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‘I feel like nothing’s changed’: Black voters seek change through Triad congressional race

The Woolworth’s store on South Elm Street marks the start of downtown Greensboro. Its lunch counters, the catalyst of a national wave of sit-ins in 1960, are part of civil rights history that pulses through the city.

Sixty years later, there are new signs in downtown Greensboro that the movement for racial justice is still underway — and unfinished. The words “Black Lives Matter” are everywhere, including South Elm Street, painted onto the asphalt between February One Place and Washington Street.

In North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, which includes Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point, some voters will be carrying those words to the polls this year. The recently redrawn district is predicted to vote overwhelmingly blue — Kathy Manning, the Democratic candidate, is highly favored — but for some of its Black residents, whose desires are neither monolithic nor zeroed on police, words are not enough. Wary of sweeping campaign commitments, they are seeking material improvements for their communities.

“I feel like nothing’s changed. I feel like it’s just more in the spotlight,” V. R. Baker, who has lived in Greensboro for 23 years, said. But national protests following the police killing of George Floyd have shifted her perspective. “Demonstrating was beautiful because it woke people up. It was like an earthquake that woke people up.” 

“When the George Floyd situation came through, it just opened up old wounds,” said Jaye Webb, chair of the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission. 

For the Triad area, the wounds are deep and many: the 1979 killings of five residents by the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party during a march supporting Black textile workers where police failed to intervene, the 2018 police killing of Marcus Deon Smith, the 2019 killing of John Neville in Forsyth County Detention Center in Winston-Salem, long-unmet needs for basic community care and investment.

“Politicians, they say a lot of things, but they don’t necessarily act on them,” Ryan Upton, a junior at North Carolina A&T State University, said. “You can say it in front of us, but then when we’re going back to work and living our everyday busy lives, it’s like, okay, who really is doing it?”

The candidates have staked out distinct positions on the Black Lives Matter movement.

In a statement after Floyd’s killing, Manning wrote: “Too often, too many act as if black lives don’t matter. They do.”

Her campaign has neither discussed race further on its website, nor run Facebook or Google ads about race, according to online databases. 

During an interview with The 9th Street Journal, Lee Haywood, the Republican candidate, said: “I’m for ‘all lives matter.’ Yes, Black lives are included in there as well, but all lives matter.”

His campaign has not discussed race further on its website, though his first “issue” is public safety. His campaign has run one Facebook ad about the Black Lives Matter movement, which reads: “I belong to the oldest Black Lives Matter group in the nation: the Republican Party!” 

The candidates have not made clear what actions they plan to take in office against structural racism and police brutality.

Manning supports a ban on hogtying, the police practice that killed Smith and Neville, and she endorses the Justice in Policing Act, the House Democrats’ police reform bill, which she called “an important first step” in a statement without enumerating subsequent steps.

Haywood does not have a public plan. “The Republican Party, we’re not promising the Black people anything,” he said. “We’re not promising any checks. We’re not promising any freebies. We’re going to leave you alone as much as possible.”

In this moment of racial reckoning, though, Black voters say that they are not asking for “checks” or “freebies,” but for the government to repair systemic problems and tangibly serve communities in need.

“The problem is so deep-rooted. I would say, focus on mental health, expanding public education and the resources that it has, and also trying to secure these families that may not even have a place to live,” said Demetri Banks, a senior at A&T, referencing the low-income neighborhoods surrounding the university. “If we focus on that, everything will trickle down.”

Black voters interviewed by The 9th Street Journal said that when defunding the police is mentioned, it is about a need to realign budget priorities and redistribute funding to properly address social gaps.

“‘Defund the police,’ I feel like, is a stretch because they’re still needed, but I feel like if you’re going to give the money and resources to one emergency field, you should give it to the other,” said Christopher Slade, who has lived in Greensboro for 19 years. “If you have the resources to invest in police, tear gas, rubber bullets, then I feel like you should be able to invest in hospitals and help COVID research.”

Joy Kirk, who has lived near High Point for three years, has worried as much about her children’s interactions with the police as she has about her children’s safety after a recent rash of shootings in Greensboro and High Point.

“If the system wasn’t set up the way it was and designed for us to fail to begin with, there would be less Black-on-Black crime. But that justifies someone else, that’s held to a higher stature, to shoot and kill us?” she said.

