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People skills. Check. Saying yes. Check. This is no ordinary bureaucrat.

Trial Court Administrator E. Deneen Barrier’s desk is a mess.

Pushed into a corner beside her monitor, an enormous stack of jumbled documents dominates the space. Barrier thumbs through the pile as she hunts for a jury selection calendar, flipping past paperwork from seemingly every department in the Durham County Courthouse.

Similar “pockets of danger,” as Barrier refers to them, litter the office. They include a thick stack of papers labeled “shred and destroy,” a mountain of boxes and scrambled files, and a whiteboard calendar still reading “May 2021.”

Barrier wears many hats in the courthouse, all of them involving keeping operations as smooth and organized as possible. But she doesn’t see bureaucracy the way most people do. Some might associate court management with red tape and closed doors, but Barrier said she’s centered her career around creativity, openness and a willingness to say “yes.” 

And sometimes that means learning to work with chaos.

“It’s a Broadway show,” Barrier said, referring to the courthouse. “It’s the lights, it’s the cameras, it’s the props—it’s all that.”

The problem-solver

Barrier’s office sits at the top of the courthouse, on the ninth floor — the same floor as the judges’ chambers and the District Attorney’s office. Her window offers astonishing views of downtown Durham surrounded by a sea of trees.

Barrier loves discussing her work. Dressed in slacks and a tie-neck denim blouse, she is a dynamic, engaged speaker, sometimes asking questions of her interviewer or moving around the room to illustrate a point. Her descriptions of her duties often flow from administrative jargon to moving accounts of courthouse drama.

As trial court administrator, Barrier handles tasks such as coordinating civil hearings and scheduling juror summonses. But the full scope of her duties extends far beyond that.

In May 2020, Barrier also became the courthouse’s COVID-19 coordinator. Since then, she has worked with other top-tier court officials to establish the numerous shifting health precautions the courts have adopted over the past 20 months. 

Barrier is one of the courthouse’s two disability access coordinators, providing equipment like hearing aids and crutches to those who need them for court. And judging from the many visitors, phone calls and emails she received on a recent Tuesday morning, many court employees consider her their go-to problem-solver.

One of Barrier’s first challenges that day came from a person wanting to bring a service animal to court. In her 17 years working there, Barrier had never received such a request. But she knew who could help.  

She sent a quick email to, and left a voice message for, the disability access coordinator at the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees judicial functions for North Carolina.  Then she waited.

‘Oil upon those troubled waters’

Barrier recalled one occasion where she spotted a man arguing with an arbitrator after he’d missed his hearing. She told the man that the case was out of the arbitrator’s hands, but that she could reschedule it for him.

He turned his frustration on Barrier. He ranted for the entire trip to the ninth floor, and when they left the elevator, he was still too distraught to be reasoned with.

“He’s bent down like this,” Barrier said, crouching and staring at the floor with tense hands framing either side of her head. “He’s just, ‘This is not right, this is not fair.’”

Not wanting to tower over him, Barrier said she crouched to his level. She asked if he had a certain document, and he handed it to her. She copied it for him and rescheduled his case. Then she gave him her phone number and email address. That way, he could double-check the time before coming to court.

“He said, ‘You know what, I want to apologize for my behavior earlier,’” Barrier said. “’You know, you just come to the courthouse and people tell you things, and this case is for a lot of money.’”

Barrier sympathized. “I’ve been to places and people just tell you, ‘no,’” she said. “And then you find out, it’s not true.”

Barrier said she focuses on finding ways to get people a “yes.” And her coworkers bear witness to those efforts. The first time Clerk of Court Archie Smith — the courthouse’s chief administrator — met Barrier, she was dealing with a particularly disagreeable woman whose case was being transferred to Superior Court.

“She spread oil upon those troubled waters,” Smith recalled. “The next thing you know, they’re walking off together like best chums.”

Trial Court Coordinator Suzanne Hansen, who works under Barrier, marvels that her boss “never forgets a face or a name.”

Employees and laypeople alike frequently find themselves in Barrier’s wing of the courthouse, lost. Everyone in the wing is happy to give directions, Hansen said. But, she said, Barrier likes to accompany a person to make sure they get to the right place.

A ‘muddled’ work-life balance

During a recent interview, Barrier handled various mini crises typical of a Tuesday morning in the courthouse.

She got a response on her service animal question within half an hour: They are allowed in courtrooms, but a judge can order them removed if they interrupt proceedings.  

Barrier’s next challenge came from two out-of-county court interpreters who said other courthouses usually provide badges to ease their comings and goings. The Durham County court interpreter, Maria Owens, appeared sheepish as she approached Barrier.

