Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts tagged as “Durham”

Reflections: Does courts coverage do more harm than good?

It’s the fourth week of school and I’m crying in my editor’s well-lit office. 

It’s nothing serious — I cry frustratingly easily, often about things that I’m mildly stressed about or invested in.  It’s involuntary and annoying. 

I’m crying in my editor’s office, across his honey-colored desk, because I want to leave the names out of my story, and he wants to leave them in.

I wrote the story about something I watched happen in traffic court, a moment of simultaneous justice and mercy in a place where seemingly mundane rules can transform people’s lives.

The judge sentenced a 30-year-old man to 10 days in jail for driving while impaired with a revoked license, despite his attorney’s plea that he’d been coping with the aftermath of his mother’s unexpected death. While security personnel sorted the man’s belongings and took him to jail, a college student read an essay about traffic school to the court. The judge dismissed the 19-year-old’s speeding and marijuana charges and sent him back into freedom with a “Good luck to you, sir.”

Stephen Buckley, my editor, gave me this working definition of journalism in a moment of crisis the week before: true stories for the public good. I scrawled it on an empty page in my notebook three pages before the traffic court scene went down.

If it were up to me, despite the 11 hours I spent in court this week, I’d have written nothing at all, I tell Buckley. I don’t think this story does much for the public good. I ask him if we can leave the piece unpublished or take the names out, and he says that’s not up to us to decide. Everything that happened in that courtroom is already public information. 

This point I still disagree with. Just because information is public doesn’t mean it’s ethical to amplify. I believe that in general, it might be a good thing that you have to visit the courthouse or pay a website to find a person’s dismissed charges. 

However, Buckley gently explains other important ways my thinking is wrong. I’m paraphrasing my impressions here because I didn’t take notes or record.

This is why you have to try to talk to people and not be a chicken, he says. (He doesn’t say the chicken part.) They might be completely game to talk to you for an article and you’re missing out on an important perspective — theirs. 

Also, you’re assuming readers will think the worst of the people in your story, he says. Have a little more faith in them. You actually paint this teenager in a good light. People won’t judge him just because the police charged him.

But because I’m guilty of skimming news articles and missing humanizing details, I’m skeptical of the reader.

It’s an easier and more straightforward process to clear your name in the courts than in the newsroom, at least in Durham. I think this might be because what the court sees as punishment, journalists see as information. Also, when you’re writing an article due at 11:59 p.m., it can be hard to imagine what it’ll be like for someone to have that story still tied to their name on Google in 30 years. 

Some newspapers deny unpublishing requests on principle, and some use nebulous criteria. Some will add an addendum about dropped charges but not alter an article’s original text. Editors often decide on a case-by-case basis.

In North Carolina’s courts, you fill out a form and pay $175 to clear your record of prior charges and convictions. There are how-to websites. You can get free legal assistance. The DA’s office itself has petitioned the court to do this for juveniles prosecuted as adults. 

Not everyone is eligible, but the 2020 Second Chance Act allows people a new legal start. They can erase from their record non-violent misdemeanors, dismissed or not guilty charges, and certain juvenile convictions.

“In a lower level case, having your arrest and your mugshot easily called up on Google anytime someone searches your name for the rest of your life might actually be a stiffer consequence than the crime itself,” said Sarah Willets, spokesperson for Durham’s District Attorney’s office. “That could follow you for far longer than any sentence that the law would allow.”

I went to Willets looking for expertise on the collateral damage of courthouse coverage because she’s had a foot in both journalism and prosecution. She worked as a crime reporter for years and now she manages communications in an office where prosecutors typically can’t comment to journalists.

Willets thinks the press play a vital role in the courts. But, she said, they could play that role more ethically.

“Are you going to follow through when you report on an arrest or a pending case? Are you going to follow through and say what the outcome was?” she said. “And if not, if it’s not worth following that case to the end, is there really a public interest in covering it?”

Consider whether you’re writing for the public good or just because a story’s kind of interesting, and someone might want to read about it, Willets said. I believe my story fell into the second category, even though I was hoping to write something of the first.

Willets told me she fought with her editors too. She wrote about a reentry program and one man’s experience leaving prison for her last story at Indy Week. She wanted to leave the man’s crime out, her editor wanted to leave it in. 

The city — Durham — had decided he should move on, she said. “And who are we to stand in the way of that?”

Her editor countered: that’s a big thing to conceal from readers. The editor won — the man’s conviction sits in the fifth paragraph of the published story online.

I left Buckley’s office thinking he too had won, that we would publish the story, and with names. But to spare me the stress, and because the primary goal of this class is to learn, not just to publish, he told me later that we wouldn’t.

Before I keep complaining about being a “student journalist” who doesn’t seem to want to publish any journalism, I’ll flash us back to last fall. I was among a crowd of protestors in head-to-toe black that set off fireworks outside Durham County jail. 