In Webb’s work with the advisory commission, community members have urged broader investment in employment opportunities, healthcare, and crime prevention programs such as midnight basketball. 

“I don’t think we can allow police to police the police. I think if we don’t make moves on that, we could see the next Minneapolis,” he said.

For Webb and the commission, those moves involve increased transparency: repealing laws that could conceal police misconduct, establishing nationwide police decertification records, and making records about police personnel and correctional facilities widely accessible.

“It’s not in the matter of defunding the police from existence. I think it is reappropriating funds into other opportunities that would allow for communities to have resources,” he said. “Hopefully, our elected officials will understand not only that this is the right time, and that it’s not going away no time soon.”

Some groups want no police, but BLAST works to better connect

When Chris Kenan pulled up to his childhood home in East Durham last month, he saw seven mothers standing resolutely with a crowd of children.

At the Rochelle Manor Apartments to help run an event bringing police and residents together, Kenan quickly realized that something was very wrong.

Police had confronted three kids playing tag with guns drawn earlier that afternoon while searching for an armed suspect. The oldest, aged 15, was handcuffed. The mothers were furious at what they saw as the latest example of unjustified harsh treatment by police.

“The mom said, ‘The police just came over here and threw my child on the ground and pointed guns at the kids’,” Kenan recounted. “I was blown away by what had just taken place.”

Mayor Steve Schewel, at Rochelle Manor to attend Kenan’s event, quickly arranged a meeting between the families and Police Chief Cerelyn Davis. “I thank God that we came right after it happened because we had the mayor there,” Kenan said. “It was able to escalate pretty fast without a lot of blowing up.”

Chris Kenan watches a woman fill out a voter registration form at the Hoover Road public housing complex. Photo by Henry Haggart

Helping families in communities like Rochelle Manor feel heard and supported by police and city leaders is why Kenan helped create BLAST, or Building Leaders for a Solid Tomorrow.

The 32-year-old father of three, a physical education teacher and football coach at Neal Magnet Middle School, in 2015 began giving away toys and bikes at Christmas to kids at Rochelle, where he lived as a kid. 

After George Floyd died in May when a Minneapolis police officer refused to stop pushing his knee into his neck, Kenan organized a rally for athletes to protest racial injustice outside the Durham County Courthouse in June. Some of Kenan’s former students, Duke University football coach David Cutcliffe, and members of the Duke football and men’s basketball teams attended.

After that, Kenan and three friends decided to put a name to their efforts and launched BLAST, which now includes a team of around 30 volunteers — students, lawyers, doctors, athletes, and other professionals included. 

At a time when activist groups and city council members are pushing to reduce the role of police in key discussions about the future of public safety, BLAST is working to strengthen relationships between children, parents, and the police working in their neighborhoods.

Chief Davis praised Kenan for creating “an avenue for positive community engagement between the police and the community” in a statement emailed to The 9th Street Journal.  

Some police officers stood at the edge of the circle when residents, officers and city officials created a circle at the Hoover Road event. Photo by Henry Haggart

The chief was intrigued by Kenan’s passion, said police spokesperson Jacquelynn Werner. “Using the trust they built, and trusting us, we’ve been able to allow our officers to go to the events and start new dialogue, as well as continue some existing conversations,” she said.

Persistent lobbying helped grow BLAST from a project by four friends into a group with significant buy in from decision makers. “We send texts out to every judge, every lawyer, every city council member, the chief, the sheriff, the mayor,” inviting them to events, Kenan said. 

Some view efforts to better unite residents and police as urgent in Durham. Gun violence is on the rise. As of Sept. 19, there were 689 shootings in the city this year. That’s up from a total of 495 shootings to that date last year.

And after a summer of protests, this is a time when relationships are frayed between officers and Durham residents most vulnerable to that violence.

Since July, BLAST has put on nine “Safe Zone Friday” events at Rochelle Manor and at four Durham Housing Authority complexes. Kenan and his co-founders hand out groceries and school supplies and go door-to-door to sign students up for free tutoring. Over a dozen police officers typically attend, allowing kids to enjoy a few hours outdoors without the risk of hearing gunfire, Kenan said.

“My biggest concern is simple,” he said. “Can the kids come outside and play?”