Barrier immediately opened a cabinet and pulled out an ID card labeled “court reporter.”

“Can you send an email to me and we can work on getting interpreter badges?” she told Owens after handing her the badge.

Barrier remains in her office until 7 p.m. most evenings, Hansen said. And when she goes home, Barrier said she often takes calls at night and on the weekends.

Asked about work-life balance, Barrier said, “I don’t think I really have one. I think it’s all just muddled together.”

This devotion has limited her personal life. Barrier said she’s too busy to take care of so much as a “hermit crab,” even if she kept it in her office.

“It would surely die,” she said.

The note wall

 But Barrier doesn’t regret the time she devotes to her career. Instead, she sees her “work family” as essential to her life.

A portion of a wall in Barrier’s office testifies to her impact on this “family.” Countless cards, notes and letters clutter the space, many attesting to Barrier’s kindness and service.

“Dear Deneen, Maria and Patty,” Barrier’s former boss, Kathy Stuart, wrote in a handwritten note to Barrier and two others. “Thank you for traveling 350+ miles to Richmond last month so that you could surround me with love on a tough evening.” 

“Thank you again for your usual, wonderfully professional courtesies extended to me during my recent stop at your courthouse,” wrote attorney John Bussian in a typed letter. “Arranging hearing time within 24 hours and a way to obtain a copy of the file within minutes are truly remarkable feats of public service. No wonder I feel, in all the other courts in which I appear across the country, none approach the Durham County Superior Court!”

Barrier pointed out that she spends more time with her coworkers than she would with a spouse and children at home. She fought to contain her emotion while looking at the notes.

“Sometimes, when it’s tough and you need a bit of support, it’s good for me to go to that wall,” she said, blinking back tears.

 

PHOTO ABOVE: Deneen Barrier sits at her desk at the Durham County Courthouse. Photo by Josie Vonk, the 9th Street Journal.

 

 

Meet the Ward III Durham City Council candidates

Without an incumbent or primary results to signal a frontrunner, the Ward III Durham City Council race is the one to watch in the upcoming Nov. 2 election.

AJ Williams and Leonardo Williams are vying to fill the seat that will soon be vacated by Pierce Freelon, who was appointed in Aug. 2020 and decided not to seek another term. They didn’t face off in October’s primary because the top two vote-getters advanced to the general election, and there are only two candidates in the Ward III race.

Freelon endorsed AJ to replace him, but the candidates split the other major endorsements: AJ is backed by the People’s Alliance PAC, the Durham Association for Educators, and Durham For All while Leonardo is backed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham. 

The candidates who earned the support of the same groups as Leonardo — including Elaine O’Neal for mayor, DeDreana Freeman in Ward I, and Mark Anthony Middleton in Ward II —  emerged as clear frontrunners after the primary. Both Freeman and Middleton are incumbents. In the Ward III race, the odds are much less clear. 

Leonardo Williams, co-owner of the Durham restaurant Zweli’s, announced that he would be running for City Council in June, one day after Pierce Freelon said he would not run. Leonardo is a former chair of the NC Foundation for Public School Children and a former executive board member of the Durham Association of Educators.

AJ Williams joined the race later, on Aug. 3. He is a grassroots organizer in Durham, director of incubation and ideation labs for Southern Vision Alliance, and a member of Durham Beyond Policing and other abolitionist organizations.

In the Durham primary election earlier this month, voter turnout was relatively low, with only 10.18% of Durham’s registered voters going to the polls. Some residents said they saw very little difference between the candidates.  But the same can’t be said for AJ Willimas and Leonardo Williams. 

They differ not only in their policy ideas, but also in the lenses through which they see governing. Leonardo is an educator and a businessman at his core, so these are the lenses through which he understands community engagement. 

He said that small businesses’ struggles during the pandemic motivated him to run for City Council. Over the pandemic, though large companies were still drawn to downtown Durham, small businesses struggled. Leonardo helped establish the Durham Small Business Coalition, which raised $3 million for the Small Business Fund, and organized a citywide job fair that required participating employers to offer $15 per hour. 

“I said to myself, where is the small business representation in our government? Small businesses collectively are the city’s largest employer. How can we have a city full of small, locally-owned businesses, and not a single representation of them in any leadership or decision making capacity?” he said.

If elected, Leonardo hopes to establish a robust Small Business Sustainability and Success Program and expand the Office of Economic & Workforce Development to reflect Durham’s small business sector. He also plans to facilitate better wages and conditions for workers.

