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County commissioners label racism a public health crisis

As a young woman, Wanda Boone was the first African-American to work outside of the kitchen at the hospital where she was employed. Later, while an executive elsewhere for 20 years, she endured daily racist treatment on the job, she said. 

Such experiences take a toll. That is one reason why Boone, a member of Durham County’s health task force, spoke Monday about the importance of county commissioners approving a resolution declaring that racism is a public health crisis in Durham.

“I think what happened with the murder of George Floyd, his death for me personally opened the floodgates. The trauma I experienced as a child, throughout all of my life, until the day that it happened, came rushing down on me, so this resolution wasn’t something that’s taken lightly,” said Boone, co-founder of Together for Resilient Youth, which works to reduce substance abuse among young people.

At a time when protests against police violence against black Americans continue across the United States and elsewhere in the world, commission members made time Monday to discuss the resolution, which all five commissioners have signed.

It lists ways racism affects people’s daily lives, from police violence within the African American community to disparities in the birth weight of black newborns in Durham. It notes  eight steps commissioners will take, including promoting equity through all county policies and supporting policies that prioritize the health of all people, especially people of color,  by decreasing exposure to adverse childhood experiences. 

Discussion about the resolution was scheduled to last 10 minutes. But it went on for almost an hour while commissioners and staff members spoke about their commitment to fight racism in all things, including land use, economic development, and transportation plans.

“There is no room for racism or hatred within our community,” said County Health Director Rodney Jenkins. “Policy change is the only way we’re going to bring about true health care throughout our community”.

Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs wanted to expand the discussion beyond the resolution. She brought up a letter from the City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials about a Confederate memorial outside the former courthouse in downtown Durham. Protestors tore down a statute of a Confederate soldier atop the monument in 2017.

Jacobs said she wanted the board to move toward declaring the pedestal of the 96-year-old monument a public health and safety hazard. An inscription on it reads “IN MEMORY OF THE BOYS WHO WORE THE GRAY”.

Commissioner Brenda Howerton said she was hesitant to bring up the letter at the meeting. “I don’t understand forcing this thing on the agenda tonight,” she said. “The statue is important, but right now I think people are really suffering around black and brown people being shot and killed”.

Commissioners also spent more than an hour discussing the $675.6 million 2020-2021 county budget, which passed by a 3-2 vote. The discussion revealed that revenue losses linked to the coronavirus outbreak will limit some of what commissioners can do, at least in the coming months.

Commissioner Heidi Carter argued that, in line with the racism-is-a-public-threat resolution, that the budget should include full funding to provide Durham Public School employees such as bus drivers, administrative assistants and janitors with a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Facing budget restraints caused by the coronavirus, a majority of commissioners did not agree. But commissioners are expected to return to the topic in January.

At top: A portion of  the proclamation declaring that racism is a public health threat. Durham county commissioners signed it Monday.

COVID hits black, Latinx Durham residents hardest

New data paints a bleak picture of health disparity growing in Durham amid the coronavirus pandemic. Latinx and black people have tested positive for COVID-19 at rates that outsize their population numbers.

Latinx residents, who account for 14% of the county’s population, made up 34% of its COVID-19 cases as of May 25, the county Department of Public Health says. Black people, 37% of the population, make up 42% of confirmed cases. White people, 54% of the population, total 26% of cases. 

This comes into focus as Durham and the country are grappling with the harms of racial disparities, including police brutality. 

The unequal infection rate is linked to where people work or are confined, the data shows. Nursing care facilities, correctional facilities and construction sites were the most common settings linked to positive cases, county data shows. In Durham, black and Latinx people make up a majority of workers and residents that have tested positive in each of those settings. 

Black people make up 67% of the cases associated with nursing care facilities and 53% of the cases associated with correctional facilities. Some of Durham’s largest outbreaks have occurred at such organizations. At Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where at least 111 people were sick with COVID-19, and at Butner’s Federal Correctional Complex, which is partly located in Durham County, at least 424 inmates and staff there have tested positive. 

Some nursing homes in Durham County, including Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, have been hotspots for COVID-19. Black people make up 67% of cases associated with nursing care facilities, according to current county data. 9th Street Journal photo by Henry Haggart

Latinx people account for 91% of the cases associated with construction work, the county data shows. Outdoor construction has been continuously exempted from Durham’s aggressive stay-at-home orders.