After police body camera footage emerged in July of an incident in 2019 where a Durham police officer was accused of assaulting a high school student, and recent protests over the treatment of the Rochelle Manor youngsters, BLAST’s mission has deepened. Now improving relationships between police and residents, especially youth, has become more urgent for Kenan.

“People think that these matters are just national matters,” Kenan said. “I’m glad that we were able to have a real incident in this city that we can shine a light on but that nobody was hurt from physically. But we still have some healing to do.”

Kenan’s personal history motivates him to help the community heal. Like Zakarryya Cornelius and Jaylin Harris, two of three kids at the center of the drawn-gun incident, Kenan grew up at Rochelle Manor, experiencing the social and financial challenges that many children living in subsidized housing still face.

“My mom raised us in a tough environment, and she did a great job – I could never thank her enough,” said Kenan. He was the only one to graduate high school and college out of 10 childhood friends, he said. 

“Everyone else I grew up with is either dead or in prison,” he explained.

Blast co-founder Arkeem Brooks knocks at an apartment door at the Hoover Road community. Photo by Henry Haggart

At each Safe Zone Friday event, BLAST leaders invite adults and kids to speak out about their needs and any long-standing issues in their neighborhood at Safe Zone Fridays, gun violence and conflicts with police included. That allows Mayor Schewel or other decision makers who attend to hear directly from the community.

A rainy day gave way to sunshine and a cool breeze by the time two dozen officers congregated last Friday at a grassy corner at the Hoover Road complex shortly after 5 pm. As children lined up for ice cream, Kenan and volunteers laid out food trays donated by Home Plate Restaurant, owned by long-time supporter Brian Bibins, whose son was coached by Kenan.

Loud speakers blasted a song that put perceptions about policing center stage. It started with the sound of blaring police sirens. Then a male voice, raw and staccato, rapped about George Floyd’s death and the “shooting, shooting, shooting” of Black people by police.

The officers, a mix of city police and county sheriff’s deputies, didn’t flinch. They talked and bumped elbows with kids and their parents. One deputy threw a football across a muddy clearing to a boy.

After passing out food and goodies to the kids, volunteers ushered residents and officers into a large circle around a grassy clearing. Devonte Smith, a BLAST co-founder, stepped forward and offered help.

“If you need to find a job, maybe we know somebody,” Smith said. “If you need better relations with the police, you come talk to us.”

A BLAST call for donations to help residents at McDougald Terrace public housing community posted on Twitter.

But mostly, he said, he wanted those present — including City Council members DeDreana Freeman and Pierce Freelon — to hear residents say what they and their children needed.

“Education!” one woman offered. “Computers, basketballs, you know, simple stuff — a jump rope!” added another.

Residents called for better parks and community centers too. Several parents said they wanted safe outdoor activities for their kids.

Kenan said BLAST plans to respond to that need with “Training in the Trenches,” an after-school program BLAST will kick off in October. Police officers and former student-athletes, including some of Kenan’s former students, will teach kids sports ranging from football to golf.

Officers did not speak during the circle at Friday’s event. But after the event, Sgt. Daryl Macaluso of the Durham Police Department said that community policing, where officers are assigned to neighborhoods where they get to know residents, is essential.

Macaluso is with the department’s Community Engagement Unit, which focuses on crime prevention in Durham’s public housing communities. The department doesn’t have enough officers to ensure that those who respond to a call know the people in neighborhoods where they are dispatched, he said. 

“I don’t think that would have happened if the officers knew the kids,” he said of the Rochelle Manor incident.

As the Safe Zone event finished, Hoover Road resident Dontray Cole, 45, was laughing and filming as BLAST volunteer Omar Humes, 50, played a spirited game of basketball with one boy.

“Almost, man! Get it!” Cole chided as the neighbor’s son ran across the packed dirt, dribbling past Humes to try to make a basket into an old hoop shorn of netting.

Cole’s expression became more pained as he described how he views the way police usually interact with Hoover Road residents. He praised a white officer who he said comes and speaks with the kids every morning. But some officers were “rude” and “hostile” to residents they perceived as dressing or appearing similar to gang members, he said.

“It gets to your heart,” Cole said. “Don’t treat us like zoo animals.”

Cole said that gunfire in and near the complex, which he attributes to gang members who don’t live in Hoover Road, is a problem. “The kids are way too young, the shooting gets to their mind,” he said.

