On a sunny September morning, the picture window near Courtroom 4D is framed by blue sky. It’s around 9:10 a.m. in the Durham County Courthouse and about five people mill about the corridor. A defendant scrolls through his emails and mutters nervously, as bursts of R&B music echo from someone else’s cell phone. Lawyers scold their clients: “Don’t lie to me.”
By 10:30 a.m., the people in the hallway have had their cases heard. But Tyi’sean Matthews, now in the courtroom, still waits.
Finally, he walks out. The slim 21-year-old in a blue-and-green plaid shirt and dark pants shouts to no one in particular, “I really want to burn this f—ing building down, and it’d be easy.”
Then he looks at the ground, shoulders hunched, eyes cast downward.
A wide-eyed bailiff swiftly emerges behind him. Positioned between the courtroom door and Matthews, the bailiff gently and repeatedly explains that his case will be heard when his public defender, Rebekka Olsen, finishes her business upstairs in Superior Court.
Matthews’ nearly 90-minute wait palesin comparison to the year and half his case has been stalled in Durham’s legal system.The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed the already-busy Durham County Courthouse, forcing those caught up in the system to put their lives on hold. The young man just wants to get home to his dogs.
To an unconvinced Matthews, the bailiff further explains that the public defender will be coming any moment now. Under the threat of being charged with failure to appear if he leaves, Matthews resigns to roaming down the hallway.
He holds his phone as he walks, looking into the screen. He shouts again, threatening to “blow up downtown Durham.”
Matthews returns to the courtroom, phone still in hand. He tells the person on the other end that he is “sitting here doing nothing.” A bailiff approaches, and he hangs up. Then District Court Judge Amanda Maris looks over the near-empty courtroom and asks about the matter involving “the gentleman in plaid.”
Olsen walks in shortly after. Judge Maris greets them with “Good morning,” as Matthews stands, now silently composed. His head hangs so far forward that his short locks obscure his face.
In his initial outburst, Matthews, who faces charges for larceny of a firearm and breaking or entering a motor vehicle, claimed that he’d already made seven appearances related to the case. Judge Maris says it’s unclear why, but the court file shows his case has been postponed 10 times.
Later, in response to questions about Matthews’ case, Olsen does not say whether her client knew she would be delayed this morning. In an email, she does stress that she has been to court with him twice — in late February and again today.
In the courtroom, Assistant District Attorney Andrew House says that his office has not assigned a prosecutor to Matthews’ case nor subpoenaed the relevant witness. Judge Maris describes the lack of progress in the case as “unacceptable.”
The prosecution and defense settle on a day to convene again. “It will be the last court date,” Judge Maris promises Matthews.
Her assurances bring him little comfort.
“I really don’t care,” Matthews says a few minutes later, outside the courthouse. “They could have just thrown me in jail for 45 days….The judge couldn’t tell me sh– about nothing, and she’s supposed to be the top person in the building….I could just go disappear on you stupid motherf—ers, and y’all never see me again.”
The sound of metal leg cuffs pierced the hum of shuffled papers and creaky benches as Juan Gomez entered Courtroom 5A. For the half-hour Gomez was there, this was the most noise he made. In a room where words can shape one’s fate, he sat in silence, awaiting his own.
In a muted red Durham County Jail jumpsuit, he took his seat in the front. Then, all eyes shifted back to Judge Nancy Gordon as she continued down the docket of thirteen domestic violence cases on Aug. 30.
Gomez, a 32-year-old with shoulder-length black hair, stared at the floor and waited for his name to be called.
He was in District Court for assaulting a woman in late January. He failed to appear in court five times prior, according to Durham County Courthouse records.
Yet Gomez found himself in the courtroom after a separate arrest in Rowan County in May put him in custody. He then spent 110 days in Durham County Jail. Now, he hoped Judge Gordon would accept his plea bargain.
A few minutes before Gomez’s case began, two women entered the courtroom to watch his fate unfold. They came to support Gomez, according to his public defender Cassandra Tilley.
Courtrooms are known for their drama, in part due to their iconic sounds — a witness’s oath, a jury’s verdict, the bang of a gavel. But sometimes, spoken word falls aside and silent communication takes center stage.
This was the case for Gomez and the two women who sat in the last row of benches. Unable to mouth a greeting through their masks and seated too far away for Gomez to hear, they relied on gestures and facial expressions.
The younger of the two locked eyes with Gomez and her breath hitched. She brought a hand to her mask, tilted her head sadly and blew him a kiss. Gomez lifted both hands as far as his cuffs would let him and waved sheepishly.
The three of them waited as Judge Gordon finished other cases, glancing at each other from time to time.
The younger woman picked at a scab on her right hand. The older woman clenched her hands together. Judge Gordon finally called Gomez, their anxiety palpable.
The case moved quickly, as both sides looked to settle the matter.
Although Jordan Childress, the victim, sat behind her attorney Michael Wilcox, she too, was silent.
“Her only condition is that he not assault, threaten, harass, intimidate or interfere with her peaceful living,” said Wilcox, assistant district attorney in Durham County. Speaking on behalf of Childress, he consented to the plea.
From a back corner of the room, the two women craned their necks and peered across in an attempt to catch a glimpse of Childress. Unsuccessful, they leaned back. One crossed her arms over her chest. The other sighed and returned to picking her scab.
“Are you asking that he stay away from you?” Judge Gordon directed to Childress, her amplified voice cutting through the courtroom’s white noise.
“No, not necessarily, I just…” Childress trailed off.
