz with people carrying briefcases, others pushing strollers, most wearing puffy coats and knit hats as they stride toward their bus. He grabs his clipboard, stuffs his keys in his jeans pocket and walks to the circle where the buses line up.
Most people avoid making eye contact with the enthusiastic, bespectacled professor. It’s clear that he wants something from them.
“Hi, sir, are you planning to early vote?”
“Ma’am, early voting is going on right now. Here’s some information about where and when you can vote and what’s on the ballot this year.”
“I already voted.”
He does a lap around the bus station. No takers.
Finally, Bobby Haynie, a veteran with a salt and pepper beard and only a few teeth left, approaches Peck and announces he’d like to vote.
Peck, who has a rugged look but warm eyes and a gentle voice, explains the deal: he’ll drive Haynie to the Board of Elections to cast his ballot and then drop him off wherever he wants.
Haynie agrees and gets into the passenger seat of Peck’s car. The 69-year-old is wearing a San Antonio Spurs cap and white sneakers.
During the ride, Haynie peruses a sample ballot while Peck explains what’s at stake, from judicial positions to constitutional amendments.
“I’ll tell you why I’m here,” Peck says. “Our voting rights are in danger. There is a proposed amendment to the constitution requiring a photo id that would make it a lot harder for many citizens to vote.”
He’s been volunteering to drive people to the polls during early voting. Over the course of the 18-day period, he’ll drive dozens of Durhamites.
Haynie says he tries to vote every election. “It’s my civic duty.”
He understands civic duty. He was drafted and served in the army in the ‘70s. Since then, he earned a degree from North Carolina Central University and now works at a real estate development company downtown.
After he votes at the Board of Elections office, Haynie ambles back to Peck’s car. He keeps his “I Voted” sticker tucked inside the pocket of his well-worn, mustard-yellow jacket.
As they pull out of the parking lot, Peck asks, “What was your best vote? The one you’re most proud of.”
“The back page — all of the amendments,” says Haynie. “I didn’t think they need to start screwing with the constitution.”
(Top Photo of Gunther Peck and Bobby Haynie by Katie Nelson)