Events like Safe Zone could help with both gun violence and residents’ relationships with the police, Cole said.“That’s what we need — show their support. Come check on how everything’s doing,” Cole said, as about half a dozen kids started heading toward their homes as night fell.

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

At top: Sgt. Daryl Macaluso, who work with police department’s Community Engagement Unit, throws a football to a kid at the Hoover Road community. Photo by Henry Haggart

How Cooper and Forest differ on police and protests

North Carolina’s governor and lieutenant governor don’t seem to agree on anything. 

As candidates for governor, Roy Cooper, the Democratic incumbent, and Dan Forest, the Republican challenger, have sparred most bitterly over the response to the coronavirus. And they don’t see eye to eye on another group of issues that are important in this year’s election: systemic racism and police brutality. 

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers prompted countless protests across North Carolina and lots of discussion about what government can do on the issues of racism, protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Cooper and Forest have emphasized drastically different messages. 

Cooper has spoken out against systemic racism and excessive use of police force. In a press briefing in late May, he proclaimed that “Black lives matter” and urged North Carolinians not to let people who destroy property undermine the message of peaceful protesters. 

Forest has focused more on the threat of violence from the protests. He has said relatively little about racial inequality and instead emphasized the importance of law and order. He said he stands proudly with the police. 

Forest: ‘We don’t put up with anarchy’

Forest says he will protect North Carolinians when “anarchists” take to the streets. Gov. Cooper failed to do so, he said. 

In an interview with John Woodard, a North Carolina YouTube user and podcast maker, Forest said the mainstream media didn’t tell the full story about the disorder in downtown Raleigh in May, when protesters smashed windows and destroyed storefronts. He said the coverage, or lack thereof, essentially gave Cooper a “free pass” to avoid action. 

“Not only did he not do a good job, he didn’t do anything,” Forest said.

“[People] shouldn’t have to wonder, when the violence comes to my town, what’s the governor going to do?” Forest said.

In the interview, Forest didn’t spend much time discussing why the protesters were there. While he acknowledged that “there will always be a racism problem,” he cited the nation’s success in eradicating slavery more quickly than other parts of the world.

“I do not believe that the vast majority of Americans think that we have a systemic racism problem,” Forest said. 

He said he finds it unfair that a handful of cases of police misconduct around the country have led some to believe that there is a systemic problem. 

A Facebook ad from the state Republican Party highlights Forest’s position to “Defend Our Police”

Police officers put their lives on the line everyday to protect citizens, Forest said in the interview. 

“We don’t put up with anarchy,” he said, “We don’t want to see our cities destroyed, we don’t want to see our police defunded.”

Restoring law and order is a central part of his platform. “Here in North Carolina, we Back the Blue!!!” says one Facebook ad.

Cooper: ‘People are more important than property’

After the violence in Raleigh, Cooper spoke at an emergency briefing. While he thanked police for working to keep the peace, he emphasized the importance of the protests.

Today the headlines are not about those protestors and their calls for serious, meaningful change,” Cooper said, “They are more about riots, and tear gas, and broken windows and stolen property. I fear the cry of the people is being drowned out.”

When the mayors of Raleigh, Charlotte, Fayetteville and Greensboro requested state highway patrol and National Guard soldiers to maintain order during protests, Cooper complied.

But he focused on the issues that caused the unrest.

We cannot focus so much on the property damage that we forget why people are in the streets” he said. 

“Let me be clear,” he said, “People are more important than property. Black lives do matter.”

In June, Cooper formed a task force to address racial inequity in North Carolina’s criminal justice system.  He also criticized Forest for failing to speak out against racism.

He accused Forest of failing to denounce a racist incident that occurred at 311 Speedway, a race track in Stokes County. Mike Fulp, the owner of the track, posted a Facebook ad for a “Bubba rope” for sale, shortly after a rope fashioned into a noose was found in NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace’s garage. 

Cooper launched an ad campaign against Forest for not speaking out against Fulp, a Forest supporter. 

Smart strategies?

Defending the police and promoting law and order is a smart strategy for Forest, who is still behind in the polls, said Mac McCorkle, a former Democratic strategist who is now a public policy professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. 

But McCorkle said he thinks Cooper has played it wisely. He hasn’t supported defunding the police, which has made it difficult for Forest to label him an extremist. 

The unrest has eased since the summer, so the issue has less urgency.