“You just want him to not assault you,” Judge Gordon interjected.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” she mumbled, as the judge asked her to stand up.
In a white tank top, with an oversized black purse on her shoulder, Childress looked straight ahead at Judge Gordon, who deliberated silently. Gomez watched her from his corner. The two women glanced back and forth between them.
“Anything anybody want to say?” Judge Gordon snapped, but neither Gomez nor Childress said a word.
Instead, Tilley spoke up. She asked the court to accept the plea and remit Gomez’s fines. He doesn’t anticipate finding a job upon release and hasn’t made any money in the last three months in jail. In short, he couldn’t afford Tilley’s services.
“I’ll accept the plea, I’ll remit the money,” Judge Gordon said, with the begrudging tone of someonedissatisfied with the choices presented.
If she hadn’t accepted the plea, Gomez would only face another 40 days in jail. The maximum punishment for assault on a female in North Carolina is 150 days, and he already served 110.
“Don’t assault her again,” she warned Gomez. Turning to Childress, she advised, “And you need to be smart.”
The two women still held their breath, as Judge Gordon called the next name on the docket. The case was over, but their conversation with Gomez was not – he waved, and the younger woman placed her right hand over her heart in response. He rubbed his eyes and looked back at the floor.
A neighborhood email list promising leftover vaccines launched Bruce, a diabetic Durhamite, on an odyssey. In want and need of a COVID-19 shot, the 76-year-old said he walked through pouring rain to the vaccination clinic at Duke University.
When he arrived, soggy but hopeful, the nurses told him he had been misinformed — they were not taking walk-ins.
“It wasn’t the end of the world, but the principle of it just seemed so crazy,” said Bruce. “It’s just the whole vagueness and randomness of it all, you know?”
Bruce, who got the shot days later, isn’t alone. As the gates inch open, Durhamites are still hustling to get jabbed, flooding social media sites for tips to lock down fast-filling vaccination appointments or get leftover shots.
On reddit pages and Facebook groups, through neighborhood email lists or by word of mouth, people are sharing insights about how to get immunized faster. Many report signing up on waitlists for multiple vaccination sites in and outside of Durham. Some have driven hours to get to well-stocked clinics.
Most people The 9th Street Journal asked about their vaccine quests declined to share their full names. But their stories display how hard some people are working to get vaccines. Becca had more luck than Bruce as a walk-in. She got her first dose of the Moderna vaccine Tuesday by simply showing-up at the Walgreens on Fayetteville Street at the end of the day. Nabbing the leftover dose saved Becca from driving two-and-a-half hours from Durham to a coastal Onslow County clinic that she heard about on her neighborhood email list. But the shot stood for more than saved time.
“It means freedom!” cheered Becca as she waited 15 minutes in the store for potential post-vaccination side-effects. “It means I can hug my friends and go to the gym, and it means I can not stress about ending up in the hospital.”
Social media crowdsourcing
Durhamites discussing out-of-county vaccination options are flooding the r/bullcity reddit board.
User u/_Brandobaris_ said he couldn’t find vaccine appointments via the state health department, county health department or Walgreens when he became eligible in late February. So, he got creative.
“Using friends and reddit, I found hiDrb.com and a couple other NC counties and pharmacies,” he wrote. He joined their waitlists, too.
Ultimately, though, it was his wife’s incessant refreshing of the Walgreens vaccination site that ended up saving the day, he reported. She managed to get them both appointments at a location in Chapel Hill last week, where they received their first doses.
Lisa, a 42-year-old Durhamite whose health issues place her in Group 4, told 9th Street that she had visited over 16 websites trying to find a vaccine appointment. Her plea for help on the r/bullcity page generated hundreds of responses and guidance on where to get a vaccine. Lisa said she has a jab scheduled for Wednesday in Greensboro.
“It’s really difficult,” she said. “I’m a very savvy computer user, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who’s less computer-savvy or doesn’t have a computer to try and navigate all this. There’s just too much information and not a single repository to have it all in one place.”
Bruce said he got on Duke Health’s vaccination waitlist back in December. But after weeks of waiting, he started looking elsewhere. He decided to call the Duke Primary Care Clinic. They put him on their waitlist, too.
“And then again, weeks go by and nothing happens,” Bruce said.
After his fruitless walk through the rain, he finally found the correct email to request an appointment. He received his second dose on March 2.
Bruce knew he wasn’t the only person having trouble. He said a friend has a competition among loved ones to see who will drive the farthest in order to get the vaccine. The friend’s nephew claims the top spot, having driven two-and-a-half hours to the Hertford County town of Ahoskie.
Jamal Patterson, a security guard from Graham County working at a vaccination clinic at Duke’s Blue Devil Tower on Wednesday, said he hoped to secure a leftover vaccine at the end of his shift. His boss said that extra doses might be available to him and his co-workers, he reported. That didn’t work out on two previous days, but he wasn’t giving up.
“At the end of the workday, if they have some leftover, I can be like ‘Hey!’” he said, hopeful it would be his day.
When Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted out his plan to move North Carolina into Phase 2.5, his post garnered dozens of replies for and against the guarded decision.
“I want to say some unkind words,” one Twitter user wrote, “but I will hold it for the polls.”
The tweet’s poster won’t be the only Carolinian carrying coronavirus opinions into the voting booth.
Cooper’s announcement comes during a governor’s race that has been dominated by COVID-19. The governor and his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, fall on nearly opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to handling the pandemic. Cooper describes his approach to reopening as cautious and data driven. Thoughts and face unmasked, Forest has criticized him every step of the way.