As a former teacher and school administrator, Leonardo also is focused on education in the city. He said that while the county funds education, the city shares responsibility for educating and engaging youth.

“It will be my job as a city councilman to ensure that we are engaging our youth at a much broader age and a much more inclusive way,” Leonardo said. “We can utilize sectors such as education and parks and rec and the local corporate scene, maybe even working with the chamber to establish a citywide apprenticeship program for juniors and seniors in high school.”

He said he views education as a public safety issue, too. He hopes that young men in Durham who are engaged in education and economic opportunities will be less likely to turn to gun violence. 

In September, Leonardo stood outside the Hayti Heritage Center with Councilmember Middleton and the group he co-founded, One Thousand Black Men. Its goal is to curb gun violence and change the trajectory of young Black men through mentorship by challenging 1,000 Black men in Durham to spend one hour each week with a young boy in their neighborhood. These are the kinds of initiatives he hopes to uplift if elected to City Council.

“I know that if I spend an hour a week with a young Black boy, as a professional Black man, I can have a positive impact on his life. And so if I asked 1000 Black men to join me, to step up and step in, let’s take this together, take accountability for what’s happening with our young brothers,” Leonardo said.  

AJ Williams approaches governing as a fourth-generation Durhamite with deep roots in the city — from his father’s journalism career, to his grandma’s work as a small business owner, to his participation in little league.  

In addition to working with Durham Beyond Policing, AJ was appointed to Durham’s Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee and collaborated with delegates across gender, age, class, race, and ability as well as staff from the Transportation Department and Budget and Management Services Department. He also has served financial roles on multiple BIPOC-led nonprofits.

AJ is genderqueer, and if-elected, would be Durham’s first transgender councilmember. He said he sees governing and organizing through a queer, Black, feminist, trans lens. He wants to listen to not just cisgender, heterosexual people in Durham.

“The Black queer feminist praxis is a part of so much of the work that I’ve done. And it basically tells us that we actually cannot have Black liberation unless we have liberation for all Black people,” AJ said. “So that has also heavily informed the way that I want to show up as an elected official. Really centering the voices of the most marginalized people in our communities who have been left out of the conversation is the way to do that.”

He said it was a natural progression to move from community organizing to running for City Council. If elected, he hopes to maintain the wins that the organizers achieved in the past few years, especially around community safety. As a member of Durham Beyond Policing, AJ was part of the push for Durham’s new Community Safety Department, which is working to address non-violent 911 calls with mental health services instead of police presence. 

“With organizing, particularly for things within our municipal budget, you need to know that you have the support of your elected,” AJ said. “Durham is shifting and changing in new ways, so it felt like a natural next step to be on the Council and get input from community members.”

AJ supports diverting funds away from law enforcement; creating new public safety institutions, such as Bull City Violence Interrupters, a community-led Safety & Wellness Task Force; and supporting other community-led abolitionist movements. He said he is determined to listen to what residents want, something he learned from his work with Durham Beyond Policing.

“We’ve had a budget hearing where we invited over 300 residents to come and participate and share their personal testimonies and stories — the ways that they were impacted by over policing. So, holding the spaces to hear folks has been something that’s always been really important to me as an organizer, and I think that that’s a transferable skill,” AJ said.

 After living in Durham his whole life and watching demographics shift as gentrification has risen in the city, AJ is concerned about affordable housing. He supports land trusts, protections for historically Black neighborhoods, and an eviction moratorium.

“We need to make sure that folks who are in the market to rent are able to live here, affordably, as well as those who are pursuing homeownership. We need to also support an expansion of the Long-time Homeowners Tax Assistance Program to protect people who have been here not just for decades, but generations,” he said.

AJ shares a background in filmmaking and art like his predecessor Pierce Freelon, who endorsed him. Freelon said the most important advice he ever got was from former mayor Bill Bell: to answer every email that he receives. It’s engagement in the community, Freelon said, that changes lives, whether it’s enacting historic city policies, or just responding to a resident about their broken door. 

This level of engagement is especially important to Freelon when interacting with gun violence victims in the community, and it will be necessary for his successor.

“That means something to me: being present in the community. The day after a shooting, you need to be there: knocking on doors and talking to residents in the communities that are experiencing the violence,” Freelon said. “If you’re going to be advocating for anything that impacts that community: the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

He said that when he does engage with community members, they are often surprised that he took the time to reach out and respond to their issues.

“This seat is different. You know, there’s something special in Ward III, and so whoever wins the seat will need to listen to residents,” Freelon said. “Whoever it is, they will be there to listen.”