“He needs a specific bill of indictment against Cooper,” McCorkle said, “He needs to be able to really concretely say something that makes people think that Cooper has failed on the job.”

Unless he finds that, Forest faces an uphill battle.

“The race seems very static, very stable,” McCorkle said, “and if it stays that way, Forest is in trouble.”

Saying goodbye: Q&A with City Manager Tom Bonfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City Manager Tom Bonfield.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low-wage, essential workers strike for economic and racial justice

On Monday afternoon, in the sweltering heat, hundreds of people — many of them low-wage and frontline workers during the pandemic — gathered in front of the McDonald’s on West Morgan Street in Durham as part of the “Strike for Black Lives.” 

An organizer of the protest speaks to the crowd gathered in front of the McDonald’s. Photo by Henry Haggart

The event was organized by the group NC Raise Up, which is connected with the national organization Fight for $15 that advocates for living wages, workers’ unions and workers’ rights. It was one of a series of demonstrations in over two dozen cities across the nation on July 20.

Members of the drum line kneel during a moment of silence held in remembrance of George Floyd. Photo by Henry Haggart
Organizer Tonya Marsh leading chants among demonstrators in front of the Morgan St. McDonald’s. Photo by Henry Haggart

The workers demanded the minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour and asked for hazard pay and better protective equipment during COVID-19 pandemic. Speakers said they wanted employers of essential workers during the pandemic to commit to economic and racial justice.

Hasan Wilson Jr. hangs a sign from the bull statue in downtown Durham. Photo by Henry Haggart
Durham native Crispin Whittier prepares a hydration solution for a dehydrated attendee of the strike. Photo by Henry Haggart

A new street mural reading “STRIKE FOR BLACK LIVES” in large red letters was painted at the intersection of Morgan Street and Rigsbee Avenue before the strike. The  mural is not the first to show up on the roads of Durham or other cities. It’s part of a nationwide trend in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following weeks-long protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville, Kentucky police. 

Protesters scattered across the new street mural, maintaining safe distance from one another.

9th Street Journal photographer Henry Haggart can be reached at henry.haggart@duke.edu.

Pavement protest murals: Will they stay or will they go?

Chances are you’ve spotted them on social media streams: super-sized words painted on pavement outside two government buildings in downtown Durham.

“DEFUND” yells one in large yellow letters in front of the police department headquarters. “FUND” demands the other, outside the Durham County Human Services Complex a block away.

People pushing for massive change in local policing created them in protest last month, days after the City Council approved the city’s $502.6 million 2020-2021 budget. Tucked inside was $70.3 million for the police department, a 5% spending increase from last year’s budget.

What’s not known is how long the street murals will remain. City officials with the Cultural and Public Art Program and the transportation department remain undecided about keeping the pavement art, city spokesperson Amy Blalock told 9th Street Journal.

Talking back

On June 19, scores of people answered a call from local activists to join a “community art action” and rally coinciding with Juneteenth. That’s the holiday commemorating June 19, 1865, when the last group of enslaved people in the Confederate states learned the Civil War was over and they were free.

The action occurred during week three of national demonstrations against racism and police violence after George Floyd’s death on a Minneapolis street. An officer, since charged with murder, kept pressing a knee into Floyd’s neck after the handcuffed man repeatedly said he could not breathe.

Durham Beyond Policing, a coalition of activist groups planned the pavement-art protest. The group was formed in 2016 to oppose the construction of the new Durham Police Department Headquarters, which cost $71 million.

“Juneteenth means abolition,” organizers wrote on the Durham Beyond Policing page on Facebook, referencing police abolition, a movement seeking to replace police and prisons with other approaches to community safety.

The coalition had organized a mass email campaign urging City Council members to redirect police funding to education, health care, and alternative community safety programs. After all City Council members voted to pass the city’s proposed 2020-2021 budget at their June 15 meeting, supporters of the coalition were disappointed. 

The lettering of the protest mural isn’t easy to read up close. This portion was painted outside police headquarters on East Main Street, near shelters protesters set up. Photo by Henry Haggart

“The unanimous vote really hit our collective and community very hard,” said Kyla Hartsfield, an organizer with Durham Beyond Policing. “We tried through comments, emails – and here’s another way to push the message of defunding the police,” she said.

During the event, participants went to work with paint rollers, spelling out big yellow letters and an arrow pointing at the police headquarters on East Main Street.