Forest, 52, has served as North Carolina’s lieutenant governor since 2013, following a successful career in architecture. In the role, he acts as president of the North Carolina Senate and a voting member of the State Board of Education. Forest is also a member of the North Carolina Advisory Commission on Military Affairs, and serves as the chair of the Energy Policy Council and the Board of Postsecondary Education Credentials.
Cooper, the 63-year-old Democratic incumbent, won his office in 2016, narrowly defeating Republican candidate Pat McCrory. He served as North Carolina’s attorney general for 16 years prior.
The race could be tight. North Carolina is a swing state, and the Cook Political Report classified the governor’s seat as lean Democrat. The outcome may be determined by the success of Cooper’s continued coronavirus response.
Epidemiologists and public health experts say Cooper is making the right decisions. Ahmed Arif, an epidemiologist at UNC Charlotte, said Cooper’s incremental approach is what the state needs to avoid another spike in COVID-19 cases. But it’s not so simple, he added.
“It’s a difficult job for public health professionals to make a case when you’re fighting against an unseen enemy,” Arif said. “People can’t see in front of them how many deaths and infections they’re preventing when they follow the guidelines.”
Tomi Akinyemiju, an epidemiologist and professor of population health sciences at Duke University, is also wary of a new spike in cases as the state continues to reopen. She said she’s thankful for Cooper’s reliance on data-driven benchmarks as he leads the charge against the pandemic.
“We have to guide our decisions with data. Not with emotions, not with money, because at the end of the day we’re talking about human life here,” Akinyemiju said.
With scientists and public health officials in his corner, Cooper continues to slowly lift restrictions. “Governor Cooper is laser-focused on making sure we emerge from the pandemic even stronger than before,” wrote Liz Doherty, Cooper’s director of communications, in an email to The 9th Street Journal. “He’s relied on science and data to make difficult decisions,” she said.
And as he makes these decisions, Cooper is under the spotlight.
For months, the incumbent has given eagerly awaited press conferences as he manages the state’s pandemic response. Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican political consultant in North Carolina, said that Cooper’s leadership role presents a challenge for Forest.
“The whole election is going to be a referendum on Cooper’s handling of coronavirus,” Wrenn told The Atlantic in May. “He’s got a big advantage in that he’s got a microphone. Forest has nothing compared to that,” he said.
Donald Taylor, a professor of public policy at Duke University with a focus in health policy, said that Forest is likely desperate for coverage. It makes sense for Forest to so vocally oppose Cooper’s handling of the pandemic, he said, because he doesn’t have many other options.
“I don’t think Lieutenant Governor Forest has any other case for press,” Taylor said. “There’s so much noise, there’s no way to break through. And he’s losing, so he’s probably doing the only thing he can.”
Despite all the attention on Cooper, Forest has been making waves on the campaign trail, drawing both support and harsh criticism for his in person campaigning. He’s held multiple events with crowds that exceed the limits outlined in Cooper’s executive order, and footage of the events show the vast majority of attendees not wearing face masks or social distancing.
The challenger poses for pictures with supporters, ignoring the CDC’s suggestion of maintaining six feet of distance. “We shake as many hands as we can,” Forest said in an interview with WXII news, at the site of an in person campaign event he held in August.
Nathan Boucher, a Duke University professor of population health sciences and public policy, said he thinks Forest’s extreme anti-Cooper messaging is the basis of his entire campaign.
“Forest has no platform other than being pro-Trump and anti-governor Cooper,” Boucher said. “Nothing that he says is intelligent. There’s nothing evidence based, there’s no plan.”
Forest’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In contrast, Cooper is not campaigning in person at all. “I think the Department of Health and Human Services would tell anyone that if you’re having these kinds of gatherings, that you risk the spread of the virus,” he previously told reporters, referring to Forest’s in person events.
Republican Governors Association spokesperson Amelia Chassé Alcivar criticized Cooper for his remote method of campaigning, calling it “undemocratic,” The Charlotte Observer reported.
Forest’s often flagrant violations of public health recommendations resonate with voters who feel the threat of the virus has been over exaggerated, like the supporters of ReOpen NC, a group that has organized multiple protests against the state’s shut down orders and called for the impeachment of Cooper in July.
Cooper’s evidence based approach to reopening is likely garnering support for him in progressive areas of the state, Boucher said, such as the triangle area, Asheville and Charlotte. But “there are different North Carolinas within North Carolina,” Boucher said, and Cooper’s pandemic response is ruffling some feathers, especially in more rural communities.
Those opposed to Cooper’s handling of the pandemic appear to be in the minority for now. The vast majority of polls show Cooper leading Forest by at least 10 points. An August 11 poll conducted by Emerson College, however, has Cooper leading by just six.
The incumbent also comfortably leads the money race, easily outraising his opponent according to the latest campaign finance reports. The Committee to Elect Dan Forest reported it raised $2.4 million over nearly five months months ending June 30 and had close to $2 million in cash on hand then.
But the Roy Cooper for North Carolina committee announced in early July that it had raised about $6 million, and had $14 million in cash on hand on July 1.
In Cooper’s latest coronavirus press conference, he emphasized that taking the pandemic seriously will help get the economy back on track faster.
“Every time you wear your mask or social distance, you’re helping our statewide numbers so we can ease restrictions,” he said. “We help our economy by slowing the spread.”
Cooper also took a subtle jab at the North Carolinians who are not adhering to COVID-19 restrictions. “Most of you are showing you know how to fight this disease,” he said. “And most of you should be proud of yourselves.”