***

Correction: This story was updated to correct that Leonardo Williams was a former chair of the NC Foundation for Public School Children and a former executive board member of the Durham Association of Educators.

Correction: This story was updated to correct the voter turnout rate in Durham’s primary election.

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check with us Election Day for updates and results. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: From left, candidates for Ward III Leonardo Williams (left) and AJ Williams – Photos by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

Despite COVID safety measures, trials collide at courthouse

In defiance of the sign outside, marking its maximum capacity at 16 people, Courtroom 7A was packed.

Twenty-five prospective jurors occupied almost every bench not cordoned off for social distancing. They sat not just on the blue X’s designating assigned seats, but also in half the chairs of the jury box, as well as a bench normally reserved for the defense’s friends and family.  

This wasn’t supposed to happen. 

The Durham County Courthouse has taken a cautious approach to jury trials during the pandemic. These proceedings were paused between March 2020 and January 2021 over COVID-19 concerns. And since restarting jury trials, administrators have fought to ensure that no more than one of them happens at once.

But the last week of September, for the first time in a year and a half, two jury trials overlapped. This unexpected event, the cause of the crowd in Courtroom 7A, left court officials bending rules and making last-minute judgment calls.

“In my mind, I couldn’t see it,” Trial Court Administrator E. Deneen Barrier said, “but apparently it happened.” 

How it happened

There are two ways in which limiting jury trials helps prevent COVID-19 spread.

For one thing, it reduces the number of people in the courthouse at any given time. And in Superior Court, where the county’s most serious civil and criminal disputes are settled, the one-a-day strategy keeps proceedings socially distanced in the spacious Courtroom 7D.

Courtroom 7A, a fraction of the size, typically hosts civil matters that don’t need a jury.

But courthouses are complicated, and sometimes things don’t go as planned. As defendants take plea deals and plaintiffs settle out of court, many scheduled jury trials never make it to the courtroom.

“A lot is up in the air when everybody walks in the door,” Barrier said.

The morning of Sept. 27, it was still unclear whether a scheduled criminal trial would start that day, Trial Court Coordinator Suzanne Hansen said in an email. Another jury trial was set to begin in civil court on Sept. 28. However, Hansen believed this would be postponed if the criminal trial moved forward.

The criminal trial did move forward – but Judge Michael O’Foghludha, who was to preside over the civil case, pushed for his proceedings to begin anyway. He got his way, resulting in the surprise double-booking.

Last-minute questions

The criminal jury trial involved an alleged assault, kidnapping and strangling in June 2018. And the civil trial stemmed from a September 2019 incident in which a Prius struck the plaintiff while she was crossing Duke University Road. 

Prospective jurors for the civil trial gathered downstairs, while those assigned to the criminal case milled around the seventh floor of the courthouse, wearing red “juror” badges. The court had empaneled these Durham residents the previous day.

Meanwhile, in Courtroom 7A, O’Foghludha briefed attorneys in the civil case on how a jury trial would work in a room that hadn’t seen one since before the pandemic. O’Foghludha had ready answers to basic questions about where the courts would hold prospective jurors and who would be in the courtroom at any given time. 

And he appeared in good humor, as he voiced his thoughts on dismissing prospective jurors.

“They may be terrible jurors, and you may not want them. In fact, you probably don’t want them,” he told the attorneys. “But I’m not excusing them from doing their civic duty.”

The clerk, meanwhile, appeared stressed. The trial would wind up taking a toll on the woman, who took a day off from work after it concluded.

O’Foghludha still had to resolve some issues on the fly.

Would jurors and attorneys get separate bathrooms, or would they need to share one? (They’d be sharing.) Could a deputy give jurors directions to the courtroom, or would they need an escort? (After consulting with the bailiff, O’Foghludha decided that would depend on how well jurors responded to instructions.)

At one point, even the judge tripped over the tricky logistics. He’d originally been talking as if 30 jurors would be in the courtroom at once, but realized midway through the briefing that there would only be 25.

Finally, with most details settled, O’Foghludha heard a few pretrial motions and then called for jurors to enter.

A grueling process

Selecting a jury is rarely quick or simple. But Courtroom 7A’s limited seating made this empanelment even harder than usual.

O’Foghludha acknowledged the challenges while welcoming prospective jurors.

“I know the question that’s on everyone’s mind right now is, ‘Oh my, how long is this going to take?’” he said.

To begin, the clerk called 12 names from a stack of shuffled index cards. She then had the 12 line up at the center of the courtroom and assigned each a juror number. Those who weren’t called exited.  

None of this is standard practice in the Durham County Courthouse, where everyone would typically have remained in the courtroom for the next leg of the proceedings.