As police officers and volunteers diverted traffic, protesters marched one block down the street to paint again, this time with an arrow pointing to a building hosting county services such as public health, social services, and veteran services.

A local, national trend

The Durham street murals are part of a growing number of anti-racist street murals sprouting up in cities across the nation.

In past weeks, local governments and businesses have signaled support for police reform by commissioning painting of the “BLACK LIVES MATTER” slogan. The artworks can stretch across multiple city blocks.

Not everyone pushing for changes to community safety likes the trend of murals paid for by elected leaders. Some activists say city officials painting streets distracts from protesters’ demands for systemic change.

“Cities are co-opting language we’re using but not actually making change or making Black folks safer,” said Hartsfield, from Durham Beyond Policing. 

The Durham street art was created by protesters who did not seek the city’s approval to make it. It highlights a central question: whether communities should fund police and prison reforms or give more money to programs that help people rather than punish them.

Organizers have circulated a striking top-down view of the two murals, produced by a camera mounted to a participant’s drone. Though the words are difficult to make out at street level, the paint remains bright and visible from above.

Marcella Camara, a Durham-based artist who helped organizers plan the pavement art, said using artistic expression as an anti-racist protest was keeping with the spirit of Juneteenth.

“Juneteenth is a day of mourning, but it’s also a celebratory day for Black people to get together,” she said, noting that the rally also featured music, free food, and dancing.

Camara said she saw the art project as an opportunity for community members to come out and learn about the concept of police abolition and Durham Beyond Policing’s proposals.

“This may be their first time engaging with the sociopolitical issues of our time,” she said. “Art makes that more accessible.”

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

At top: While hard to read from the street, the meaning of the protest street art is crystal clear from above. Photo used with permission

Durham task force will assess community safety, police funding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student pushed to change policing in Durham schools before street protests swelled

Aissa Dearing remembers a talk on gang violence prevention in her seventh-grade health class.

This is how gangs recruit students, school security and police officers told her and classmates at Lucas Middle School in northern Durham County. This is how long you will spend in jail if you sell Drug X, they said. Drug Y brings a longer sentence.

Dearing, a recent graduate of JD Clement Early College, wonders why the encounter wasn’t designed to inspire rather than promote fear. Say if a member of Project BUILD, a gang intervention program, talked to students. Or if her class was brought to a career fair to help motivate them at school. 

“Wouldn’t that be more substantive than police officers talking to you about crime?” Dearing asked during an interview. 

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, national conversations about police aggression, funding and training are everywhere. Yet, these are not new concerns for Dearing. 

The 18-year-old has been pushing Durham Public Schools to rethink the need to employ law enforcement officers in public schools. It started when she and other students published a list of proposed improvements in 2019. With petitions and protest, recently she has promoted a complete abolition of school resource officers (SROs).

Working for change

During her junior year at her magnet high school, Dearing joined the Youth Justice Project. That’s a Southern Coalition for Social Justice initiative that promotes equity for young people in education and the criminal justice system. 

Through the Youth Justice Project, she and others invited students, administrators and SROs to a town hall forum on the topic of school safety in April 2019 at the W.G. Pearson Center. They named the forum with the acronym SRO, but instead it stood for “Students Reaching Out.”

The risk of over-aggressive policing is not an abstract issue for Dearing. SROs were not assigned to her high school, which is located on the campus of North Carolina Central University. But Dearing recalls watching some of these officers break up fights between students during football games at Hillside and Riverside high schools. Altercations sometimes ended with students escorted to the back of a patrol car or handcuffed at the scene, she said. 

In Durham, 27 sheriff deputies work in middle and high schools in the district. The county spent $2.7 million dollars to fund 30 officers, three of which are not assigned to specific schools in the 2019-2020 budget, with the same amount recommended for 2020-2021

The officers, who are armed, are there to enforce the law, provide delinquency prevention resources, and offer law-related guidance and counseling to students, according to Durham Public Schools.

After the town hall forum, the Youth Justice Project published a list of recommendations for school board members to consider. Items included increased transparency through a public data report about what SROs respond to, a student-friendly complaint process to report any concerns regarding SROs, and a redefined outline of what types of incidents a SRO should be involved in. 

 After seeing little change, Dearing has a new request. 

“A year later, now we’re asking for just a complete defunding and end of relationship with the sheriff’s department,” she said. 