Taylor said he thinks North Carolinians have difficulty grasping what he believes it takes to reopen the economy safely. “North Carolina has been one of the epicenters of a false dichotomy, which is that you can deal with the pandemic or you can reopen the economy,” Taylor said. “The actual answer has always been that you reopen the economy by dealing with the pandemic.”
Forest and Cooper have been clashing over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic since it reached North Carolina in March. When Cooper first announced a ban on indoor seating for restaurants and bars, Forest responded with a press release, writing that the governor’s decision would “devastate our economy, shutter many small businesses, and leave many people unemployed.”
Forest sued Cooper in July over coronavirus related executive orders, claiming that the governor did not have the authority to issue the orders. Forest has since dropped the lawsuit, but their disagreement remains alive and well. In many ways, the North Carolina governor’s race embodies the economic health versus public health debate that has been simmering for months.
“I think everything should be open,” Forest told The Atlantic. “I don’t care about getting a virus.”. He said he supports issuing recommendations rather than mandates and believes businesses should be left to make their own decisions.
“I don’t think the government should lead with a stick,” Forest said. “It should lead with a carrot and allow these industries to have some personal responsibility and freedom.”
Boucher said he wishes Cooper and Forest could work together on leading North Carolina through this crisis. That might have made it easier for people to accept the tough realities of reopening, he said.
“Cooper has had to make some difficult decisions in the face of a lot of opposition, including his own lieutenant governor,” Boucher said. “I think he’s made the right ones for the people of North Carolina, but everybody gets hurt with every decision.”
In the era of COVID-19, North Carolinians are desperate for a leader they can trust. Those who support Cooper’s “dimmer switch” approach to easing restrictions will almost certainly not be voting for Forest come November.
But others fed up with economic hardship and pandemic fatigue may blame Cooper. For them, Forest represents the hope of reopening the state once again.
A summer of change was just beginning when Durham’s elected leaders vowed on June 15 to “transform policing” in response to local and national protests against systemic racism and police brutality — matters long debated in Durham. Among other promises, Mayor Steve Schewel and council members pledged to review and reform the police department’s rules on police use of force in the next 90 days.
With that deadline approaching, the mayor and Police Chief Cerelyn Davis are preparing to release a presentation concerning the department’s rules on police use of force, said David Anthony, executive officer to the police chief.
The mayor’s office and police department have not specified a release date or whether the presentation will be the city’s final response to the 90-day pledge. “Force” in this context means physical tactics police can use against people who don’t comply with lawful orders as spelled out in department policies. The department updated those policies in June, but activists and some city council members say some rules are still not clear enough.
The reform campaign 8 Can’t Wait, a project by Campaign Zero, a national group that promotes what they say are evidence-based reforms, won the support of some Durham officials, activists and residents. Launched June 3, the campaign urges police departments across the nation to adopt eight policies intended to restrict the use of force. They include banning chokeholds, requiring officers to exhaust all means before using deadly options like firearms, and requiring police to intervene if they witness another officer using excessive force.
Durham police department spokesperson Amanda Fitzpatrick said in an email that the department’s rules “are currently aligned with the recommendations.” But an analysis by The 9th Street Journal of Durham’s manual of rules for officers — which was updated on June 10 — found that DPD written policies meet only six of the eight recommendations explicitly.
Years in the making
Efforts to reform how police interact with residents began long before this summer.
In 2013, a 17-year-old named Jesus Huerta committed suicide in the back of a Durham police cruiser. Investigators determined Huerta shot himself with a gun hidden on him at the time of his arrest, and officer Samuel Duncan was suspended without pay for violating search protocols and failing to switch on the cruiser’s video and audio recording devices. Though the Huerta family ultimately accepted the findings, police donned riot gear and released tear gas at a vigil for Huerta. The controversy intensified pressure on the city to reform its police department.
From 2013 to 2019, 203 people were killed by police in North Carolina, according to the Mapping Police Violence research project. Black people were 38% of those killed, though they make up only 21% of the state’s population.
Durham, where police killed 5 Black people and 1 white person between 2013 and 2019, had the largest racial disparity between rates of Black and white civilians killed by police among major cities in the state, the research project found. Officers were not charged in any of the cases, as tracked by Mapping Police Violence.
In 2015, the city commissioned a study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police that found the Durham police department faced “deteriorating relationships” with the community and a “lack of public trust” in part from perceptions of racism and discriminatory practices.
Durham has made significant strides since Huerta’s death in 2013, said City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton.
They include requiring police to obtain written consent before vehicle searches, de-emphasizing marijuana violations, and monitoring data on traffic stops for racial disparities. Davis has been a “change agent” who led “a definite shift in the culture of our police department,” Middleton said.
The 8 Can’t Wait recommendations are based on Campaign Zero’s 2016 analysis of civilian deaths involving officers and restrictions on the use of force at 91 of the 100 largest police departments in the country, including Durham.
The group’s analysis says the typical department uses only three of the eight deadly force reduction practices intended to help prevent officers from harming or killing civilians. According to the group, in 2015 Durham had only two of eight policies on the books explicitly.
“Harm reduction is important and you can’t enforce what isn’t against the rules,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, a co-founder of 8 Can’t Wait.
Cities across the country, including Raleigh and Durham, have moved to reform their policies in line with 8 Can’t Wait’s recommendations.
With revisions made in June, Durham police department’s General Orders Manual explicitly lists six of the eight recommendations. What’s missing?
Durham officers are encouraged — but not required — to exhaust all possible alternatives before resorting to deadly force, the manual states.