Even with this smaller crowd, Courtroom 7A still exceeded its maximum capacity of 16 people. In addition to the prospective jurors, the room also held six representatives for the defense and prosecution, as well as the defendant and plaintiff’s spouses, the judge, the clerk, the bailiff and the court reporter. That’s 24 people.

Everyone present was masked, although one man’s mask kept slipping. None of the prospective jurors complained about the number of people in the room. But they generally respected social distancing.

Between 11 a.m. and 4:15 p.m., the prosecution asked a series of questions to determine if any of those summoned were ineligible to serve on the jury.

Some judges allow lawyers to dismiss prospective jurors as soon as they hear something disqualifying. However, O’Foghludha said he’d seen interviewees try to copy what others said in hopes of being disqualified. So he instructed the prosecution to hold off on challenges until it had asked everyone all of its questions. 

The first round of interviews ended with five of the 12 released. A deputy arrived with their replacements, and the prosecution began a new interview cycle.

The seven who’d already been interviewed watched from the benches in weary resignation.

During pretrial proceedings, O’Foghludha told the court he hoped to finish the trial by Oct. 1. In reality, the trial lasted until Oct. 7, with jury empanelment concluding on Sept. 29.

The jury found the plaintiff was not entitled to any damages.

The criminal trial, which ran as usual in Courtroom 7D, finished empaneling jurors toward the end of Sept. 27 and ended with a not guilty verdict on Sept. 29.

Will this happen again?

Before the pandemic, the Durham County Courthouse commonly held multiple jury trials on the same day, said Barrier, the court administrator. It could host up to four at once, though this strained courthouse resources.

The courts will someday return to that level of activity, but it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. September’s double-booking does not mark a shift in the courthouse’s overall approach.

“It’s just happenstance,” Barrier said.

PHOTO ABOVE: Users of the Durham County’s Courthouse must practice social distancing as a COVID safety measure. By Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

In God they trust: A courthouse prayer group offers a mindful break

In the Durham County Courthouse, a courtroom is a place for trials, arguments and rulings. It’s where attorneys lose cases and defendants receive jail time, a place where people debate, cry and curse. But on Wednesdays from 12:45 to 1:00pm, one courtroom on the second floor becomes a sanctuary for the courthouse staff prayer group. 

To its members, the group is a safe haven – a mindful escape from the daily chaos of their jobs. 

Chief District Court Judge Pat Evans joined 15 years ago as an attorney. Today, she attends every meeting and leads most prayers. 

“It’s like our anchor,” Evans says. “In courts, we see a lot of stuff. It’s very traumatizing, but we always know that we can come here and be rejuvenated to finish the rest of the week.”

In court, God’s name is thrown around as a matter of procedure. Witnesses must place their hand on a Bible before they testify. They swear by God “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” but rarely with any religious conviction. The prayer group wants to put meaning back into these words.

It was started in 2001 by now-retired clerk Darlene Pate to unite the courthouse staff. Pate wanted to remind them of their shared faith and give them a space to reflect. 

Each week during their lunch breaks, judges, magistrates, translators and prosecutors borrow the courtroom of Clerk Archie Smith III —a judge and chief administrator in the courthouse— to host their prayer session.

One Wednesday, District Court Judge Doretta Walker comes from criminal court. She just finished ruling on an assault case. 

Courthouse interpreter, Maria Owens, comes from civil court. She spent the last half hour translating for a couple’s custody hearing. She mediated as a mother and father fought over their infant son.

Evans comes from traffic court, where she had a full docket. Her afternoon promises more of the same.

After half a dozen other staff members enter, they arrange the desk chairs from the lawyer’s tables into a rough semi-circle. Sometimes, they turn off the fluorescent lights, letting the afternoon sun spill through the windows. 

These adjustments convert the courtroom from a place of tension to a peaceful oasis.

A small printed packet guides the group. It provides a theme, a piece of scripture and a paragraph or two of insight. 

On October 6th, the theme is “helping one another.” 

“Encourage one another and build each other up… always strive to do what is good for each other,” one member reads. 

Then she asks each participant what they want to pray for.

Darrin Corbin, a District Court magistrate, mentions his stepfather who suffers from congestive heart failure. While Corbin is in this prayer meeting, his stepfather is in a hospital in New York.

Owens would like to pray for her mother-in-law, who recently suffered an aneurysm.

Evans echoes those prayers and adds one of her own: that people will vote in Durham’s municipal primary election. Then she leads a prayer. 