The over-representation of minorities among people diagnosed with the illness has emerged and increased since coronavirus first reached Durham.

The fact that racial minorities are disproportionately made sick by the coronavirus in Durham does not surprise people working to reduce health disparities, including Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of NAATPN, a Durham-based organization that advocates for the health of black people nationally.

“In Durham, just like other places across the country, and most of your service industry workers, those that are on the front line that have been deemed essential, are people of color,” Jefferson said. “These are the folks that have to go into work every day. And so if they have to go into work every day, then that means they’re front facing their face to the public and they’re exposed to this virus.”

Deepening disparities

The unequal impact of the coronavirus on black and Latinx Americans has grown amidst existing health disparities, Jefferson said.

“There are two primary reasons for it. One is the chronic health conditions that are already there disproportionately impacting these populations… the other is the social determinants of health coming into play,” he said. 

Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, CEO and President of El Centro Hispano, also sees the coronavirus exacerbating pre-existing disparities. 

“We had gaps before,” Rocha-Goldberg said. “A lot of them don’t have a primary doctor to go to if they feel sick, or lack knowing how to navigate the system.”

El Centro Hispano, which supports the education, health and economic well being of Latinx communities across the Triangle,  is sharing educational resources on COVID-19 with community members and guiding them to low-cost health care, she said. But some people who might be sick are too afraid to get treated. 

“People always fear giving information because of their political status,” Rocha-Goldberg said, referring to people living here without legal immigration status. During this outbreak, some worry that using publicly provided services could negatively affect their immigration status, she added.

The Latinx community’s contributions to essential work highlights the value of the group of people, Rocha-Goldberg said. 

“You have to see how much our community members contribute to the community,” she said. “We are seeing it in essential jobs. Who is there and who is working?”

Reports from the early phase of the outbreak misled some people in the community to think they wouldn’t be affected by COVID-19 because they are Latinx, Rocha-Goldberg said. 

White people were overrepresented among positive tests in Durham at the onset of the virus. They made up 58% of cases in March. 

Source: Durham County Department of Public Health

As testing has become more available and the virus has spread within the community, white people have made up an increasingly small share of positive cases. The proportion dropped to 27% in April, then 16% in May. Meanwhile, the rate of positive tests among people of color has skyrocketed. 

In March, Latinx people accounted for 7% of cases. Black people made up 25% of cases then. In April, black people accounted for 57% of new cases. And in May, Latinx people accounted for 58% of new cases.

Jefferson applauded local efforts to support Durhamites who are vulnerable to the health and economic consequences of COVID-19. Racial and ethnic COVID-19 data recording, eviction prevention and support for businesses have helped address inequities, he said. 

“In Durham, they’re doing the best they can,” said Jefferson, whose organization reaches out to elected officials at all levels to advocate for a focus on health disparity.

After obtaining data on COVID-19 diagnoses among racial and ethnic groups in Durham, the 9th Street Journal followed up with the county health department on Friday to request additional data involving COVID-19 deaths and testing access. The 9th Street Journal also requested information about the origins of the disparity and what the county is doing to address it. The department did not respond before publishing.  

In a document detailing the COVID-19 data, the county health department does note the importance of data noting people’s racial and ethnic identities to promote health equity. “A history of structural racism (e.g. residential and job segregation) creates inequitable access to health care and risk of disease exposure,” it reads. 

According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, black people make up 34% percent of reported deaths across the state. They make up 23% of the state population. Latinx people have been slightly underrepresented in deaths reported statewide. 

The state’s racial and ethnic data on death is incomplete. Racial identification is missing in 5% of reported cases, and ethnic identification is missing in 16%. 

Durham’s racial and ethnic data on COVID-19 cases is incomplete too. Racial identification is missing in 4% of reported cases, and ethnic identification is missing in 17%. The race of 28% of positive cases is identified as “other”. Ethnicity is reported as either Hispanic or non-Hispanic in the data set. 

A new normal

Both Rocha-Goldberg and Jefferson said the communities they serve are also facing growing economic disparity during the coronavirus outbreak.

El Centro Hispano has adjusted its role in the community. It’s providing food and money to help cover utility and rent bills for more than 660 families, Rocha-Goldberg said.