From reform to abolition

Elijah King, a recent Riverside High School graduate, is Dearing’s  partner-in-action and biggest advocate. The pair met while working with Made in Durham, a non-profit that helps students enter the workforce after school.

In their collaborations, Dearing is Steve Jobs with big-picture ideas, while he is Steve Wozniak, fine tuning the details for operation, King says. 

Aissa Dearing holds an umbrella over the head of fellow student activist Elijah King at a press conference they staged at last week. 9th Street Journal Photo by Henry Haggart

One big-picture action Dearing took recently was circulating a petition addressed to Superintendent Pascal Mubenga and Board of Education Chairman Mike Lee on Instagram. It asked Durham residents to sign in support of removing SROs from all schools and attracted over 2,000 likes and 3,000 comments from people ranging from Duke University students to Durham Public School parents. 

“She’s a leader. She’s a great speaker. She knows all about how teamwork makes the dream work. She is ambitious. And that’s why I like working with her,” King said.

To promote her Instagram request, Dearing and others solicited comments supporting removing SROs ahead of the Board of Education work session on June 10. That generated 256 pages of written comments.  

In response to all of this, Durham Public Schools published a statement on its website endorsing its SRO program and agreeing to conduct the impact assessment of the program by the end of the 2020-2021 school year, as the Youth Justice Project had requested last year.

“We would be happy to participate in a community forum to learn from our stakeholders and develop solutions to ensure the safety and security of our students,” the statement reads.

As the statement did not clarify who are stakeholders, Dearing, King, and others organized a  “March for Black Students” on June 13 to show them. 

Organizing a march in a pandemic is not an easy feat. Aside from the tasks of contacting de-escalators, people assigned to diffuse any conflict, and medics to attend, she and co-organizers ensured people wore masks and used hand sanitizer.  

Dearing led marchers half a mile from DPS headquarters to the sheriff’s department in a yellow shirt that read “free Black mamas” with a patterned fabric mask on. When holding the microphone to speak to the crowd, she, and other speakers wore a blue plastic glove as a cautionary measure.

Dearing is not letting adults dominate conversation about school policy. Instead, she is putting student voices at the center of her actions, said Katherine Shor, a former youth engagement coordinator at Made in Durham and a mentor to Dearing.  

“To have youth be the leaders, the voices and the stakeholders of what happens in their schools that is a policy planning, organizing 101,” Shor said.

Lee said he hears Dearing’s requests. However, he said, he needs to better understand alternatives for SROs before he is willing to remove them from schools. 

Although SROs mainly interact with students, they also handle external threats to the school, Lee stressed. That can range from disruptions related to parents’ custody battles over students or trespassers on school campuses. 

Lee emphasized SROs protect not only 33,526 students in all Durham public schools but also 5,003 employees on school campuses. He fears if he cut SROs, he may have employees who will quit, he said.

“I need solutions to help assure the security of those 38,000 people in our buildings every day before I can make any kind of a decision,” he said. 

Dearing and King are working on suggestions for SRO alternatives, which will include having people at schools trained in conflict resolution responses such as de-escalation and restorative justice. Next steps will include a youth summit to collect more student ideas. After that they will present a proposal to the county, the sheriff’s department and school board that King has been compiling. 

The pair will keep working to build as much support as they can around their proposal before they both head separate ways in the fall. Dearing will enroll at Howard University; King will enter the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 

“I can speak as a former student, but now I kind of have to take a step back and pass the baton,” she said.

9th Street Journal reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

Photo at top: Aissa Dearing and Elijah King led a “March for Black Students” on June 13. Photo courtesy of Abraham Gonzalez

Black artists transform downtown Durham

By Henry Haggart

As protests continued around the country over George Floyd dying while in police custody on a Minneapolis street, a portion of downtown Durham was transformed.

Vibrant murals now coat boards installed over storefront windows on and near West Main Street to protect businesses in case violence broke out here.

Workers board up windows of a downtown business on June 1.

After a series of peaceful protests in Durham, community organizers from Art Ain’t Innocent, an arts advocacy group, and other volunteers linked business owners to local black artists. Since then, 23 artists have completed 24 murals in downtown storefronts. 