Officers are required to file a use-of-force report only if physical force or injury occurs. The 8 Can’t Wait recommendations say reports should be filed every time violence is threatened, including when officers point guns at people.
Fitzpatrick told The 9th Street Journal that the manual is being updated “to explicitly state officers have a duty to intervene to prevent or stop excessive force if witnessed.”
The manual states officers are not trained in the use of chokeholds. Nor are they listed among authorized force options, which escalate from hand techniques and pepper spray up to firearms. But the manual does not explicitly say chokeholds are prohibited, either.
In an interview, Mayor pro tem Jiillian Johnson said that ambiguity in the policy is a problem.
Johnson early this year criticized Durham as “one of the poorest performing cities” when it comes to having a clear and explicit use-of-force policy, citing the absence of an explicit ban on chokeholds and the department permitting officers to use deadly force before exhausting other options if the officer deems it “objectively reasonable,” according to the manual.
“When you give the officer discretion to determine whether it’s reasonable … That’s my main point of contention with the interpretation that we meet these guidelines,” Johnson said. “Those hedges make it so that we don’t actually meet the guidelines as they’re written.”
She and a co-author called for “significant improvements” in a January op-ed in USA Today that recently retired city manager Tom Bonfield and council member Mark-Anthony Middleton strongly rebuked.
Middleton said he did not agree that police use-of-force rules were only effective if they closely followed the wording in standards created by 8 Can’t Wait or other groups.
“It’s not true that our department is woefully lacking in use-of-force standards,” he said.
Debate over police reform to continue While 8 Can’t Wait has gained traction among local governments being pressured to take action, not all local activists agree its agenda is enough.
Some say cities, Durham included, should “defund” or abolish their police departments and focus instead on community wellness and crime prevention. Andréa Hudson, director of the North Carolina Community Bail Fund, said she considers the emphasis on 8 Can’t Wait a distraction from defunding the police and spending more money on community health and safety initiatives.
“A system that has white supremacy embedded in it will not change just because you banned them from doing things that they shouldn’t have been doing in the first place,” said Hudson.
But city council members remain focused on achieving what they say is sustainable, long-term change. The city council in June unanimously passed the city’s $502 million 2020-21 budget, which included $70 million for the police, despite a vocal campaign from local activists.
In a June op-ed in Spectacular Magazine, council member Middleton pointed to the city council’s 2019 decision to reject hiring 18 officers — only to hire 6 officers several months later in response to gang violence — as evidence that the city needs to first develop viable alternatives to the police.
Also in June, council members committed $1 million to form a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force, a resident-led group that will recommend alternatives to traditional policing. As the city wraps up its 90-day pledge to review police use-of-force rules, Johnson said she wants to see an explicit ban on chokeholds and more comprehensive reporting when police use force. But Johnson’s end goal is deeper.
“These reforms are useful, but they’re not systemic reforms,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, I want to do less policing overall.”
For the second time this month, frustration and outrage over police misconduct against Black people dominated a Durham City Council meeting on Monday. Council members reported receiving thousands of emails demanding that they defund the police department. Dozens of community members spoke at their virtual meeting urging the same thing. Despite repeating their support for reforming the city’s police department, city council members unanimously passed the city’s $502 million 2020-2021 budget, which includes $70 million for the police department, a 5% increase from last year.
That doesn’t mean change isn’t coming, they stressed.
Written primarily by Mayor Steve Schewel and Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, the statement calls for reforming the Durham Police Department’s use-of-force policies. It also requires an analysis of 911 calls to identify police activities, such as responding to mental health crises, that other city departments could handle.
The statement pledges $1 million to fund a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force. Johnson championed the body last year as a means to research and present proposals for alternative community safety measures.
Schewel and Johnson emphasized that $1 million was not the only amount elected officials will commit to new community safety measures.
“A million dollars is a down-payment on the work we need to do to be transforming community safety in Durham,” Schewel said.
That amount was too low, argued two council members, Mark-Anthony Middleton, who represents Ward 2, and DeDreana Freeman, who represents Ward 1.
“I think the million, even as an initial down payment, the pure power of the symbolism of it is just not enough,” Middleton said. He criticized what he felt was the council’s reluctance to commit at least $2 million to exploring measures, such as universal basic income, which he says would help reduce crime by addressing poverty, a root cause. “I think we have an opportunity to literally transform the budgetary culture of our city and be a beacon for the rest of the world,” he added. “Do you want to put police out of business? Let’s start spending real money on those things that will put them out of business.”
Middleton noted that the city council spent $2.4 million in 2018 on the Durham Participatory Budgeting initiative spearheaded by Johnson. “Some of us fought like hell for $2 million for participatory budgeting, and 60% of the voters were white,” Middleton said. “We need to fight like hell now to send the right message for the folk that are dying right now.”
Council member Freeman said she would have preferred a figure closer to $11 million.
“It’s almost like we’re saying that these Black lives are worth a million dollars,” she said. “It just doesn’t feel right.”
Johnson, Reece, and Caballero campaigned last fall on a joint platform that included addressing police brutality and developing new community safety institutions. They have favored decreasing the police budget and reducing the number of officers while supporting community-led task forces to create proposals for community safety.
While Freeman and Middleton have also supported calls for police reform, on Monday they emphasized the continuing need for policing due to what they say are unacceptable levels of violent crime affecting lower-income neighborhoods in Durham.
Freeman and Middleton also questioned the need for a task force to investigate solutions that they said the city council and community already understand.
“I don’t need the task force to tell me that mentally ill people don’t need people with guns being the primary responder,” Middleton said. “We can move on that now. And we can start preparing the groundwork now for a budgetary revolution.”