Earlier in their march they’d chanted, “News is cops, news is cops,” and blocked TV cameras with umbrellas. I’d chanted along the rest of the night, but in those moments I hesitated, not sure what to say.

I was in a news writing class at the time and thought I wanted to become an audio journalist.

Four days later I was back in journalism class and still thinking about it. If news is cops, should I be writing news? Can journalism avoid this?

A friend who was there that night graciously gave me some of their time on the phone. They told me a local TV station had posted mugshots of their friends arrested for protesting earlier that summer. Then those friends got doxxed, which means readers found and published their private information online, a particularly vicious revenge tactic. The news cost them.

My traffic court article was a different situation entirely. Buckley told me so while I objected, and he was right. But I do think about how what my peers and I write can reinforce the judgments of a broken criminal legal system.

How do we balance readers’ trust with future costs to our sources, costs exacerbated by internet longevity? Is every omission an effort to conceal? How do we minimize harm while maximizing the public good?

Willets gave me a few recommendations. In essence, she said, look for consent and context. Talk to the parties involved — especially victims — and make them understand how this story could follow them, she said. Situate the criminal case within the social issues forcing people to come to court, like lack of mental health care or community investment. Study the research around crime. Stick around and follow through.

This advice is hard to follow on deadline. Court cases can take forever: even the simple ones may drag on for months or years. 

Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi spent a year reporting Serial season 3, the podcast that inspired the creation of the 9th Street Journal’s courthouse reporting project. Each vignette they present from the Cleveland courthouse consists of months of interviews. Our vignettes, or “Courthouse Moments,” pan out over one week.

Maybe that’s where I land: I’m unwilling to do quick journalism, even if that means I won’t be employable in this field. Maybe one day newspapers will make different decisions about whether their quick news should last forever in its original form; maybe we’ll make unpublishing guidelines more transparent to the people we report on. 

I don’t think I’ve come to any solid answers. I have a feeling I’ll squirm closer to a conclusion in the coming years, talking through these conflicts with editors (and unfortunately probably after shedding a few more tears).

Photo Above: Lilly Clark, by Josie Vonk — The 9th Street Journal

Meet the seven candidates running for Durham mayor, including Bree Davis, Daryl Quick, and Jahnmaud Lane

By Julianna Rennie and Jake Sheridan

There’s one week left for Durham voters to cast their ballots before the primary election on Oct. 5. The outcome will determine the two finalists in each of the four City Council races. 

There are seven candidates vying for the mayor’s seat. Durham’s current mayor, Steve Schewel, is not seeking reelection. 

The 9th Street Journal recently profiled some of the candidates. Check out our stories on City Council member Javiera Caballero, former judge Elaine O’Neal, housing advocate Charlitta Burruss, and youth minister Rebecca Harvard Barnes

Here’s what you need to know about the remaining three candidates: Bree Davis, Daryl Quick and Jahnmaud Lane.

Bree Davis

Born in sunny South Florida, Bree Davis comes from a family of changemakers. Her father worked as a Baptist minister and coordinated outreach for Haitian and Cuban refugees. 

“This is kind of my legacy,” she told the 9th Street Journal.  

After moving to Durham 12 years ago, Davis experienced houselessness, food insecurity, and underemployment. As a single mom and bisexual Black woman, Davis says she knows what it feels like to fall through the cracks.

If elected, Davis promises to make sure that all Durham residents benefit from the city’s recent economic boom. 

“The goal has been achieved, but now we have to pick up the folks that have been left behind,” she said.

Her other policy priorities include affordable housing and community safety. In her INDY Week candidate questionnaire, Davis wrote that she would fully fund the Durham Police Department while exploring alternatives to policing through Durham’s new Community Safety Department. 

Davis currently works as a research coordinator for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She started her own social media consulting company, Social Media Phobia Solutions, in 2011. She’s also a collage artist and filmmaker

Daryl Quick

Daryl Quick is pledging to “make a better Durham by getting back to the basics.”

Throughout the campaign, Quick has talked openly about his experiences growing up in public housing with family members who struggled with drug addiction. 

A native Durhamite, Quick hopes to inspire children experiencing poverty to dream of running for public office.

His platform addresses violent crime, social services, and infrastructure.

Quick promotes his campaign heavily on his Facebook page. In a Sept. 8 post, he wrote, “No more status quo! No more gentrification! No more low wage paying jobs! No more kids can’t play! No more walking past a homeless person downtown!”

Jahnmaud Lane

Jahnmaud Lane isn’t just a rare Durham Republican: He’s a highly followed conservative commentator. 

His Facebook page, “Mind of Jamal,” has over 300,000 followers. The clips regularly stretch over an hour. 

In his videos, the adamant Trump supporter pours over a range of far-right topics. He recently criticized coronavirus vaccines and workers’ unions, decried calls for national political unity, and urged his followers to “break out the Old Dixie” because “this union stuff aint working.” Lane often speaks in front of a Confederate flag. 

He streams videos on YouTube, too, but the apparently associated “MindofJamal” Twitter account has been suspended. 

