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Posts tagged as “Race”

A ‘Year of Jubilee’: Durham drivers are getting a second chance

Adam Merritt caught a ride home from work and pulled up to find his house full of cops. Someone had tried to break into the house and shot Merritt’s roommate. 

The police told Merritt that his roommate had just left in an ambulance. Merritt wanted to meet him at the hospital, but he couldn’t. His ride already left and his license was suspended. 

“They wouldn’t let me in my house, and I didn’t have money for an Uber. I was just cold standing outside with nowhere to go,” Merritt said.

Over a year later, his roommate has made a full recovery. But Merritt still looks back on how frustrating it was to be stuck in front of his house that day. “That was probably the peak point of how not having a license was just awful,” he said.

Merritt’s license was suspended because he never paid a speeding ticket from 2014. He was 19 years old at the time and he got two tickets in the span of a couple months. After going to court once, he thought he had resolved both charges. Three years later, he was pulled over for driving without a seatbelt and found out that he still had an outstanding charge.

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, roughly one in five adults in Durham County had a suspended or revoked driver’s license in 2018. Almost 80 percent were people of color. 

Now Merritt is one of nearly 40,000 people eligible to get their licenses back. The Durham Expunction and Restoration Program was launched a year ago by the city’s Innovation Team, which collaborates with academia, community organizations, and the private sector to research and address social issues in Durham. The “R” of DEAR — license restoration — began under former District Attorney Roger Echols and continued after Satana Deberry unseated him in the 2018 election. 

Each charge or conviction revisited must be at least two years old and cannot include high-risk traffic charges, such as DWI or speeding in a school zone. The average case is more than 16 years old. 

“I feel like we owe Roger Echols a lot for initiating this, but DA Deberry has been an amazing champion,” said Ryan Smith, project manager of the Durham Innovation Team. “If anything, DA Deberry has leaned more into it.”

Deberry explained that not having a license in a place like Durham is a big deal, especially because the city lacks a reliable public transportation system. “If you can’t drive, you can’t go to work, you can’t take your kids to school,” she said.

After a Durham driver gets a traffic ticket, they receive a court date where they have the opportunity to dispute or ask to reduce their charge. But the fee for appearing in traffic court — not including the traffic fine itself — is up to $188. 

“What happens when poor people get tickets they cannot pay? You either don’t show up because you can’t afford it, or you show up and you get hit with the fines and fees and you don’t pay it,” Deberry said. Either option would result in a suspended license.

Since the program started last December, Deberry has been celebrating what she calls the “Year of Jubilee,” meaning a time of forgiveness. In a speech she gave at Duke Law School, she said that DEAR is the most successful initiative that she has ever been a part of. 

With the help of a local nonprofit called Code the Dream, DEAR created a website to let people know whether they have benefitted from the mass relief program. Anyone can type in their name and birthday to see if their traffic charges have been dropped or their fines and fees have been forgiven. 

A flyer for the driver’s license restoration program hangs outside of the DEAR office in the Durham courthouse. Photo by Erin Williams | The 9th Street Journal

Smith, project manager of the Durham Innovation Team, said that his ultimate goal is to expand the program to other counties, especially because people often rack up traffic violations in multiple jurisdictions. 

The program is viewed as a  success not just within North Carolina but throughout the country. The NC Bar Foundation awarded DEAR the Pro Bono Project of the Year in 2019. What Works Cities — a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative — also announced in November that it will partner with the Durham Innovation Team to help other cities develop similar programs and reform efforts.

But despite the accolades, DEAR doesn’t have data on how many people actually have gotten their licenses back. 

According to Deberry, almost no one shows up to the mass relief hearings. People only know they have had their suspensions lifted through visiting the website or the DEAR office. But Smith said only 1,600 people have searched and found their names on the website so far.

Deberry attributed the disconnect to a publicity issue. “If I don’t read the Herald Sun, the News and Observer, or the Independent, if that’s not the kind of stuff that shows up in my social media feed, how would I know?” she asked.

Merritt also didn’t know that his costs had been dropped. He had no idea the license restoration program even existed until he was directed to the DEAR office by the judge in his most recent traffic court hearing. 

Merritt’s drivers license suspension was lifted Oct. 24. “[DEAR] helped me a lot… I just had a baby a couple months ago, and they probably saved me around $800, almost $900,” he said. 

But Merritt still has yet to get his license back.

“The DMV is another beast,” said Laura Holland, a DEAR attorney. There is a $65 license restoration fee and another $50 fee if the driver did not mail in their physical license before it was suspended. She said that oftentimes she will help people get all the way to the finish line, and then they’ll say, “Well, I can’t afford to pay that $115.” 

Smith calls this the last mile problem.

Another barrier is that the DMV updates its records manually, so there is often a significant delay between when the suspension is dropped and when someone can pay to reclaim their license. “They tell me 48 hours, and I’m like, that’s malarkey. Complete malarkey,” Holland said. “We think it is more like eight months, to be honest with you.”