Mural on the door by Megan Bowser

Businesses and the Durham Artist Relief Fund compensated artists for the works, whose content creators controlled.  The NorthStar Church of the Arts continues to collect donations to support Durham artists affected by the pandemic, especially “BIPOC artists, transgender & nonbinary artists, and disabled artists,” according to the relief fund’s website.

Mural by Son of Simba

As some businesses prepare to reopen, these new works are not being discarded. Volunteers this week were moving murals from storefronts to a wall surrounding the 9th Street Bakery parking lot for a temporary installation.

Volunteers help artist Jaguar Perry before heading to a protest in downtown Durham this week.

While there is not yet a plan for longterm preservation of the protest-born artwork, community organizers and artists are working on a way to store the pieces.

Volunteer Luke Norton installs a relocated mural on a wall bordering the Ninth Street Bakery parking lot downtown. Kamara Thomas created the piece.

At top: Jaguar Perry works on a piece title “Sambo in Wonderland” at 307 West Main St. All photos by Henry Haggart

Q&A with mayor centers on police funding, COVID-19

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel’s virtual Q&A with faculty and staff of Duke University’s public policy school on Wednesday offered a glimpse into how the city is handling police violence protests and the coronavirus pandemic.  

“We had last week in Durham, verelly powerful forceful protests, eloquent protests . . . about, not just the murder, the heinous inhuman and cold murder of George Floyd,” Schewel said, “but also the racism in our system that persists.”

Nearly 100 people attended the hour-long online event. Duke faculty and staff, as well as the public, submitted questions via Zoom for Sanford School of Public Policy Dean Judith Kelley to ask the mayor. 

Much of the conversation revolved around policing, including the department’s funding and potential reforms. The mayor said that last week, he signed a pledge to review and reform policies around police officers’ use-of-force within the next 90 days. 

“I’m happy to say that our police chief has already responded to the eight particular tactics that were highlighted in that [pledge],” he said.

Many Durham residents are calling on city officials, including the mayor, to defund the police department. But Schewel said the police budget will instead be increasing by just over $1 million dollars. In 2019, the police department asked for an estimated $69 million and spent $67 million; this year, the city has a proposed police budget of $70 million. 

“That million dollars is not adding any police officers,” he said, assuring attendees that the money will pay for state-mandated pensions and mandatory raises for officers.

Kelley asked Schewel if he felt Durham police were where they needed to be in the community. Schewel responded that Durham has spent years “reforming the way our police operate.” 

He added that police have and will continue to respect demonstrators’ right to protest, adopt non-confrontational tactics and monitor if traffic stops are made because of racial profiling.

“We have racial equity training for all our officers, we have de-escalation training for all of our officers, we have crisis intervention training,” he said. “Our police department is far from perfect . . . but we are putting in a lot of effort and have put in a lot of effort over the last few years to reform our police force.”

The city also plans to establish alternatives to policing, he said, so officers are not called in for something better handled by medical services, mental health services or social workers.

He did not offer any details about how specific programs would work or be funded, or say if the city will reduce the number of police officers over time.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. Credit: Wikimedia photo

The Q&A also covered voting during the coronavirus pandemic. Schewel said it was up to the Board of Elections and the state to decide how to handle voting processes in November’s general election. 

“Right now, there isn’t quite a strategy,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are thinking about it, and I have a lot of confidence. But we’re going to need good guidance from the state.”

Last year, the North Carolina legislature passed a law making it harder to request absentee ballots, which is being challenged in court. Schewel said he’s worried about residents having easy absentee voting options and safe, quick in-person polling stations.

“Voter suppression is real, and I think that our legislature, unless they agree to have mailed to every voter an application for an absentee ballot, I think that that will be suppressing the vote,” Schewel said.

Other attendees asked about the city’s COVID-19 response and the reopening of Durham schools. Schewel said he wasn’t sure what would happen in the fall, but is concerned the continued increase of cases in Durham could lead to a resurgence of the virus.

One program he emphasized was an effort to address unequal access to remote learning during the pandemic. Durham Public Schools will spend $8 million providing Chromebooks to students and installing wireless hotspots around the city to help ensure every child has access to digital learning.

Throughout the conversation, Schewel responded to many questions with “I don’t know.” He reiterated that some decisions — especially those about the pandemic — depend on state lawmakers. 

“As we all know we’re in an incredibly difficult time in our nation,” he said, “It’s a hard time to be mayor, I’ll tell you that.”