Freeman emphasized that some in Durham are alarmed by campaigns to defund the police.
“The people I speak to in the community have a very different understanding of what that means and how it’s going to impact their lives,” Freeman said. “There’s a whole lot of folks that we are scaring this evening, and we have to be mindful of the fact that they are still residents in this community, and they deserve to be represented.”
Approval of the statement passed 4 to 2, with Middleton and Freeman voting no.
The passionate discussion took place immediately after a heated public commenting session where almost 50 people addressed the council about the city’s proposed budget. Noting that a large number of people wanted to speak, Schewel limited comments to those who pre-registered, giving each one minute. That angered several community members who criticized the council during their remarks. Others voiced their complaints in a virtual chatroom.
Some speakers expressed outrage that council members were considering any increase in police funding at a time people are protesting across the county against police violence directed at Black people.
“How dare you — at a time like this — give $70 million, a 5% increase, to cops when cities are burning in rage and mourning across the country,” said Erin Carson, a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission. “Our city workers’ wages and our vital programs are frozen, but the police never miss a cent while delivering nothing.”
Others emphasized what they felt was the community’s desire to have police funding redistributed to other services. “To say defund the police, we’re just saying give the people back our money, and that’s what we’re asking for now,” said Mabelle Segrest, a resident.
Four people spoke in favor of passing the budget as it was drafted. Sheila Huggins, who represented Friends of Durham, a moderate political action group focused on public safety, asked council members to commit to working with residents on a “comprehensive plan for community policing”.
Middleton stressed that approving the budget did not preclude advancing police reforms.
“This budget is increasing the police budget, full stop. It’s not buying tanks, it’s not buying tear gas, it’s not hiring more officers to be on the street. But it is going up,” said Middleton. “Because inflation happens. Things happen.”
This year’s budget, rewritten after considerable revenue losses during the coronavirus pandemic, canceled raises for city employees. Reece explained that he supported the budget because he says it avoids further layoffs, preserves essential city services, and safeguards city finances in case revenues continue to decrease.
Reece noted that the thousands of emails he received asking to transform public safety and policing was the most he had ever gotten for any city council matter. Still, he said he felt more dialogue and understanding were needed. “There are lots of folks in Durham who have a hard time imagining a Durham beyond policing,” he said.
With the budget issues seemingly settled, the city council meeting moved onto seemingly less contentious topics such as community development grants. But a public hearing on that matter provided another opportunity for comment from audience members.
“You don’t have the moral courage to take a very small step toward addressing the centuries-old damage that’s been done to our community at the hands of government,” said Donald Hughes, who had earlier spoken in favor of the Durham Renewal Project, a budget proposal by activist group Other America Movement Durham calling for more spending on community services.
“Before there was COVID-19, I want to remind you again, there was COVID-1619,” he said, referring to the date frequently linked to the start of slavery in North America.
At top: Members of the Other America Movement have set up camp in front of the city police headquarters downtown. Photo by Henry Haggart
At the end of class at Empower Dance Studio, director Nicole Oxendine tells her students to unmute their Zoom sound. They extend their arms to the sides of the screen, as if holding hands in their usual “empower circle.”
“That’s our connection, that’s like our church. Faith is ingrained in everything we do,” Oxendine says.
They “tendu” their right foot toward the camera — even though it may not fit in the video frame.
Oxendine counts to three and the students yell “empower.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, Oxendine will teach dance over Zoom. Her studio is among other Durham arts and exercise studios that recently made the switch. It has required many adaptations: bathrooms with tile floors have become tap-dancing studios. Sneakers have replaced blocks in yoga classes. iPhone cameras have sufficed for photography workshops.
They’re temporary fixes, but the Zoom classes help Durham maintain its artsy flair during a trying time. Durhamites stay connected virtually as local businesses try to stay afloat.
Dance like Zoom is watching
March 21 was the first day of what Oxendine called the “testing” period for online dance classes. Her studio started with a “Tiny Tots” Zoom class for 2 year olds.
She’s optimistic that students will continue taking classes. Despite the quick transition to online dance, class attendance remained above 50%.
Still, she said, “we don’t know what the final (financial) repercussions are going to be.”
Oxendine held a Facebook Live meeting to update parents about creative modifications for dancing at home.
Bathrooms with tile floors have become tap-dancing studios. Kitchen chairs make decent ballet barres. “And if there’s an across-the-floor combination, we recommend you try it outside,” she said.
It’s not only a question of staying in shape and maintaining dance technique. Empower Dance Studio teachers also want to reinforce the studio’s values over Zoom.
“Faith is a core value of Empower. We have faith in ourselves, we believe in ourselves” she said. “You have your own power, you have your sense of agency, and you have a gift.”
Still, faith has been difficult to cultivate over Wifi. Oxendine hopes to encourage faith and community by allowing dancers to lament about the coronavirus or share their stay-at-home experiences. She’ll ask them about their homework or TV shows they’ve been watching.
“These kids, they have anxiety around what’s happening now, too. I tell the teachers to take a minute to check and sit and be present with them,” she said.
‘A la carte’ yoga
Though the online yoga scene has been growing for a while, Yoga Off East founder Kathryn Smith hadn’t thought her studio would join in.
But once the coronavirus outbreak began, customers started reaching out to Smith, saying they’d pay for online classes. One yoga instructor offered to share her Zoom account.
Fifty customers signed up for the studio’s first online yoga class on March 21.
Classes have taken new forms. Music is optional because Zoom’s sound quality is unreliable. Students can choose whether to use video, enabling them to opt for the instructor to correct their movements over the screen or not.