Merritt went to the DMV last week because he has an interview coming up for a job that requires him to have a license. He said he wants to get a better job so he can support his newborn son. But after waiting in line for several hours, prepared to pay the final fee, they told him his name was not in the system and he would have to come back another time. 

While the DEAR program has helped lift thousands of Durham residents’ license suspensions, the city can’t track the number of people who have successfully gotten their licenses back. According to Holland, they plan to request that data from the DMV at the end of the year.

“Those same people who we know couldn’t pay the fines and fees also can’t pay $115 to get their license back, or any of the myriad other administrative hoops that the DMV has created,” Deberry said. “But we wouldn’t have known that if we hadn’t done this. This was a start, and now we’ve got to figure out the next step.”

In photo at top, DEAR attorney Laura Holland works on driver’s license restoration cases. Photo by Erin Williams | The 9th Street Journal

The spaces we occupy: Deberry urges Duke students to reflect on race and privilege

At a panel on public-private community partnerships, District Attorney Satana Deberry stood before a lecture hall of Duke students and introduced them to Durham — the real Durham.

“I’m going to take you on a little journey where we will talk about the challenge of our environment…where we live, and who gets to live here with us,” Deberry said.

The event was organized by Duke students from the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Nicholas School of the Environment. Its purpose was to bring together members of the community — public servants, activists, and academics — to discuss cross-sector methods for building a more equitable and sustainable Durham.

But rather than discussing the mechanics of public-private partnerships in her speech, Deberry decided to lay a foundation for the conversation by talking about race and privilege. She made it personal by encouraging Duke students — as Durham residents — to think deeply about the physical spaces they occupy in the community.

Deberry first described the Durham most Duke students know: An up-and-coming city filled with “renovated bungalows, walkable streets, and gleaming new apartments with those saltwater pools.” But she emphasized that those spaces are only for people who can afford an average rent of $1200 a month.

“You live in a space where a bank is willing to give you 700-times the loan that it once provided people who lived in that community just 10 years ago,” she said.

She explained that today’s downtown Durham has transformed drastically, not only in cost of living, but also demographically. When she went to Duke Law School in 1991, people viewed the city as rough and dangerous. In those days, she said, “if you came here to go to college at Duke, you were advised to never leave the confines of the university.”

But in the past decade, as rent prices skyrocketed and squeezed out minority residents, Duke students have been more willing to venture off campus. The Bull City has become a destination; people fly in from all over the world to watch films at Full Frame and hear music at DPAC.

“Now, you live in a physical space that sees you and the space you occupy as cool.” Deberry said. “It turns out that Durham was only a problem when black and brown bodies occupied those spaces.”

She paused for a moment to let that sink in.

Then, Deberry reminded her audience that even though she stood before them now as the district attorney, Durham’s image only changed when people who looked like her were driven out of downtown.

“I am one of those people. I’m black. I’m a woman,” she said. “Had I been sitting in a different space today, you may have understood me to be someone else. I’m not here to serve your food.”

As a black woman from the South, Deberry understands how seeing the word “negro” written on her birth certificate can impact the psyche. She understands what it was like to watch her childhood friends go through the criminal justice system and what it is like to be the great-grandchild of people born into slavery.

“What does it mean for someone who looks like me, with my history, to be D.A. in this community?” she asked. “What does it mean in a place where so many people who look like me are subjected to the vagaries of the criminal justice system?”

By sharing Durham’s history, Deberry helped her audience recognize the racial biases that underpin American institutions, especially criminal justice. Deberry saw that understanding as an essential precursor to any conversation about equity and sustainability.

“When I speak at Duke, I hope that some student hears it and uses it going forward,” Deberry said while reflecting on her speech. “I hope they hear me and recognize their privilege, especially in this community.”

‘The Best of Enemies,’ a new movie about Durham, wasn’t filmed in Durham

A new film that celebrates a pivotal event in Durham’s history has an important asterisk: It wasn’t filmed in Durham.

Set to hit theaters nationwide April 5 after a special showing at the Carolina Theater March 19, The Best of Enemies chronicles the unlikely encounters between civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and then-KKK leader C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) as they co-chair the committee to desegregate Durham schools in 1971 following a court order.

But while the film tells an important story about Durham, the vast majority of its filming did not take place here. Instead, audiences will see small-town Georgia – the Bartow County Courthouse, Ross’ Diner in Cartersville and the Macon-Bibb Government Center – as stand-ins for the Durham of the early 1970s.

Astute Films, which co-produced The Best of Enemies, found everything it needed in the Atlanta area.

Astute Films’ Harrison Powell told the Atlanta Film Chat podcast that Atlanta’s setup as a “series of small neighborhoods” helps films of all themes and settings make the city work for them. In the case of The Best of Enemies, the small towns of Macon and Cartersville offered both retro-looking architecture (or the potential, with a paint job) and an advantageous location close to the city.