Lane did not reply to a call requesting an interview. He described himself as a former “no-good, piece-of-trash drug dealer” in an interview with The News & Observer

The article noted that he was charged in 2001 with a misdemeanor for resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. Two years later, he spent over a year in a state corrections facility for assaulting and seriously injuring another person, the article added. 

In the News & Observer piece, Lane also acknowledged that he attended the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, though he said he didn’t enter the Capitol building. 

On Lane’s campaign website, his platform focuses on addressing a rise in violent crime. He would like to pay police officers more. His other policy ideas include building more affordable housing and more intensely inspecting public housing facilities for tenant damage.

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: Bree Davis is one of seven candidates running to be Durham’s next mayor. Photo provided by Bree Davis.

Burruss banks on ‘boots on the ground’ experience in her mayoral campaign

As mayoral candidate Charlitta Burruss showed us around her neighborhood, Edgemont Elms, she stopped at the road in front of her house and pointed to the ground where bullet shells had strewn the street the night before. 

“I picked up 15 shells from this parking lot,” said Burruss, shaking her head. 

Having served on the resident councils of several Durham Housing Authority communities – she previously lived in Calvert Place – Burruss is familiar with the gun violence and affordable housing crises facing the city. 

Through her campaign, Burruss hopes to encourage others from low-income neighborhoods to run for political office. She said people like her, who have relationships with residents of Durham’s often-overlooked communities, have an important perspective to share. 

“We don’t consider people who are actually boots on the ground, that are actually in the community and making a big impact,” Burruss told the 9th Street Journal. 

In June this year, after hearing gunfire every night from her home in Edgemont Elms, Burruss organized a community barbecue, inviting district police and local families to spend time together and build relationships. In addition to her resident council responsibilities, Burruss is a member of the Residential Advisory Board of DHA and chairperson for the Consumer Family Advisory Committee of Durham.

In 2018, she received a Neighborhood Spotlight Award for her community outreach effort in Durham, which included organizing food and toy donations and community events. 

This campaign marks Burruss’s fourth attempt at running for political office in North Carolina. She was a candidate for mayor of Monroe in 2007; town council in Marshville in 2011; and city council in Durham in 2019, receiving 1,258 votes. 

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1959, Burruss comes from a family of preachers. After working many different jobs to support her son, Burruss decided to pursue higher education in her late 40’s, receiving an associate’s degree in Human Services from South Piedmont Community College in 2004 and a Bachelor of Sciences in social work from Gardner-Webb University in 2006. 

Though she has never held a political office, Burruss is an experienced community leader; she said her roots in the community give her an advantage over other candidates. For example, Burruss has become frustrated by what sees as broken communication channels between DHA residents and local government officials. In her experience, the local government makes a dangerous presumption that all DHA residents have access to  computers and internet required to find information about affordable housing and employment opportunities.

“Durham officials don’t realize not everybody can afford internet access, and older people are not using computers,” said Burruss. 

Alternative methods of communication, such as electronic billboards and posters containing updates from the local government, could be a better way to reach those without internet access, she said. 

Patching the communication gaps between low-income residents and the Durham mayor’s office, Burruss said, is a vital prerequisite to addressing the issues she is most passionate about — crime, affordable housing, and employment. 

Addressing crime and poverty would be Burruss’s main priority as mayor. She believes investment in education and parental support in communities with high crime rates can help break this cycle. 

Burruss does not support defunding the police in Durham. Rather, she believes police officers should be retrained to better communicate with residents and those with mental health conditions. She also supports paying police officers more so they don’t leave to find work in counties offering higher salaries.

She says her experience as a liaison between local residents, police, and the Housing Authority positions her well to improve city relations as mayor. If elected, Burruss plans to spend time in Durham, speaking to people “on the ground” to inform her policy decisions. 

“If I were in the mayor’s chair, you’d be able to put your hands on me,” said Burruss. 

At the top: Mayoral candidate Charlitta Burruss serves on the resident council for her neighborhood, Edgemont Elms. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.

New to politics but fluent in Durham, judge Elaine O’Neal vies for mayor

For former judge Elaine O’Neal, running for mayor of Durham is not an issue of politics. It’s an issue of the heart. 

“I’m a daughter of this city, and I’m an example of what it can produce,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal has watched the city shift, grow and divide before her very eyes, she says. She saw the best and worst of human nature while serving as a district court judge from 1994 to 2011, and as Durham County Superior Court Judge from 2011 until 2018. 

Through these experiences, most notably her tenure as judge, O’Neal says she has witnessed a disunity in Durham like she has never seen before. That division motivated her to run for office.

“My plan was originally to retire,” she said. “But as I began to look around the political landscape from my perspective on the bench and lived experience here, I saw that a lot of young people were getting cut out of the conversation – like they’re invisible.”