Food for one family costs $50 to $150, and utilities and rent support is around $800 to $2000, she estimated.

“It’s only a drop, but at least we are able to do something,” she said. Still, she sees many in the community with large, looming unmet needs. 

Jefferson fears the broad impact of the coronavirus will haunt the health and economic wellbeing of communities of color for decades.

“We’re looking at at least 20 or 30 years before our communities can start to recover. It is going to devastate our communities,” he said. 

He worries that protests ignited by the killing of George Floyd by police will amplify the damage COVID-19 causes in black communities by potentially increasing the spread of the disease. 

“Yes, we’re mad. Yes, we’re hurt. Yes, we want justice,” Jefferson said. “But we really can’t be distracted. We’ve got to continue practicing social distancing.”

At top: Outdoor construction has been continuously exempted from Durham’s aggressive stay-at-home orders. 9th Street Journal photo by Henry Haggart.


Durham leaders share pain, hope as protests grow

The agenda for Monday’s Durham City Council virtual meeting listed 27 items, but the topic that weighed most heavily on everyone present did not appear by name.

On the screen, five faces stared straight ahead, elected leaders of a city relieved that a weekend of national protests had been peaceful within Durham, but also troubled by the violent confrontations between police and participants in nearby Raleigh and across the country.

Council and community members took turns sharing stories of pain and hope in the wake of the death of George Floyd, transforming a virtual meeting into a space where their collective emotional toll surfaced and was acknowledged.

“I just wanted to say a few words tonight about the experience that we’re having this past week, in our country,” began Jillian Johnson, mayor pro-tem and co-founder of Durham For All, a multiracial political organizing group.

“As a child in the 1980s, my mother warned my younger brother not to play with toy guns so the police wouldn’t think he had a real gun and shoot him,” she said. “Decades later, the only thing that’s really changed is that the ubiquity of phone cameras and live streaming technologies brought the reality of this experience to a new and broader audience.”

Durham needs to come together to push for change as a community, she said, listing what she views as critical problems: an expanding city police budget, racial disparities in traffic stops and a civilian oversight board she said lacked authority to enforce changes in policing practices.

Johnson urged redirecting the city’s spending priorities to community safety approaches “outside of policing,” though she said that “I want to appreciate the work of our police chief C.J. Davis and her staff in avoiding needless conflicts with demonstrators over the last few days.”

Unlike the police response in Raleigh, which used tear gas, rubber bullets, and riot gear in confrontations with protestors over the weekend, Durham officers did not confront people protesting downtown. Instead they closed traffic on nearby streets and kept a distance.

Not that protests were over in Durham. At 2 pm Monday, a group of over 50 people led by local artist Skip Gibbs had blocked Highway 147 near downtown, at South Alston Avenue. The group demanded a meeting with the Durham Police Chief and Durham County Sheriff about preventing police brutality. Within an hour, both public officials had called the organizers and agreed to a meeting on Friday, and the group moved off the highway.

An hour before the council meeting was set to start at 7 pm, a crowd of several hundred, including students and families with children, started assembling in front of the Carolina Theater downtown. The “#DefundThePolice” demonstration, organized by the Durham chapter of Black Youth Project 100, a youth-led group, walked through downtown toward the Durham County Detention Facility. City police followed, closing off streets to traffic around the crowd, which stretched for several blocks.

With a wavering voice, council member DeDreana Freeman explained that she would likely be off camera at points due to her emotions after the killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, which medical examiners have labeled a homicide.

“I do want to uplift just how hard it is to come face to face with this … uninvited mental health trauma,” Freeman said. “There are no words. I can feel it in my bones, I can feel it all throughout my body. The trauma I’m carrying, it’s, it’s just, in my DNA, and it is the reason I do what I do, how I do it.” 

Johnson warned about “paramilitaries and provocateurs” potentially entering Durham and other cities to provoke conflicts with the police. Mark-Anthony Middleton, a council member and pastor, urged city residents to be vigilant and to “keep our eyes open for those who don’t really love us, who don’t care about the Floyd family, who don’t share our tears, but are here to co-opt and preempt us.” 

“This is Durham,” Middleton added. “We know the difference between a confederate monument and a mom-and-pop store. We don’t need anyone bringing any more bull to the Bull City.” 