Eyes close and heads bow. Some people rock back and forth in their chairs. They nod, whisper prayers of their own, and hum on beat with the judge’s voice. Every few words, someone offers “yes, Lord” or “thank you, God.” 

When the session ends, participants linger, joking and catching up. They comment on each other’s outfits, especially those of the judges, who are rarely seen sans long black robes. 

“Love y’all,” they say while parting ways. 

In two decades, the group has almost never missed a meeting. It’s lasted through a building move, multiple retirements and now, a pandemic.

As COVID-19 raged through North Carolina, the courthouse stayed open, so the group continued to gather there. Numbers dwindled, but those who couldn’t come sent in prayers from home. Those who did come practiced social distancing. At each meeting’s end, in lieu of parting hugs, they took turns tapping elbows. 

“We never considered not meeting,” Evans says. “We didn’t sit up next to each other, but it was even more important that we gathered and prayed and sought God’s protection together.”

The prayer group is not publicized around the courthouse, but people from all departments show up. Though it is a Christian prayer group, all are welcome. And by gathering during their personal lunch breaks, Evans says, the group avoids any conflict between church and state.

On some weeks, the clerk’s courtroom is full, with a dozen staff filling the gallery. On others, three people may meet. 

Brittany Clinton, an assistant district attorney, started coming to sessions a few months ago. Like most new members, she heard about the group “through the grapevine.” 

In a job where uncertainty is guaranteed, the prayer group gives Clinton something to rely on.

“After we finish each session, it’s like a breath of fresh air,” she says. “It makes me feel a little bit lighter, like I can go ahead and make it through the rest of the day.”

Walker has attended prayer group meetings for over five years. She’s saved every printed packet, storing them in a drawer at home. 

“I like to pull them out and read them from time to time,” she says. “I can look back and see that my prayers have been answered.”

Evans has had her prayers answered too. For one, her husband, whose medical issues heighten the risks of severe illness from COVID-19, has stayed healthy throughout the pandemic. 

But a prompt in a recent meeting reminded her of one prayer she’s still waiting to see answered. “Think of something you’ve given up on,” it read. “Ask God to show you how He’s still working on it.”

For the past 30 years, Evans has prayed for the violence in Durham to stop. 

“Not to be curtailed, but to totally stop,” she says. 

Her criminal court docket is too long.

In 2020, a record-breaking 318 people got shot in Durham County, nearly a 70% increase from 2019. Though in line with gun violence trends globally, these numbers are hard for Durhamites to hear, especially those who work in the courthouse. 

In this meeting, Evans prays for something to change. After a moment of silent reflection, she unclasps her hands and stands up. Then she turns to Clinton, gives her a light elbow tap, and together they walk into the hallway.

“See you next week,” Evans says. 

 It’s not a question. It’s a promise.

At the top: A group of courthouse staffers meet in their Wednesday prayer group. Chief District Court Judge Pat Evans, seated in the back, often leads the group. Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

Bars are back in Durham. How did they survive?

People fill the outdoor seating along Durham’s sidewalks downtown, on Ninth Street and everywhere in between. Friends dance with beers in hand. Music blares out, permeating the street. The night seems unrecognizable compared to its hard lockdown a year ago. 

Life is back at Durham bars.

Gov. Roy Cooper eased COVID-19 restrictions in late March, raising indoor bar capacity from 30% to 50% and lifting an 11 p.m. alcohol curfew. Before that, many bars went a full year without significant income and faced harsher limitations than other establishments, like restaurants and breweries. 

To keep taps flowing, some bar owners got creative. They changed menus, set up shop outside and asked regulars for support. But not every bar made it, and the ones that have stayed open aren’t all following COVID-19 restrictions. One Durham nightspot – Shooters II – has recently drawn official complaints about the breaking rules, city officials say.

When the pandemic hit, Kingfisher cocktail bar owners Sean Umstead and Michelle Vanderwalker recognized that restaurants could open up much earlier than bars under state health rules. So, they became a restaurant, transforming their parking lot into a burger joint, QueenBurger, in August.

Hunky Dory, a hybrid retail and bar space on Ninth Street, increased outdoor seating to accommodate beer-hungry Durhamites. Manager Taylor Bates said that by creating more standing space and spots outdoors and staying vigilant with cleaning and distancing, the bar has been able to bring back much of its customer base. New drinkers are coming in too.

Many of our regulars have been vaccinated, and our employees as well. And that gives everyone another layer of peace of mind,” Bates said. “It’s been so nice to have people come in and start having this normalcy back in their life.”