O’Neal also worked as interim dean for two years at her alma mater, N.C. Central University Law School. Though she often says she is decidedly not a politician, she does have experience at the city level as appointed co-chair of Durham’s Racial Equity Task force organized by City Council last year. She and the 17-member team produced a 60-page report urging the city to set up a reparations program to address the racial wealth gap and to confront inequity in the legal system, public health, housing and education.

During an interview with The 9th Street Journal, she pointed right outside to Main Street, noting how within a few blocks, there are disparities between million dollar apartments and Title IX affordable housing complexes. She nodded her head towards the door, where across the street sat half a dozen unhoused people.

“We’re going to let Durhamites in wheelchairs sit on the street? Is that what we’re doing now? Is that who we are?” she asked. “That’s not the Main Street I know. We were more inclusive.”

The Hillside High School graduate is quick to admit that though she is an expert in law, she is not an expert on housing. She has put herself in “housing school,” as she puts it.

“What I’ve been doing is going to experts and learning more. So, do I have an answer on what my plans are about housing? No, because I’m still learning,” she said.

She also admits she’s not incredibly well-acquainted with the political sphere in Durham, something she says she must rectify if she is to win the office of mayor. 

What O’Neal does seem to know, though, is Durham its residents and the issues burdening them, from gun violence, to housing insecurity, to systemic racism, to poverty. 

“All of these issues are interconnected and layered,” O’Neal said. “I see so many young people in this city that want to do better, but there are these roadblocks, and they don’t know what the roadblocks even are or how to navigate them.”

The registered Democrat is staunch that building trust and unity within Durham’s various populations will allow her to achieve her goals.

She hopes to connect people in power with people who feel voiceless. She asks questions like: When was the last time that apartment building developers and houseless people actually sat at the table together and talked? To some, this might sound unreasonable and even completely unattainable. But not to O’Neal.

“We put a man on the moon didn’t we?” she said. “These issues will not be solved overnight. But will we find solutions? Absolutely. Absolutely.”

Mayoral candidate and former judge Elaine O’Neal speaks with a class of Duke student courthouse reporters. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk. 

Transportation is another prominent issue on O’Neal’s agenda. The city’s public transit system is less than perfect, and the 2019 demise of the light rail project only compounded shortcomings. If she is able to connect Durhamites with jobs in the newer technology businesses entering town, she says figuring out transit is an essential piece.

“What would it look like to have our own version of Lyft that is specifically designed to go into neighborhoods where we don’t have transportation to get them back and forth from jobs?” O’Neal asked.

She points to her work with gun violence in Durham as a top priority as well, noting her personal closeness to the issue. Her own 22-year-old cousin was killed by gun violence in November 2020, and that was not the first time gun violence personally affected her. She’s certainly not alone: though shootings in Durham reached a historic low in 2019, they rose with 319 people shot in 2020. As of Aug. 14, 158 people had been shot in Durham in 2021.

“I can go to the Southside. I can go to the West End. I can go to Braggtown. I can maneuver in places that most people cannot,” she said. “I know these people. They may not have agreed with my rulings in court, but they know where my heart is.”

She’s hopeful that economic growth in Durham will be a net positive for native Durhamites. Growth may bring jobs to Durhamites in need, she says, and thereby decrease both poverty rates and gun violence. 

Former Durham Mayor Bill Bell says that gun violence is one reason he endorsed O’Neal for mayor. A couple weeks ago, Bell met a man who said Judge O’Neal changed his life by putting him on probation instead of giving him jail time.

“The whole issue of public safety and crime is one of the most important ones in Durham right now, and she is the perfect fit for dealing with that issue,” Bell said. “She knows all sections of Durham.”

Some of Durham’s prominent political action committees are supporting her for similar reasons. Both The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham endorsed O’Neal.  Antonio Jones, the Committee’s chairperson, echoes Bell’s statements, saying that her presence in the community, her qualifications and her familiarity with life here pushed them towards endorsement.

“She was doing restorative justice work before it was a cool thing, before it was a fad. She wants to really get out there and see who has been left out of the growth,” Jones said. 

O’Neal was the first to announce her candidacy for mayor, announcing her candidacy back in January, before current Mayor Steve Schewel decided he would no longer be running for reelection. 

The move seemed like an obvious statement of dissatisfaction with the current political climate in Durham. O’Neal says she wasn’t trying to stir up drama or make an announcement – she just figured if she was going to run, she might as well get a head start.

“When people look at me, I just want them to see what Durham has produced,” she said. “All I can present is who I am, and Durham has to decide what it wants, because the options are very clear.”

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At the top: Mayoral candidate and former judge Elaine O’Neal speaks to a class of Duke student courthouse reporters. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk. 

Durham elections: O’Neal, Caballero split endorsements. Who’s backing who?

The Durham mayoral race is heating up, and two candidates are emerging as front-runners after winning key endorsements. 

Former judge Elaine O’Neal has been backed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Friends of Durham, and former Mayor Bill Bell. 

City Council member Javiera Caballero has received support from Mayor Steve Schewel, the People’s Alliance, and the Durham Association of Educators. 

