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Posts tagged as “Protests”

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 I ask him if we can leave the piece unpublished or take the names out, and he says that’s not up to us to decide.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

How Cooper and Forest differ on police and protests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooper: ‘People are more important than property’

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

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

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

But he focused on the issues that caused the unrest.

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

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

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

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

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

Smart strategies?

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

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

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

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

Unless he finds that, Forest faces an uphill battle.

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

Durham police confronting kids with guns sparks more demands for change

By Henry Haggart

New demands that Durham Police Department improve how it treats residents swelled last week after news broke that police officers approached Black children with guns drawn at an apartment complex.

Three days after dozens of community members, many parents and children, gathered in front of Durham City Hall in protest, event organizers continued to demand action today.

They want police to release body camera footage of the encounter, which involved kids aged 8, 11 and 15. They also want a recording of the phone call that summoned police to Rochelle Manor Apartments on Aug. 21.

Most importantly, commit to reforming community policing efforts to ensure the officers are not only members of our community but be regular participants of engagement, committed to strengthening the relationships between officers and civilians,” organizers wrote Monday on a Facebook post.

Durham resident Travis Jones spoke Friday to the crowd outside of city hall. “Until these cops lose their badge or their paycheck, it’s going to be a problem for me,” he said. Photo by Henry Haggart

Sarah Hinton and others organized Friday’s protest after seeing a WRAL report about parents’ anger at the incident, which resulted in police temporarily detaining the oldest kid in the group, 15-year-old Jaylin Harris, in handcuffs.

Durham Police Chief Cerelyn Davis on Sunday said the officers were responding to a call about a “suspicious person with a weapon” at Rochelle Manor in East Durham. The caller claimed that the person in question had “a gun and drugs” and suspected that he had been involved in a prior shooting, her written statement said. 

City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton spoke to the families of children who police approached with guns drawn at Friday’s protest. Photo by Henry Haggart

The families of the children met with members of the Police Department, including Davis, last week. But on Friday they said they were not satisfied with the outcome.

“The solution that we wanted, we didn’t get,” said Makeba Hoffler, the mother of Zakarryya Cornelius, the youngest of three boys who family members said were playing tag when police arrived. His birthday was the day ofter the encounter.

“We didn’t get an apology,” Hoffler said, adding after the meeting she was not convinced that officers cared for the children. 

City Council member Charlie Reese also addressed the protestors and urged them to push city leaders to address their concerns. Photo by Henry Haggart

Davis wrote that she had expressed “sincere remorse” to the families in her statement. “We recognize that the current climate of adverse encounters by police in communities of color around the nation continue to resonate,” she said.  

City Council members Charlie Reece and Mark-Anthony Middleton attended Friday’s protest and encouraged participants to keep demanding change by contacting city officials and pursuing other avenues. 

“Stay in our faces, stay in our inboxes” said Middleton, who assured participants that the city, as Davis said in her statement, will thoroughly investigate the incident.

If officers violated any rules, they will be held accountable, Middleton said. “If badges need to be snatched, they’ll be snatched,” he promised.

With Jaylin Harris at left, Zakarryya Cornelius thanked people for showing support Friday. The boy’s mother, Makeba Hoffler, stood behind him, to the right. Photo by Henry Haggart

Before the crowd dispersed, 15-year-old Jaylin Harris, and 9-year-old Zakarryya Cornelius spoke and expressed gratitude for the people who gathered on their behalf.

The incident with the police “made me feel like I won’t be able to come outside,” Cornelius said. “Thank you for coming to stand here and listen to us.”

Organizers said they plan to reconvene on Friday, for a second protest at city hall to be followed by a march to the Durham Police Department headquarters.

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

Top photo: After Friday’s protest finished, a child studied a sign protesters brought to Durham City Hall. Photo by Henry Haggart

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Talking back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A local, national trend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are me and my family next?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond frustration though, many in the crowd are angry. 

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

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

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

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

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