“There’s an a la carte menu of options that people don’t typically have,” Smith said.
Students can do prop-free yoga, or they can try household substitutions: a sneaker for a block, a pillow for a bolster, and a towel for a mat.
It’s been going well enough that Smith is considering making online classes a new staple for Yoga Off East.
“Our 9th Street community, we have people traveling for work constantly,” she said. “I always see us as a small neighborhood studio, but it looks like we will be moving in the direction of expanding our online offerings.”
Smith is appreciative that her customers have wanted to take online classes. But she misses the community-building element of meeting in-person.
“(Online classes) meet the needs of alternative ways to feel connected and not get sucked into isolation,” she said. “But the energy of an in-person class is really irreplaceable.”
A new perspective
Last year, Martha Hoelzer offered photography lessons during a pilgrimage to Iona, Scotland, that focused on spirituality beyond organized religion.
“I was teaching components of using photography as a means to delve deeper spiritually,” said Hoelzer, who runs A Breath of Fresh Air Photography.
She was set to teach photography again in April at Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, NC. Now, she’ll offer a photography workshop over Zoom on Thursdays from 1 to 2 p.m.
Students will take photos from different perspectives in their homes, maybe standing on a chair or crouching behind a couch. She anticipates they’ll use iPhones, Androids, and iPads: that’s how it was in Scotland.
While part of the upcoming class will teach smartphone semantics, she wants to focus more on “composition and challenging people to think about their perspectives.” She’ll also encourage each student to share 10 or 20 recent photos they’ve taken as a way to facilitate discussion and inspiration.
Hoelzer is no stranger to self-isolating. She’s gone through multiple severe concussions — two since 2016 — and has recently been working on a photography project about brain injuries called What Lies Beneath.
She compares the concussion experience to quarantining.
“What we’re doing now isn’t that unsimilar to what I’ve had to do off and on over the last four years. Minus the fact that you can’t enjoy things like cooking because somebody whose brain is injured might not be able to follow the directions,” she said. “You can’t watch TV, or you can’t read a book.”
Hoelzer hopes that as students crouch to get a new perspective for their photograph, they may also gain a new perspective on quarantining and the coronavirus.
“Let’s reframe the current situation of what we’re having to face,” she said. “Turn lemons into lemonade or whatever.”
At top: Yoga Off East students finish a Zoom class in Namaste pose. Photo contributed by Kathryn Smith
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel’s “stay-at-home” order issued Wednesday requires city residents to stay at home unless they have very specific, approved reasons to leave.
The document is intended to prevent a global pandemic from spreading serious illness and loss of life here.
Italy has been ravaged with nearly 75,000 coronavirus cases and about 7,500 deaths. The United States could follow that path if communities don’t act to protect their residents, the mayor said.
“We are fortunate that the numbers in North Carolina and Durham are still low and we hope to keep it that way,” Schewel said during a press conference Wednesday.
Yet many people, particularly young people, had been “unhealthy and unsafe” by gathering in large numbers rather than practicing social distancing.
Schewel’s order is similar to others across the country affecting more than 100 million Americans. But different states, cities and counties are customizing them to a degree. Schewel said he closely crafted Durham’s 14-page order with city attorney Kim Rehberg while looking over orders from Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte, and the village of Clemmons, near Winston-Salem, because both apply in North Carolina.
All three orders ban public and private gatherings of more than 10 people. They require non-essential businesses to close. Grocery stores and pharmacies are among those exempt, along with restaurants serving take-out, drive-through and delivery meals only. Gas stations and other commerce vital to transportation can remain open.
But Durham’s order differs from the others in this state and elsewhere in the country a bit. Here are five ways.
You probably won’t get arrested for violating the order
Maryland isn’t messing around with its coronavirus response.
Gov. Larry Hogan said last week that police were prepared to arrest people for violating restrictions on businesses and gatherings even before he issued guidance similar to “stay at home” orders across the country.
Schewel skipped a law-and-order tone when he announced Durham’s order.
Police have the power to enforce the order, he said, but the plans are not to arrest, cite or penalize anyone for violating it. Schewel didn’t rule out further action being taken for egregious offenses, though.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, contending with the country’s worst outbreak, struck a different tone in announcing his order.
“These provisions will be enforced. These are not helpful hints,” Cuomo said. “These are legal provisions.”
Not a ‘shelter-in-place’ order
Before digging into the details of Durham’s order, Schewel was careful to distinguish it from a “shelter-in-place”requirement like one California implemented last week.
The term “shelter-in-place” is often associated with shooters and nuclear attacks. This name might engender fear, he explained.
“This isn’t something we need to be afraid of if we act,” Schewel said.
No explicit curfew
As part of its “safer-at-home” order, Hillsborough County in Florida, home to Tampa, will implement a mandatory curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. on weekdays and for 24 hours on weekends.
Durham’s approach, on the other hand, doesn’t specify hours. It bans residents from being in public or partaking in business in public, except for travel for exempted essential purposes, at all times.
New Jersey implemented a similar policy, but Gov. Phil Murphy described on Saturday it as a 24-hour curfew.
“We want you off the roads. That’s basically 24 hours. We don’t want you out there, period,” Murphy said.
Durham’s order is hyper-detailed
Durham’s stay-at-home order is 14 pages long, close in length and similar in wording to Mecklenburg’s 13-page document.
Other jurisdictions have been much more concise. California’s finishes in two pages. Then again, Ohio’s runs a whopping 23 pages.
The Durham order brings lots of specificity when describing exemptions, which include golf and tennis, with social distancing required. Golf is deemed “non-critical” in some parts of Florida. Mecklenburg allows it. Clemmons is silent on that sport.
Duke Health will begin piloting drive-up coronavirus testing today, The 9th Street Journal confirmed.
This limited pilot will be available only to patients who were prescribed COVID-19 tests via Duke Health tele-health appointments, where patients meet with clinicians online. Health system officials hope to make drive-up testing open to the community soon.
“A limited pilot of a drive-up testing approach will be conducted today for a small group of patients who will have already received a ‘prescription’ from a tele-health appointment to obtain the test,” according to a written statement from Duke Health. “This first-run is not broadly open to the community at this point, but we hope to expand capabilities moving ahead, and will notify the community when additional locations are available. People who believe they may have COVID are encouraged to speak with their health care provider to determine the advisability of testing.”
The statement did not disclose where drive-up pilot testing will occur.
One advantage of drive-through testing is that it can prevent some people infected with coronavirus from spreading the disease inside hospitals and clinics. Duke Health placed restrictions on hospital and clinic visitors on Monday “to minimize the spread of both COVID-19 and seasonal flu.”Visitors aren’t allowed inside Duke hospitals between 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., except during emergencies, and all visitors will be screened for signs of illness before they enter.
Duke is also limiting how many people can accompany patients inside the hospital, including in delivery rooms.
North Carolina officials announced Saturday that testing is expanding across North Carolina.
Hospitals in New York, California and elsewhere, including spots in North Carolina, have launched drive-through testing efforts in recent days. This is the first confirmed in the Triangle.
Duke’s statement noted that Duke Health is continuing to develop its own in-house COVID-19 test. “We anticipate having our in-house testing available soon,” it said.
If Durham voters select her as the Democratic candidate for state Senate on Tuesday, they will accomplish several things, Natalie Murdock says. They’ll embrace the leadership of an African-American woman, the only elected office holder of the three candidates in the race, she says. And they will reduce how severely black women are underrepresented in the General Assembly.
“Quite frankly, a woman of color should have been recruited in the first place to seat this seat,” Murdock said at a panel called “Race, Womanhood and Deconstructing Political Barriers” earlier this month.
“The double standard is clearly there. But, on this campaign trail, I have embraced this challenge because it’s great preparation for the battles I will fight in the Senate,” she added.
Murdock; artist and entrepreneur Pierce Freelon; and local lawyer Gray Ellis are competing for the District 20 Democratic nomination. Because Durham voters strongly favor Democrats, whoever wins Tuesday is most likely to become state senator.
A product of North Carolina public schools, including the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Murdock emphasizes the need to improve public education. Specifically, she wants to help raise the wages of teachers and other school workers.
“My grandmother was actually a cafeteria school worker, so I know the value of the bus drivers, the custodians, the folks that are serving your food. It takes all of those individuals to make sure our schools run properly and they deserve to get at least $15 an hour,” Murdock said. In a plank of her platform called the Lucas & Parker Education Plan, she also calls for increased funding to historically black college campuses and community colleges.
Murdock named multiple sections of her platform after influential black women in North Carolina. The Lucas & Parker Plan honors Jeanne Lucas, the first black woman to serve in the state Senate, and Omega Parker, a one time Durham Public School board member.
Mudock, who grew up in Greensboro, favors criminal justice reform too. She says North Carolina has not done enough to dismantle a school-to-prison pipeline.
“There’s a rise in young black girls getting suspended and expelled from school. There’s a direct correlation between those suspensions and expulsions, and them ending up in the justice system,” Murdock said.
Her platform supports the Green New Deal for North Carolina, a switch to 100% renewable energy by 2050, higher water-treatment standards, greater energy efficiency and expanded mass transit.
“I have been an environmental advocate for as long as I can remember,” she said. Much control over environmental policies rests with state legislators, she notes, including management of the Clean Water Management Fund, parks funding and support for farmers.
Murdock’s affordable housing platform — coined the Andrea Harris Plan — focuses on expanding renters’ rights, building public-private housing partnerships and helping homeowners keep their homes, among other things.
Murdock’s plans and experience appealed to members of the People’s Alliance PAC, said Tom Miller, an alliance leader.
“Our members really liked the fact that Natalie has real experience in governmental and public policy making, as well as her platform,” Miller said. ”It shows networking, experience, and the ability to make decisions and get it done.”
Launching the firm Murdock Anderson Consulting in 2017 gave Murdock a new understanding of the challenges Durham business owners face, she said at the forum.
“As a new business owner. I actually know what it feels like to go without health insurance. There were times where I chose to make payroll and not have health insurance,” she said.
Candidates for the Democratic nomination were congenial during much of the Duke candidates forum, but they made moves to distinguish themselves. Ellis said the fact he is older than Murdock and Freelon could bolster his readiness. When Freelon noted that he favors marijuana decriminalization, Murdock quickly inserted that she did too.
“I’m somebody that’s going to boldly state my opinions – not just when it’s convenient. – and that’s what we really need,” Freelon responded.
When asked what she wanted voters to know about her at the close of the forum, Murdock shared three numbers: twelve, four and zero.
“It’s been twelve years since Durham has had a woman to represent them in the Senate. We only have four women of color in the Senate right now. We have zero black women under 40 in the House or the Senate,” she said. “I think we can provide our state with the representation that it needs for the marginalized.”
At top: Natalie Murdock speaking at the panel “Race, Womanhood and Deconstructing Political Barriers” earlier this month. Photo by Rebecca Schneid.