Durham’s political action committees (PACs) endorsed different candidates for City Council in Ward I and Ward III. The PACs act as trusted advisors for many Durham voters. Some also raise and spend money to promote candidates through ad buys, signs, and mailers.

Since 2017, the People’s Alliance PAC has spent nearly $240,000 to support chosen political candidates, according to watchdog database Transparency USA. The Durham Committee has dished out over $165,000, and Friends of Durham has expended nearly $20,000. 

Seven candidates are running for mayor, and three City Council seats are up for election. The primary election is Oct. 5. After that, the top two vote-getters in each race will face off in the Nov. 2 general election. 

The People’s Alliance

People’s Alliance PAC coordinator Milo Pyne said many members who attended a 400-person online endorsement meeting Sept. 1 wanted the organization to support O’Neal, but the group ultimately chose Caballero in part because of “continuity.” 

“We agree with a lot of what the current council has done and the initiatives they’ve taken,” Pyne told The 9th Street Journal, pointing out that Caballero would be Durham’s first Latina mayor if elected. 

The group set continuity aside in the competitive City Council Ward I race, however, endorsing community organizer Marion T. Johnson over incumbent DeDreana Freeman. Freeman received the People’s Alliance’s endorsement during her successful 2017 City Council campaign. 

“DeDreana has a good record of service, but our members just feel like it’s time for a change, and that Marion has a unique set of experiences working with the community,” Pyne said. 

The People’s Alliance also endorsed incumbent Mark-Anthony Middleton in the Ward II race, as well as community organizer AJ Williams in the Ward III race.

While major endorsements are split so far in Ward III, the two candidates — AJ Williams and entrepreneur and former Durham Public Schools teacher Leonardo Williams — won’t be squaring off in the Oct. 5 primary. Their names will appear on the ballot for the Nov. 2 general election.  

The Durham Association of Educators

The Durham Association of Educators, a local affiliate of major state and national level teachers’ unions, similarly endorsed Caballero for mayor and Johnson in Ward I. 

The association’s endorsement press release cited Caballero’s experience working with schools and uniquely specific education plans. It also praised Johnson’s “deep understanding of how white supremacy drives the educational outcome gap” and her advocacy for collective action in schools. 

The group backed AJ Williams for Ward III, but didn’t endorse a Ward II candidate after two of the three people running didn’t respond to questionnaires and interview requests. 

The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People

The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People endorsed O’Neal in part because she was born and raised in the Bull City.

“She understands the history of Durham,” committee chair Antonio Jones told The 9th Street Journal. “She understands how Durham has grown. She understands who’s been left out of that growth.” 

Jones said the committee backed Freeman in Ward I because of her track record on equity and expertise in land use. 

The committee endorsed Middleton in Ward II and Leonardo Williams in Ward III.

Friends of Durham

The Friends of Durham — a bi-partisan, Durham-focused PAC made up of community members and business people — endorsed the same slate of candidates as the Durham Committee.

O’Neal’s experience sentencing and offering guidance to people who came through her courtroom qualify her for mayor, Friends of Durham Chair Alice Sharpe told The 9th Street Journal. The group endorsed Middleton for Ward II and Leonardo Williams for Ward III. 

For the contentious Ward I race, Friends of Durham is supporting Freeman.

“We think she has shown an ability to focus in on issues, and she has grown into her council position,” Sharpe said. 

Durham for All

Durham for All, a progressive group of multiracial organizers and activists, is backing Caballero for mayor. The group cited her efforts to expand access to local government by pushing for city materials to be in Spanish in its endorsement page

In Ward I, Durham for All endorsed Johnson. 

“As the current chair of the Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee, she has organized to expand democratic, grassroots decision making in Durham,” the group wrote. 

Durham for All endorsed AJ Williams for Ward III, crediting his work organizing for community-based alternatives to policing, as well as his willingness to fight for workers’ rights and against developers that contribute to gentrification. It did not make an endorsement in Ward II. 

Former Mayor Bill Bell and Mayor Steve Schewel

Durham’s two most recent mayors split their endorsements. Bill Bell, who served as mayor from 2001 to 2017, endorsed O’Neal. 

“She knows Durham and its people but, just as importantly the people of Durham also know Elaine,” he wrote in a statement posted on O’Neal’s Facebook page. 

Schewel called Caballero brave, kind, wise, whip-smart and collegial in his Facebook endorsement. 

“Her work ethic is daunting. Her care for the people of Durham is immense. Her vision for our city is radically inclusive, and she has shown that she knows how to make that vision real,” he said. 

Schewel also endorsed incumbent Middleton in the Ward II race. 

City Council member Charlie Reece told The 9th Street Journal he endorsed Javiera Caballero. 

“She is smart, she is strong, she is courageous, and she is ready to lead as mayor on day one,” he said. 

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson said she endorsed Caballero for mayor, Johnson in Ward I, and AJ Williams in Ward III, but is not making an endorsement in Ward II. Current Ward III City Council member Pierce Freelon endorsed AJ Williams in the Ward III race . 

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for candidates profiles, campaign coverage, and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At the top: A sign encourages Durhamites to vote in the 2019 city election. 9th Street Journal photo by Cameron Beach. 

This story was updated to include Durham for All’s endorsements.

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

Protecting jail inmates from coronavirus

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead announced Mar. 16 that due to concerns about COVID-19, all in-person and video visitation to the Durham County Detention Center is suspended. Advocates from the ACLU, Duke Law, and the Safe and Human Jails Project, among others, are pushing for more changes to protect inmates’ health. 

Recent arrivals to the jail will undergo an additional screening for symptoms of COVID-19, and attorneys will only be able to communicate with clients through video kiosks. All first appearance hearings will be conducted by video conference.

These changes will affect all 369 inmates currently housed at the jail.

AnnMarie Breen, public information officer at the sheriff’s office, said the medical staff at the detention facility spoke to detainees about COVID-19, including how the virus is spread and proper hand washing techniques. Detainees are responsible for cleaning their cells, she said, and the jail has an adequate supply of hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and other cleaning products. 

“We feel like we’re doing the most that we can to make sure that those CDC guidelines are being complied with,” Breen said.

District Attorney Satana Deberry released a statement Mar. 20 emphasizing that her office has taken steps to reduce the detained population. In February last year, the DA’s office implemented a pretrial release policy that recommends releasing non-violent offenders without monetary conditions.

“As a result of these policies and efforts by judicial officials, law enforcement officers and defense attorneys, the population of the Durham County Detention Facility is already well below capacity,” she wrote.

Last week, her staff began stepping up reviews of the jail population and working to safely release individuals, particularly those who do not pose a public safety risk, are over 60 years old, or have pre-existing health conditions that increase their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Attorney Daniel Meier said attorneys are still allowed unlimited visitation with their clients in jail, and he’s able to meet with his clients 24/7. Instead of meeting in the attorney booths, where attorneys can slide paperwork to their clients, they are now communicating through secure video booths. 

The jail has 12 attorney booths but only two video booths. Now that video booths are in high demand for attorneys to meet with their clients, there can be delays, Meier said.  

Breen said that remote visitation might even be slightly more popular recently. Usually, she said, because of the costs involved with setting up remote visitation, there was a small fee associated with the service. Right now, the service is free, so many people are taking advantage of remote visitation.

In a letter to the Chairman and President of North Carolina’s Sheriff’s Association, advocates recommended that sheriff’s departments across the state implement additional precautions due to the anticipated spread of COVID-19. Advocates have suggested several strategies to reduce the county jail populations and maintain humane conditions of confinement.

To reduce county jail populations, the signatories of the letter have suggested releasing all individuals over 65 years old, those who have medical conditions that the CDC considers vulnerabilities in this outbreak, pregnant individuals, and others, unless there would be a serious safety risk to the community. They suggested stopping arrests for low-level offenses and issuing citations instead of arrests. 

Within the jails, signatories have suggested eliminating medical co-pays, ensuring adequate access to cleaning supplies, and avoiding the use of lockdowns or solitary confinement as a way to contain a potential COVID-19 outbreak. 

The signatories have emphasized maintaining confidential access to counsel, which Durham has implemented through the video kiosks available to attorneys and bonding agents, according to Sheriff Birkhead’s announcement.

“I’m not worried because, fortunately, we’ve got a very proactive defense bar. The DA’s office has stepped up and is working with us — so are the judges, the sheriff’s department,” Meier said. “I don’t know how other counties are doing it, but Durham is working together.”

In downtown Durham, overflow crowd greets Bernie Sanders

A thin, black folding wall cut U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Durham rally in half.

On one side was the Durham Convention Center’s main ballroom, filled wall to wall — and to capacity — with ardent supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate front-runner. On the other: a smaller, darker overflow room for latecomers to the Valentine’s Day rally.

Fresh off winning the New Hampshire primary, Sanders spent part of the week campaigning around North Carolina, a key Super Tuesday state. A reported 3,100 people showed up in Durham. 

Fifteen minutes before it started, Greg West hovered near the barrier. “I’m waiting for my wife, we got separated,” said West, who showed up to the event two hours early.

But no one, besides the brave few slipping past security, was getting in. It looked like his wife would have to miss this one.

“Nobody else can come into this ballroom at the time,” announced the assistant fire marshal, who said the temporary wall held back some 300 people — a diverse, young crowd united in their desire to make it into the main hall and their frustration with the capacity limit. 

As West explained why he planned to vote for Sanders — a track record of consistency, a strong vision of change — his phone screen lit up and a poppy, marimba-snare ringtone started playing. His wife was calling. She had made it back to the main room, where dozens of cameras were trained on a wide stage set for Sanders. He went to join her. 

Dozens of others ended up in the overflow room, where audio of the speeches played over loudspeakers. By 11:30 a.m., local progressive politicians like Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, Durham County Commissioner candidate Nida Allam and State Senate candidate Pierce Freelon, warmed up the mic. Each echoed Sanders’s calls for radical change and reminding people to support down ballot candidates. The packed crowd in the main ballroom hung to their words, tossing up “Bernie” signs, clapping on queue and quieting down to listen. 

Those scattered in the overflow room chatted among themselves, biding time as they waited to hear Sanders’s voice. For a few minutes, former Ohio state senator and Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner stopped by the small corner stage with locally beloved “Bull Durham” star Susan Sarandon, briefly firing up the crowd by telling them they had the power to change America.  

Sanders visits the overflow room at his Durham rally. 9th Street Journal photo by Jake Sheridan

Diana Lynn, a self-identified member of the “Yang Gang” — fans of technology entrepreneur and former candidate Andrew Yang — said she was looking for “a new ship to jump on” after he recently dropped out of the race. Lynn hadn’t been able to arrive on time because of work, she said, and wore her green Harris Teeter uniform shirt inside out. Still, she was happy to have a chance to hear Sanders. 

“People want a revolution,” Lynn said. “They’re beyond fed up. That’s how we got Trump.”

Fernando Bretos, who said he will vote for Sanders, also ended up in the overflow room after coming from work. 

“It’s kind of nice that there is an overflow room, but of course I want to be in there with them,” said Bretos, a marine biologist concerned about climate change. “I kind of regret not going with Bernie the first time. I’m just going with passion and ingenuity. He speaks to me.”

Then, Sanders really did speak to Bretos. To shock and excitement, the Democratic hopeful surprised supporters and took the overflow room stage. 

“The good news is we have a standing room crowd over there,” Sanders said, pointing to the wall separating them from the ballroom. “The bad news is you could not get in.”

He touted his victory in New Hampshire and promised wins to come. He listed a string of policies to cheers and the names of enemies — “the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, the whole damn one percent” — to boo’s. He summarized his platform into “two basic things”: beating Donald Trump, and transforming the government and economy “so it represents all of us.” 

After six minutes, Sanders left to go give a longer version of his stump speech to the main room. Most of the overflow crowd left, too. 

On the way out, Lynn said she appreciated Sanders’s appearance, but was still undecided between him and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

As he headed back to work, Bretos said Sanders’s quick stop gave him goosebumps. 

“It felt like a community. Like I’m not alone,” Bretos said. “Since I’ve gone to Bernie world, a lot of friends and Democrats have kind of been jabbing me, questioning me, so it’s nice to feel like I’m part of a community, to feel like I belong.” 

At top: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders visits with supporters before his rally in Durham on Feb. 14. 9th Street Journal photo by Jake Sheridan.

A Courthouse Moment: ‘You think you’re helping someone, but it hurts’

Durham Habitat for Humanity had been trying to help Victoria Dorsey buy a house since 2016. They set their sights on a new Chapel Hill Road home for Dorsey, her husband Otis Johnson, and her 13-year-old daughter Jamila Dorsey.

Over three years later, those aspirations ended in a Superior Court trial in courtroom 6A of the Durham County Courthouse. Onlookers watched as the trial morphed from an amicable discussion of mistakes to a resentful blame-game. 

When Lakeisha Minor, Habitat for Humanity’s family services director, was helping Dorsey close on the house, Minor ran into some roadblocks. First, Dorsey’s subletters missed a rent payment. Then, she falsified some work hours that she needed to purchase the home. 

As the Chapel Hill Road home construction was nearing completion, Dorsey still hadn’t paid off her debt. Habitat wouldn’t let her purchase the house until the outstanding debt was paid. 

“We decided that once the house was completed, then we would allow her to move in and rent the property until she paid off those collections,” Minor said from the witness stand.

On July 18, 2018, Dorsey signed a five-month, 13-day lease agreement with Habitat for Humanity. That would allow her to stay in the new house until the New Year. In the lease agreement, Dorsey agreed that she’d keep her debt under a capped amount. 

But in Dec. 2018, Dorsey decided to cosign for a new car, Minor explained. “When she was cleared into the (housing) program, it was clear that she couldn’t afford more debt. Her ratios were outside what she needed to qualify to purchase a house.” 

At that point, Minor urged Dorsey to take her name off the car loan. It was a recent loan, so they both assumed it wouldn’t prove too difficult. 

“But that didn’t happen,” Minor said flatly.

But Habitat for Humanity, again, gave Dorsey grace.

Habitat for Humanity granted Dorsey three more lease extensions, allowing her to rent the apartment from Jan. 1, 2019, through May 31, 2019, according to Dorsey’s affidavit. Each month, she paid the $650 rent.

In June, Dorsey didn’t extend the lease, she just handed over the $650. Habitat for Humanity accepted the money. 

But then Habitat ran out of patience. On July 9, 2019, Habitat for Humanity sent Dorsey a notice: it was terminating her lease, and she’d have to move out by Aug. 9, 2019.

“Anything from the defense?” Judge Clayton Jones said in a routine fashion. 

Dorsey’s attorney Sarah D’Amato stood up from the chair, seizing an opportunity to change the momentum of the case.

“At this time, I’d like to move to a directed verdict,” said D’Amato, a Legal Aid of North Carolina attorney. 

On Aug. 15, Habitat for Humanity had filed an eviction complaint against Dorsey. It was just six days after Dorsey should have vacated the home, D’Amato argued. And, otherwise, move-out dates don’t come until the term ends at the end of the month.

“Any notice to vacate has to end at the end of the term,” D’Amato said, citing case law from 1898. “Therefore, based on longstanding case law, you will find that the notice that was sent on July 9 was not sufficient notice.” 

“I’m going to side with the defendant in this case,” Judge Jones said, signaling that Dorsey won.

D’Amato and Daron Satterfield, the plaintiff’s attorney, shook hands. Then, D’Amato and Minor walked toward the exit: D’Amato with a grin, and Minor with her lips pursed. 

“It’s a catch-22,” Minor said. “You think you’re helping someone, but it hurts.”

DA Deberry’s progressive agenda put on trial at town hall meeting

Allen Jones’ grandson was murdered last year in Burlington. The person charged with killing the 18-year-old and two others had multiple prior violent convictions, including homicide, but was released on probation.

“When he committed armed robbery, it was like this murder didn’t exist,” Jones told the 9th Street Journal. “He got a smack on the hand and probation.”

Now, Jones says he is fighting against policies that he considers to be too lenient on violent offenders. He’s particularly concerned about plea deals for people who have been previously convicted of a violent crime. 

District Attorney Satana Deberry’s annual report shows that she relied heavily on pleas for murder convictions — just three of 25 convictions were decided by a jury trial, doubling the previous year’s total number of plea convictions. 

Jones took the microphone at a town hall event Thursday to ask about her office’s role in keeping the community safe when releasing violent offenders. 

“How can that be of any good to the community?” Jones asked. “How do you all play a part in being responsible for turning that murderer loose back into the community?”

“This is not a science,” Deberry responded. “We cannot predict down the road what’s going to happen. I’m sorry about what happened with your grandson … What I can say is we don’t take any homicide plea lightly.” 

During the event held at St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church near North Carolina Central University and attended by hundreds, community members, like Jones, questioned Deberry’s progressive stance on prosecution. 

In her first year in office, Deberry has discouraged cash bail for lower-level crimes and welcomed less traditional methods such as restorative justice. But she has weathered her fair share of criticism. Half of her staff has changed since she took over in January 2019, with some quitting over disagreements about her approach. 

Deberry used Thursday’s town hall to tout her accomplishments from her first year in office, which include: 

  • Prioritizing more serious crimes

Deberry reported a 12 percent drop in the jail population since enacting a policy to no longer seek cash bail for most non-violent misdemeanors and minor felonies. The goal: to not punish people who can’t afford to pay with jail time. 

“We don’t want to send people to prison. We don’t think that’s our job,” Deberry said. “We want to reserve the criminal justice system for those people who we don’t really have tools to deal with. Those are the people who commit the most serious crimes.” 

Instead of spending more time on lower-level offenses, Deberry said her office has prioritized more serious crimes. Her office got 25 homicide convictions in her first year in office, 10 more than the previous year. 

Deberry has prioritized cutting down Durham’s backlog of homicide cases. In one year, she has closed one-third of them.

  • Calling for cooperation to curb gun violence

Nearly 200 people were shot in Durham last year. At the recent town hall event, Deberry moderated a panel discussing how her office was responding to gun violence. 

Officials in Deberry’s office said they have focused on collaborating with law enforcement and prosecuting people who are involved in gangs or “in close proximity to violence.” But they can’t keep the community safer on their own, they said. 

Deberry urged witnesses to come forward to help combat gun violence, explaining that her office works to protect witnesses. 

“On television … you see people put a bullet into a machine and the machine spits out a mugshot. We don’t have that technology,” Deberry said. “The absolute best evidence in any case is you.” 

  • Implementing alternative practices 

Deberry has expanded the use of restorative justice, a practice that voluntarily brings the victim and the accused together to promote healing. 

Her office has also expanded referrals to a cognitive behavioral intervention program. This course, which helps people who may have committed crimes improve decision-making, used to be available only after conviction, but now people can be referred before trial. 

“Our goal is not just to punish crime, it is to reduce crime. We want people to not come back to the system,” Deberry said.

Deberry’s office also helped wipe $1.5 million in traffic debt that had barred thousands of people from reinstating their driver’s licenses.

At top: Assistant District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn speaks at a town hall event for the District Attorney’s office on Thursday, Jan. 30. Photo by Corey Pilson

CORRECTION: This story has been updated. An earlier version misstated where Allen Jones’ grandson was murdered.