Crowdsourcing and fundraising have also saved bars. The Pinhook created a Patreon, where bar owners and employees sell art and host online events, like karaoke. Arcana Bar and Lounge opted for a similar strategy, selling tickets to virtual poetry shows, bi-weekly art shows, and recipe cards. 

“The Patreon contributions, combined with other employment, will hopefully be enough to allow us to reopen when it is right to reopen, without taking on crippling personal debt,” Arcana owners Lindsey Andrews and Erin Karcher wrote on Patreon in January. Andrews and Karcher are beginning a soft reopen for Arcana, according to an April 12 post.

Durhamites drink inside Flying Bull Beer Company, a Ninth Street spot with front and back patios that opened up during the pandemic. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Downtown Durham Inc. CEO Nicole Thompson has seen a significant increase in people venturing downtown as the states slowly lightens rules.

“It’s obviously been gradual and our nightlife looks a little different right now. People aren’t staying out as late, and they’re still wearing masks. But, people seem to be more comfortable,” Thompson said. “People want to be out again. They missed downtown, they’ve missed the places that they haven’t been able to visit in over a year.”

Running dry

For some bars, though, crowdsourcing and creativity weren’t enough. The Atomic Fern, which used to be located on Parrish Street downtown, fell victim to the pandemic’s financial burden. Despite Twitch streams, Facebook lives, and a GoFundMe started by a group of bar regulars, the business couldn’t pay rent. A landlord evicted The Atomic Fern in February, and the bar won’t be reopening.

Owner Kevin Slater pins the closure on state and city apathy. For bars like his with no outdoor seating and little indoor capacity, the government didn’t provide enough financial relief and legal support, he said

“Even if we were able to open up at 30% capacity indoors, that still ends up being only eight people plus staff. That doesn’t pay the bills,” Slater said. “We didn’t want to reopen. We’re in the middle of the pandemic, so we knew that it felt irresponsible to reopen.”

Slater filed a lawsuit against Durham and North Carolina for damages of $25,000 in January. Though he doesn’t anticipate his lawsuit going anywhere in court, he hopes to make a statement and point out the frustrations of small business owners. He said he feels that he and the bar community were ignored. 

“The government is saying now ‘Look we’re letting you reopen and now you can make money and you can pay your landlord,’ but, really, how sustainable is that? Bottom line: we’re all going to still be in debt,” Slater said. 

Stepping out of line 

Though most bars have been compliant with COVID-19 safety guidelines, Assistant City Attorney Anna Davis said some may have broken the rules. Davis said her office has only received a COVID-19 citizen complaint-driven report for one spot: Shooters, a favorite bar of Duke undergraduates.

Davis received multiple citizen complaints about unmasked crowds at Shooters in November. In response, she sent owner Kim Cates a letter right before Thanksgiving asking her to comply with COVID-19 health restrictions. 

After that, Davis said complaints mostly decreased. On April 5, however, Davis’s office received a report from the Durham Health Department citing violations at Shooters. The Duke Student Government president and Durham Mayor Steve Schewel expressed concerns too, she said. When law enforcement visited Shooters a week later to observe, though, they saw no restrictions violated, Davis said.

“It tends to be a game of Whack-a-Mole with these people,” Davis said. “They step out of line, but then once there are complaints, people get back in compliance.”

Schewel said nightlife crowds — specifically at Shooters — are one of the city’s greatest concerns as new variants of COVID-19 start spreading in Durham.

They’re loosening restrictions, but it’s critical that the city stays vigilant,” Schewel said, citing large crowds of indoor, unmasked young people. 

9th Street reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu

At top: Mask-wearing bar-goers drink inside Boxcar, a Geer Street joint where visitors can play arcade games. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

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

Local leaders build COVID vaccine trust in Black and Latinx communities

When Rev. Mark-Anthony Middleton looks into the eyes of some of his elderly Black parishioners, he sees a deep, historic hurt that leads them to question the coronavirus vaccine. 

“Older folks still have the memory of Tuskegee,” Middleton, a Durham city council member, said, referencing the Tuskegee Study, a study on syphilis that withheld proper medical treatment from hundreds of misinformed infected Black men as recently as 1972.

Historical malfeasance has led elderly Black Durhamites to mistrust medical institutions, explained Middleton. To address the gaps between vaccination rates for people of color and white people, that anxiety needs to be taken seriously, the council member said.

“We have to affirm the legitimate fears and concerns that people have,” Middleton told the 9th Street Journal.

Eligible people in marginalized communities, particularly Black and Latinx people in Durham, are getting the vaccine at a much lower rate than white folks. As of March 3, 19.5% of Durham County’s white population has received the first dose of the vaccine, according to data made public by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. That’s almost double the rate for Black Durhamites: 11.3% of Black or African-American people have gotten their first shot.

For other marginalized ethnic and racial groups, the rates are even lower. Five in 100 Hispanic people in Durham have received their first vaccine, while only 6.27% of American Indian or Alaskan Native people have received the vaccine. 

A lot of the inequity is a result of structural shortcomings. People of color have less access to wifi connection and transportation, making it hard to get the vaccine even for people who are eligible and want it. 

But fears over the safety of the vaccine widen the gap, local health experts said during Durham County public health’s “COVID-19 Vaccines in the Black Community” livestream on Feb. 16. 

To address the inequities, the department has offered free rides to vaccination sites for people with appointments. Local churches have chipped in too, working to gain permission from state leaders to become official vaccination sites.

Overcoming the psychological barriers to vaccination, however, requires a more empathetic, creative approach. 

A Durham public health worker hands residents masks as they enter the Durham County Human Services COVID-19 vaccination site. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama.

For Middleton, getting his first shot was a part of the effort. He was one of several local Black leaders the county health department selected to vaccinate on live television. His second shot, set for March 10, will be livestreamed too. 

While he has also been verbally advocating for the safety and efficacy of the vaccine via his radio channel and pastorship, Middleton believes the fact that he can point to his arm and say “I got it” goes a long way.

“Representation matters,” he said.

From the pulpit and the recording studio, Middleton has been spotlighting Black women who have helped create COVID-19 vaccines, including Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who has been instrumental in developing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, he added. 

Nurse Faye Williams, who came out of retirement at the start of the pandemic, was the first person in the Triangle to be vaccinated. Speaking at the county health department’s Facebook event, she said she hoped other Black people might’ve seen a reflection in her as she got the shot. 

“I wanted them to look at me and also see themselves… I wanted to be an example, and do my part,” she said.

Durham County Health Director Rod Jenkins speaks during a live panel discussion titled ‘COVID-19 Vaccines in the Black Community,’ hosted by the Durham County Department of Public Health. The Feb. 16 livestream also featured Population Health Director Marissa Mortiboy, nurse Faye Williams, and Duke University Assistant Professor Dr. Julius Wilder.  

Durham County Health Director Rodney Jenkins, who also spoke at the event, admitted he had to take some tylenol and catch an early night on Christmas eve when he was vaccinated on Dec. 23. But the effects didn’t last long, he said. 

“I came back Christmas day feeling brand new,” he said, adding that he’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

The panelists touted rest, hydration and Tylenol as key ingredients to a successful vaccination experience. 

Building trust in the Latinx community

In Durham’s Latinx community, financial and linguistic barriers compound technological and transport challenges in preventing people from getting the vaccine, wrote Dr. Krista Perreira, a social medicine professor at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. 

Some Latinx residents may be hesitant to receive the vaccine because they don’t know that it’s free or that receipt of the vaccine will not be considered in a public charge determination, which could affect immigration status, Perreira said. 

Others might be unaware that no documentation of US citizenship or immigration status is necessary to get vaccinated, added Perreira, a member of the state’s CEAL Research Team, a coalition of medical professionals focusing on COVID-19 awareness and education research among underserved communities

“For Latinx residents who may not have a computer, may not have a driver’s license, or may not read or speak English, these barriers can be especially high,” she wrote. 

Other pressures may discourage Latinx people from seeking vaccination too. 

“Your average Latinx person will probably not feel at ease walking into a county health department or hospital, and will feel more at ease getting vaccinated at an event that is tailored for our community,” explained Rev. Edgar Vergara, head pastor at La Semilla, a United Methodist church that serves Latinx Durhamites.

People walk into the vaccination site at Duke University’s Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama.

Duke Health, La Semilla and other local non-profit and religious organizations have joined together to host a series of vaccination drives. The drives take place in places familiar to many Latinx community members, such as El Centro Hispano and the Latino Community Credit Union.

Last weekend, over 500 people were vaccinated at an event at La Cooperativa Latina in Raleigh, reported Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, health equity director for Duke Hospital’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. Martinez-Bianchi leads Latin-19, a network of Duke doctors and state health officials focused on fighting COVID-19 in the Latinx community. Vergara said another vaccine drive in Durham is scheduled for Thursday this week.

Having someone who speaks your language, who is a member of your own community providing resources for fighting COVID-19 makes a huge difference, he added.

“Together,” said Vergara, “we are able to reach more people and have a greater impact.”

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

At top: Durham residents exit Southern High School after receiving the COVID-19 shot at a vaccination in late January. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama.