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Cold case sexual assault unit whittles sprawling rape kit backlog

A visitor discovered the first victim half-naked in a bathroom at Duke Hospital, recovering from having been choked unconscious. Bits of her attacker’s flesh were lodged under her fingernails, the remnants of a violent struggle.

 A month and a half later, another woman was walking home on Ellerbe Creek Trail when the attacker again appeared and strangled his victim from behind until she blacked out. This time, he raped her. 

Despite a sexual assault kit collected from the second victim, as well as surveillance footage of the first victim and DNA samples from her fingernails, these 2015 attacks went unpunished for six years.

But the attacker, 33-year-old Emanuel Burch, couldn’t hide forever. Thanks to a state-funded initiative with the Durham Police Department (DPD), Burch was sentenced on Oct. 25 to at least 16 years in prison—the latest in a string of convictions in rape cold cases.

Since 2019, the DPD’s Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit has been working through an enormous logjam in mostly untested rape kits. The unit has identified at least three other repeat offenders and has charged over a dozen suspects in total. And they’re only about halfway done.

Said Lt. Stephen Vaughan, who works closely with the unit: “We still have a lot of work to do.” 

A massive backlog

When North Carolina passed the Survivor Act in 2019, the state had one of the country’s most extensive rape kit backlogs. Of the more than 16,000 kits left untested in North Carolina, 1,700 were in Durham County, The News & Observer reported.

Vaughan blames the limitations of old DNA testing technology, as well as previous state restrictions on when rape kits could be processed.

At an October 2020 news conference, however, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein also referenced a lack of “sensitivity” toward sexual assault victims. He said some police departments used to dismiss a case if the alleged victim’s story varied at all between retellings.

“There’s [now] greater scientific knowledge about the impact of trauma,” Stein said, referring to research that shows traumatic memories are often shaky or inconsistent. “There’s more understanding about victims’ rights.”

The Survivor Act allocated $6 million to jumpstart progress on untested rape kits. In the past two years, Durham County has submitted almost its entire backlog to a private testing company in Virginia. 

Bode Technology is working through these kits — some of which date back to 1988 — alongside a mountain of other kits from throughout North Carolina and other states. Any time the lab gets a hit on a Durham DNA sample, it notifies the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit.

Catching a rapist 

Police got their first strong lead on the two strangulation attacks in September 2019.

Unlike in many other cold cases, investigators had sent this rape kit for testing shortly after collecting it, said prosecutor Blake Norman. They identified leads and pored through available evidence. But they were unable to match the kit’s DNA to any suspects, and the case soon went cold.

Investigators have two main ways of identifying criminals through DNA.

The simplest way is if a person is arrested on a felony charge. Law enforcement collect alleged felons’ DNA and upload it to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the national genetic database. Testing companies like Bode regularly check their databases’ DNA against CODIS and notify investigators when there’s a match.

This can provide powerful evidence against a suspect. 

“You take away the argument of, ‘Oh, I didn’t do it’ or ‘I wasn’t there,’” Norman said. 

When there isn’t a CODIS match, investigators can also turn to genetic genealogy. Genetic profiling companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com send their data to law enforcement. So if a suspect’s close family members take one of these tests, that can help investigators home in on the criminal even if the suspect’s DNA isn’t in CODIS. 

By itself, however, genetic genealogy doesn’t provide enough evidence to arrest someone. That’s because it’s imprecise and usually can’t distinguish a perpetrator from, say, their sibling. Investigators need the suspect’s own DNA, and they sometimes have to find creative ways of gathering it—digging through trash cans, collecting cigarette butts, etc.

Durham police identified Burch when they got a CODIS hit following his arrest in another state, Norman said.

A cheek swab confirmed the match, and Burch was charged with strangulation, sexual battery and attempted rape in the first attack, as well as rape and attempted murder in the second. Prosecutors later dropped the attempted rape and attempted murder charges.

Pressing charges

Generally, the judicial system invests little time or resources into crime victims. Prosecutors represent the state, not victims, and some Durham victims have complained about a lack of support from courts and say they have little influence on how their cases are prosecuted.

But the Special Victims Unit, which handles child abuse cases as well as sexual assaults, works differently.

Investigators say they don’t prosecute alleged rapists until they contact survivors and get their consent. Since many attackers are already serving extensive prison sentences by the time police identify them, investigators say, victims sometimes choose not to press charges.

At an Apr. 13 press conference, Vaughan said the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit had found DNA matches in 17 cases, resulting in 13 suspects being charged.

Once the DPD contacts an alleged victim, Vaughan said police direct the victim to an in-house advocate who works with them and helps them decide whether to go forward with the case. Victims may also speak with the Durham Crisis Response Center, which offers free counseling and confidential services for survivors and their loved ones.

Jasmin Young-Bradshaw, the crisis center’s interim executive director, stressed that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to victim advocacy.

“We’re here to listen,” Young-Bradshaw said. “Really, it’s about supporting them in a way that they see is fit.”

Securing a conviction

In addition to Burch, the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit has identified at least three other serial attackers.

One suspect, who faces charges in one Durham attack and two attacks in Florida, was still awaiting trial as of the April 2021 press conference. Another pleaded guilty in August to two counts of rape. And the third—a 60-year-old—died in March while facing two charges each of rape and sexual battery.

As for Burch, he pleaded guilty as charged in the first 2015 attack and took an Alford plea in the second. This means that he denies sexually assaulting the victim, but admits that a jury would convict him based on the evidence.

A judge ordered Burch to undergo psychiatric counseling, receive substance abuse treatment and participate in a behavior adjustment program for sexual offenders. Altogether, Burch may serve up to 24 years and 3 months behind bars.

It’s unclear if Duke Hospital made any changes to its security following the attack there. A spokesperson said over email that she would try to find out, but several weeks later, she had yet to provide details.

Durham County’s backlog of rape kits is no longer growing, Vaughan said. Police send most kits for testing within a week, and survivors can view the current status of their kit via an online portal.

DNA testing continues to get faster and more accurate, and Vaughan believes sexual assault investigations will improve.

“As the technology gets better and better and we learn more about it and get more used to it,” he said, “it just becomes a better tool.”

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, the following resources are available:

  • Durham Crisis Response Center 24-hour help line: 919-403-6562 (English); 919-519-3735 (Spanish)
  • Durham Police Department Special Victims Unit: 919-560-4440
  • NC Coalition Against Sexual Assault: 919-871-1015

PHOTO ABOVE: Emanuel Burch may serve more than 24 years for strangulation and sexual battery in two Durham attacks in 2015.

Justice is blind. But what you wear to court matters.

At the Durham County Courthouse, judgments begin before a case is even heard. 

The first judgment happens at the doors of the courthouse, where deputies decide who enters. They scan dockets for defendants’ names, wave lawyers through, and direct victims and witnesses to courtrooms. As they do so, they glance at what each person wears, determining whether an outfit is presentable for court. 

The second round of judgments occurs at the doors of the courtroom. On a recent Wednesday outside of Courtroom 5A, a bailiff checks names again. This time, though, she looks closer at clothing. 

She mistakes a defendant wearing a crisp navy blue suit and glossy brown loafers for an attorney. She instructs defendants whose boxers peek through sweatpants and jeans to pull their pants up. Tuck t-shirts in. Take snapback hats off. If they don’t, she warns, the judge may not hear their case. 

There is no dress code in the Durham courthouse. Justice, after all, is supposed to be blind. But courtrooms are stages for human drama, where dress and decorum matter and their impact on one’s image is impossible to ignore. In other words, perception can shape justice.

“There’s a general formality in court that can be intimidating,” said Sarah Willets, spokesperson for Durham’s District Attorney’s office. “Even if no one has said to you explicitly, ‘You can’t wear this,’ you still get the sense when you walk in court that there’s a certain way things are usually done.”

In the courtroom itself, some outfits are expected. There are attorneys in suits and ties, blazers and pencil skirts. Bailiffs stand guard in beige uniforms, and the judge dons a traditional black robe. 

The clothes in the gallery, however, tell a story of defendants, victims, witnesses, and relatives who put their daily routines on pause to watch judges decide fates. 

                                                                           * * *

When a defendant is called up, judges take their attire into account. Some judges who don’t approve of an outfit won’t hear a defendant’s case until they change, said Durham’s Chief Public Defender Dawn Baxton. 

For some defendants then, an outfit can reflect the significance of the moment and indicate to the judge their regard for the legal process. On that Wednesday in Courtroom 5A — domestic violence court — the man in the crisp navy suit, Benjamin Wendt, slides a briefcase under the bench before fixing his tie. The court finds out he is representing himself. 

Wendt sits next to Ananias Surratt, a young man whose clothes suggest that his court appearance coincided with his plans to go for a run. Surratt wears navy athletic shorts and a black hoodie, along with a pair of red, white, and blue New Balance sneakers.

Both men are in court for the same charge — assault on a female. 

Baxton thinks judges regard inappropriate attire as disrespectful to the judicial process. 

“Judges might have, in their mind, a standard,” Baxton said. They consider tank tops and shorts to be inappropriate. They take offense at some writings on t-shirts. 

But for many defendants, the clothes they wear to court are the best they have. In fact, to address this issue, staff at the Public Defender’s Office have collected a closet of donated professional clothes. 

“I think judges don’t take into consideration the circumstances that people are coming to court in,” Baxton said. “Some leave work and come straight to court. Others don’t own business attire. These are things that I don’t feel should be distracting a case from getting heard.” 

                                                                         * * *

Later that day in Courtroom 5A, a victim takes the stand. She wears a burgundy striped button-down shirt and black skinny jeans. Her large black handbag sits on the table. 

Between shallow breaths, she recalls the night of July 9, one of many when the father of her children came home high and assaulted her. She fell and hit her head. 

“That’s what you deserve,” she recalls him saying. Her voice cracks. She begins to cry.  

Most victims and witnesses have never been to a courthouse before. In their first visit to a building consumed by decorum, they relive trauma — a judge interrogates their story, a jury questions their credibility. What they wear can affect both how they present themselves and how the judge perceives them. 

“[Clothing] matters in terms of feeling comfortable and feeling like you belong there,” Michelle Cofield, deputy chief of staff at the DA’s office, said. 

For years, the DA’s staff  scrambled to find solutions when victims and witnesses didn’t show up in court-appropriate clothing. Legal assistants kept jackets on hand. One assistant district attorney stashed extra clothes in her office. 

In September, the DA’s Office established a lending closet of professional attire for victims and witnesses. A month earlier, the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys allocated $500 to each prosecutorial district to purchase clothes for people to borrow. Cofield had a week to order them off Amazon. 

Now, over 45 items hang on a garment rack in the corner of Room 8600, known as the guest room — a space for victims, witnesses, and their families to wait during court. 

In the middle of the rack, a black dress with hot pink and turquoise flowers sits next to four identical black cardigans, size medium to 2XL. There are two short-sleeve pointelle shrugs from Loft: one in black, one in white. A salmon-colored wraparound sweater with balloon sleeves is a favorite among office staff. 

“We relied heavily on sweaters,” Willets said. “It’s freezing in this building all the time.” 

DA staff donated a third of the clothing. Willets points to a black button-down top with white polka dots and a cheetah motif she once wore. Her husband’s old blue dress shirt is one of 10 in the closet. 

The range in clothing style and size ensures inclusivity. It also gives victims agency over a small part of the court process. 

“When people are victims of crime, part of that experience is having choice taken from you,” Willets said. “Something happened to you and you didn’t have a say in it. And so we try to give people back that choice wherever we can.” 

While a victim might feel comfortable in their own attire, DA staff considers how a judge or jury will view the outfit, Cofield said. Sometimes, playing a guessing game of “what people might perceive” means the DA’s office can present a more compelling case.

“We spend a lot of time working with our victims or witnesses and preparing them for court,” Cofield said. “We don’t need one other thing to get in the way.” 

The goal is for the victim’s clothing to appear neutral and not distract from their testimony.  If an outfit is deemed inappropriate or a wardrobe malfunction occurs, the closet is there. “Our court system is built using people,” Cofield said. “It’s not a series of automatons that are making the decisions.” 

People make assumptions based on how others are dressed. It’s inescapable. Cofield searched for the right word to describe why attire plays such a big role in the courtroom, particularly for victims.

She landed on “dignity.”

PHOTO ABOVE:  The Durham District Attorney’s Office provides clothes for victims and witnesses who may need appropriate attire for court. Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘I love where I stay.’

It’s a Monday morning in Durham County’s eviction court, and Joseph McMoil’s home of four years is on the line. 

McMoil, a stout 51-year-old man, shuffles to the witness stand. Dressed in a faded navy-blue T-shirt and old jeans, he settles into a swivel chair and gazes out at the smattering of people in the courtroom. 

“Mr. McMoil, what do you want me to consider as it relates to your case?” Judge Shamieka Rhinehart asks. 

For eviction cases in North Carolina, defendants are not guaranteed counsel, so McMoil represents, and testifies for, himself. 

Um … um … the fact that the times that I missed the rent,” McMoil mutters into the microphone. “During that time, I wasn’t receiving as much of a gross amount of money as I usually do. Because of my work.” 

When McMoil’s employer, a retirement home in Durham, reduced his hours early on in the pandemic, his income shrank to $1,800 a month, according to court documents. From April to September 2020, he couldn’t pay the $868 monthly rent for his apartment on Campus Walk Avenue. 

Though McMoil has paid his monthly rent since September 2020, he still owes $10,104.36 in accumulated rent and late fees, according to court documents.

Morreene LLC, the company that owns the apartment, wants an order for possession of the property. 

McMoil’s plight isn’t unique. With the pandemic causing layoffs and diminished hours throughout Durham County, many tenants have struggled to pay rent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium ended in late August, meaning many more Durham residents could face eviction in the coming months. 

Durham Social Services  (DSS) offers rental assistance, and Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm, helps residents navigate the court system. But eligibility for rental assistance depends on earnings: residents can qualify only if they make less than 80% of the county’s Area Median Income, which is $48,400.  

McMoil says he doesn’t qualify now that his income has returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

“Have you thought about applying for any of the [COVID-19] assistance that’s available?” asks Charles Carpenter, a tall, thin attorney representing Morreene LLC. 

“I’ve called all those numbers,” McMoil says, exasperated. “I’ve tried, yes. They are looking into what I make presently and [the fact] that I’m doing well now.” 

Carpenter pauses. “But you do acknowledge that there still are a number of months of rent that remain unpaid?” 

Yes,” McMoil says. “I’ve stayed at this place for a long time. Before [COVID-19], I paid every time. I was a good outstanding resident.”

“We don’t doubt that, Mr. McMoil,” Carpenter says. His shoulders droop. He appears to hold no enthusiasm for evicting McMoil.  

“I was a very good resident before this happened,” McMoil says, his voice growing desperate. “So if you make it where I pay a little extra and catch up or come to an agreement where I can improve it, I would very much like to stay. I love where I stay.”

A long silence hangs over the courtroom. Rhinehart glances back and forth between Carpenter and McMoil. 

Anybody want to be heard?” she says, her chin resting on her hand, exhaustion in her voice. 

Just briefly, Your Honor,” Carpenter says. “We certainly feel for Mr. McMoil. I will point out, to his benefit, that when we proceed, that doesn’t cut off his avenue of discussion with us about the possibility of working something out.” 

Suddenly, the mood in the courtroom shifts. Despite McMoil’s testimony about his failed attempts to qualify for DSS rental assistance, Rhinehart sits up in her seat and asks a lawyer to find the phone number for the program. Various attorneys talk over one another, trying to find the contact information. 

“Mr. McMoil, we’re trying to get you some help, OK?” the judge calls out amid the hubbub.

When the commotion dies down, Rhinehart issues her judgment: “Mr. McMoil, it is unfortunate that I have to grant possession to the claimant. They met their burden.” 

“However,” she quickly adds, “you did hear Mr. Carpenter state that although I have entered a judgment, that they may still be willing to work with you.” 

Judge Rhinehart recommends that McMoil go immediately to the third floor to find DSS representatives and assigns someone to escort him there. 

McMoil walks slowly down the aisle, a gloomy look on his face. He has lost his home for now, but maybe there’s still a chance to save it. 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘This is not a swastika. This is the opposite.’

 

Judge Michael O’Foghludha tried to calm the defendant who wore the mask with the backwards swastika.

“Don’t get upset,” the judge said in soothing tones, as they talked over each other. “Don’t get upset. Nothing bad will happen unless you get upset.”

“I hope President Trump come back in power, to change all that’s happening here to our advantage,” the defendant, Murphy Stephens Wamala, replied.

Among the courtroom’s few onlookers, two public defenders and three men in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits all stared with interest.

Courthouses are full of characters — the inveterate case watcher; the wily, enigmatic defendant; the salt-of-the-earth judge. But even by Durham County Courthouse standards, Wamala was among the most disturbing of those who made an appearance on Sept. 21. 

Wamala, 52, is Black, but he claims that “there was no slavery” and that “Hitler helped build this country.”

He was in court for a parole violation. On Sept. 18, after he failed to show up to a scheduled hearing, police arrested him and “beat my ass almost to death,” he said in an interview. 

Three days later, he came to court for the hearing to declare what kind of legal representation he’d have.

Dressed in a camouflage hunting jacket and matching pants, Wamala arrived for his hearing just before 10 o’clock. In the vestibule between Courtroom 7D and the hallway, he spoke to a deputy for several minutes.

“[The deputy] asked, ‘What are you here for? What’s your name?’” said Wamala, who installs and maintains automatic car washes for a living. “I said, ‘What does that have to do with you?’”

The deputy told Wamala to wait in the hall, where he remained for over an hour.

Wamala’s probation violation came during the two years of freedom he’s been granted before serving a 12- to 24-month prison sentence. This sentence stems from a July 2020 incident in which Wamala struck and injured another driver, then drove away – all while his license was suspended.

Wamala’s rap sheet is full of other traffic violations. He’s received two driving while impaired (DWI) convictions: one in Chatham County in 2012 and one in Durham County in 2019. He pleaded guilty in 2012 to driving with a revoked license. And he was found responsible in 2018 for driving with an expired license and running a stop sign.

Wamala has also had numerous traffic charges dismissed in Durham County, including two DWI charges, two charges of driving with an altered tag or vehicle registration, and one charge each of driving without insurance, registration or a valid license. All since 2012.

 But why did Wamala choose to Sharpie a swastika onto his white facemask before coming to court? He laughed when asked.

“This is not a swastika,” he said. “This is the opposite.” 

A counterclockwise swastika, he explained, was a Roman symbol for freedom. He likes displaying it so that he can see how many people are ignorant about the difference between this version and a clockwise swastika.

Even so, Wamala — whose parents are from Uganda and Nigeria and who grew up in Sweden — expressed respect for Adolf Hitler and defended the Holocaust. While waiting in the hall, Wamala also offered other political views at length and with little prompting. He applauded those who stormed the U.S. Capitol in January, sang the praises of British imperialism, and called the “American Negro” corrupt and violent. Most of his opinions defied historical facts. 

Wamala, who spoke in a loud voice,  threw his whole body into his speech — once sliding to the far side of the hallway bench to illustrate a point, and another time pulling up a sleeve to show injuries allegedly left by police officers. He ping-ponged from topic to topic, talking almost nonstop.

One rare silence fell when Wamala spent several seconds watching a woman walk past on her way to court. Dressed in unassuming street clothes – skinny jeans and a T-shirt – she returned his stare.

At another point, Wamala also gave a friendly greeting to a passing man, who nodded back.

The deputy called Wamala into the courtroom around 11:15 a.m. He entered and stood at the center of the room, facing Judge O’Foghludha with his hands behind his back. An air of curiosity and caution hung in the room.

“Is there anything I have to say to the court?” Wamala said.

The judge informed him he just needed to decide on his legal representation. He asked if Wamala wanted Dan Meier, a public defender, to represent him.

“Probably,” Wamala said. 

The deputy approached Wamala with a clipboard holding a form, and Wamala sat down to fill it out with his help. After a few minutes, the two retreated to the vestibule. 

They stood facing each other, looking at the forms: the man in the reversed swastika face mask, toe-to-toe with justice.

 

Durhamites use their wits and each other to land coronavirus vaccines

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.”

Vaccine voyages

Security guard Jamal Patterson welcomed people to the Blue Devil Tower vaccination site at Duke University on Wednesday. He hoped to nab a spare vaccine at the end of his shift. Photo by Olivia Olsher

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.

To schedule a vaccination appointment in Durham County when eligible, sign up for the county health department’s vaccination scheduling list. Or use the state health department’s tool to find local vaccine providers. 

9th Street Journal reporter Olivia Olsher can be reached at olivia.olsher@duke.edu.

At top: James Spruil waits to receive a coronavirus vaccine at the Walgreens Pharmacy on Fayetteville Street in Durham. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Cooper and Forest clash over COVID-19 in Governor’s race

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.

Forest, to the left, stands at a rally speaking. An American flag is behind him and he wears a suit. Cooper, to the right, wears a suit with a blue tie as he speaks in front of a grey background at a podium.
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (left) and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper (right) are running to be North Carolina’s governor.

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.

Durham debates more change to rules limiting police use of force

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. 

In 2016, the city hired police chief Cerelyn Davis, who vowed to build a “culture of trust” between police and the community.

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.

But recent controversies over a police officer being accused of assault of a high school student and officers drawing weapons on three youngsters have renewed demands for an end to police violence.

The reform campaign

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.”

9th Street Journal reporter Charlie Zong can be reached at charlie.zong@duke.edu.

At top: Protesters march through downtown last week in support of the families of three Black kids who police confronted with drawn guns at an apartment complex in August. Photo by Henry Haggart

Despite calls for radical change, City Council funds the police department

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.

Before that vote, council members passed the Durham City Council Statement on Community Health and Safety, which commits the city council to continue the process to “transform policing” in Durham.

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.

Of those able to make comments, 35 spoke against the budget, demanding that the city council defund the city’s police department. That is something included in an alternative budget proposed by Durham Beyond Policing, a coalition of local activist groups.

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

Virtual arts and exercise classes offer innovation and community

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.

Photography student captures images while quarantining in her home. Photo contributed by Sienna Smith

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

Five ways Durham’s ‘stay at home’ order differs from others

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.

After announcing the stay-at-home order during a press conference streamed on several platforms, Durham officials spread word of the changes on social media.

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 pagesThen 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.

Weddings, funerals allowed 

Washington State, which also has been hard hit, has canceled weddings and funerals. Most jurisdictions, including Durham, do not go that far.  

Durham is allowing weddings and funerals, granted that they follow relevant restrictions in the order.

This indicates those with only 10 or fewer people practicing social distancing will be allowed.

Durham’s order goes into effect Thursday at 6 p.m. and runs through April 30. Mayor Schewel stressed that it could be extended or shortened.