So it was easy to make Durham from scratch.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel told The 9th Street Journal that the shooting location of the film is less important than the story it will tell.

“I knew Ann Atwater and Claybourn Ellis and had personal relationships which each of them. And I’m very excited that they’re going to be celebrated,” he said.

Moreover, the film’s themes of cross-cultural, cross-racial, and cross-ideological friendship and collaboration tie into Durham’s plans for its sesquicentennial celebration.

“I think it would’ve been nice if it was shot here. [But] this is going to tell a story that the world ought to know. For that I’m very excited,” Schewel said. “I’m excited that it’s Durham’s 150th birthday and it’s really appropriate that the film will be a part of that celebration.”

Hollywood films are all about illusion, of course, and filmmakers go where the tax breaks are.

“It’s not as unusual for a project that may be set in one place to film in another,” said Guy Gaster, director of FilmNC, the state’s film commission. “North Carolina certainly had their fair share of those projects as well, including Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri which actually filmed in our state and not in Missouri.”

Indeed, North Carolina has brought in major pictures over the years including The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3 and Dirty Dancing. According to a 2014 study, the film industry spent more than $1 billion here between 2007 and 2012, including $58.3 million in tax revenue for the state after tax credits.

But the state’s popularity as a film location has diminished since 2014, when the General Assembly downsized North Carolina’s lucrative tax incentives to a more limited grant program.

Much of the filming business North Carolina may have attracted is now lost to Georgia. In 2008, the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act launched Atlanta into prominence as an entertainment production and industry hub. Today, its film industry ranks just behind Los Angeles and New York. With generous tax credits and write-offs after release, the incentive program is cost-effective for productions while mitigating risk for investors.

Georgia’s incentive policy has a momentous impact on films’ decision to come to the state.

“From what we see, it’s because of those film tax incentives. That’s the biggest factor,” said Emily Murray, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

The film industry’s economic impact in Georgia has soared from $241.5 million in 2007 to $9.52 billion in 2017.

“Film productions bring in business as far as catering, local jobs for stylists, makeup artists, construction workers, electrical workers,” said Murray. “And then while they’re there, they’re sometimes buying hotel rooms, they’re paying the location fees, they’re working with the city to close roads and paying those fees, they’re working with local businesses.”

Gaster of the North Carolina film commission noted that these kinds of ripple effects are among Durham’s losses at not seeing The Best of Enemies filmed in town. But, he said, “Durham will still benefit because the project has been made to look like it is Durham. There’s still the Durham story.”

(Photo at top: An image from the film’s trailer depicts Durham in 1971.)  

Do women and people of color get a fair share of government contracts?

Durham is a diverse city where black residents account for 37 percent of the population and people of Hispanic origin represent 13 percent. But officials are concerned the groups do not get a similar share of city contracts.

“I continue to be floored by how many of the businesses we’re working with have zero people of color,” Councilmember DeDreana Freeman said at a City Council meeting last week. “It’s really disturbing.”

The Council signed off on five deals with contractors that will cost almost $2.2 million. Only two of those deals met goals for contracting with minority and women-owned businesses. For the other three projects, goals for minority and women-owned business participation were not set.

City officials say they’ve been aware of the challenge for years. In 2013, the city commissioned a study to analyze the disparity in government contracting practices.

The study found that over a five-year period, Durham spent $206.1 million, but only $5.5 million — or less than 3 percent — was awarded to minority and women-owned firms.

The city established goals for minority and women business participation using the findings of the study. Construction contractors, for instance, should include minority-owned businesses in 11 percent and women-owned businesses in 7 percent of a project.

The Equal Business Opportunity Program requires contractors to “make good faith efforts” to meet these targets. However, some contracts are not assigned goals because there are no minority or women-owned firms available.

“If [contractors] can’t meet the goals … they have to say why,” Mayor Steve Schewel said. “And the reason usually is there are no women or minority-owned businesses that have the ability to do that certain skill.”

At the meeting, Schewel said that the city can focus on developing minority and women businesses so that they become eligible to win government contracts.

“That is a bigger societal problem we’ve got to solve in our education system,” Schewel said. “We also need to be thinking as a city about how we’re going to help some of our folks who do have technical skills but don’t have business experience.”

Earlier in the meeting, Councilmember Mark-Anthony Middleton suggested postponing the scheduled vote to appoint twelve people to the newly established Racial Equity Task Force. His reasoning was that only one of the twelve appointees is an African-American man.

“For a racial equity task force in a southern American city where nine African-American males applied — for it to be just one African-American male on the task force, I think optically, is a shortcoming on our part.”

Freeman and Councilmember Vernetta Alston echoed the concerns.

Now, the appointments will be reconsidered at the Council’s Sept. 20 work session.

Middleton ended his remarks by reminding his fellow councilmembers that until the task force is functional, people of color in Durham still have a voice.

“There is a working group in our city that should be mindful of racial equity issues: us.”