Council member Charlie Reese pointed to what he said is the foundation of the police violence being protested across the country.

“This is an epidemic that is, of course, the natural outgrowth of America’s original sins of racism and white supremacy,” he said. “It’s the result of a rampaging, out of control flavor of capitalism that enlists police violence as a means to protect private property, all too often punishing small acts like attempted forgery with the death of those alleged to have committed it.”

Council member Javiera Caballero concurred. “We have seen the response in cities across this country due to the militarization of the police. In Durham, we have tried to take a different approach,” Caballero said. 

Caballero also praised Police Chief Davis. “She’s done a remarkable job changing the culture of Durham’s police department,” she said.

However, two of the three community members who spoke during the meeting had called in to voice opposition to increasing funding for the police department. Danielle Purifoy spoke on behalf of Durham Beyond Policing, a local network of activists opposed to policing. In opposing a 5% increase in the $70 million budget for the police, she pointed to the costly evacuation of McDougald Terrace, a public housing complex plagued by unsafe conditions, as well as the high number of evictions in Durham and the $9 million budget shortfall the city faces due to the pandemic.

“My question is what else needs to happen for us to prioritize serving people over punishing people?” she said. 

After council members spoke, Mayor Steve Schewel commended their “fantastic, fantastic words” and read the North Carolina Mayors’ Statement on the Murder of George Floyd, which he wrote. “The words are important, and we know we need to do the work along with it,” he added.

As the city council meeting stretched on past 8 pm, the #DefundThePolice demonstration had gathered outside the detention facility, chanting up to inmates who knocked on the windows in response. “Same story every time. Being black is not a crime,” they chanted in unison. 

In the setting sun, sounds of cheering, yelling, and clapping filled the evening air.

Above: A screenshot of a moment during Durham City Council’s virtual meeting Monday when council member DeDreana Freeman spoke.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Skip Gibbs’ last name.


A Durham moment: ‘Ain’t nobody gonna save us but us!’

An American flag flails halfheartedly beside the demonstration in downtown Durham. A Pan-African flag — larger and catching more gusts of wind — is paraded through the crowd. 

In the heart of downtown, where Main Street meets Morris Street meets Chapel Hill Boulevard, Durhamites have gathered in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation. Under a gray sky, they wear masks and hold signs. The air is ripe with electricity and anticipation, like we are on the brink of a storm.

“End White Silence,” demands one sign, written in red, white and blue. 

Another sign simply says, “GEORGE FLOYD,” potent with a power that has mobilized millions. 

Beside the woman holding this sign, a fellow protestor holds a piece of cardboard. In Sharpie, it begs the question that has brought so many people from the virus-protected safety of their homes out to this demonstration and others like it. 

“Are me and my family next?” 

They’re here because they saw it on social media – first the horrific video of Floyd being pinned under a police officer’s knee while he gasped “I can’t breathe!”, and then the call to action for protesters, which spread quickly through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

One participant mentions that she saw a post online about protests in Raleigh on Monday, which she also plans to attend. As she says this, someone sitting nearby asks for logistical details.

The protest has no agenda, so people in the crowd just speak up.

“Ain’t nobody gonna save us but us!” shouts one woman, standing in the center of the demonstration. Others circle around to listen as she calls for community action, for holding each other accountable, and for getting out the vote. 

“We didn’t fight each other, we fought for each other,” she says. The crowd echoes her passion, chanting “No justice, no peace.”

More protestors take their turns sharing stories and making short speeches. On the outskirts of the crowd, an older gentleman wearing a blue plaid sportcoat adorned with a “F— Trump ” button, is offering everyone squirts of hand sanitizer. 

Beyond frustration though, many in the crowd are angry. 

“F— the police,” rings out occasionally from the protestors as cops on motorcycles loudly circle on neighboring streets. 

Talking through his mask — blue, with the word “Democrat” patterned across it— Jan Cromartie, who mentions that he is a candidate for the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District, says he appreciates the way the community has organized to support the movement, but hopes to see grander, institutional changes as a result. 

“Rhetoric is good,” he says, “but I believe in action.”

Droplets of rain start to fall as the protest continues into the evening.

In photo at top, demonstrators held a peaceful rally in downtown Durham on Saturday. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal