Durham Isn’t Burning, but Don’t Light a Match

Durham Isn’t Burning, but Don’t Light a Match

Durham Isn’t Burning, but Don’t Light a Match

In response to the protests over George Floyd’s murder, police in Durham refrained from mass arrests and violence. But that doesn’t mean that all is well in our city.


Sitting on my deck a few miles from downtown Durham, N.C., I waited for the city to burn. I scanned the sky for telltale darkening. Listened for keening sirens. Watched my social media for uprisings in progress. And periodically sniffed the air for evidence of municipal char.

But the only smoke that wafted to me snaked from my friend’s Black & Mild, and Twitter brought no images of SWAT teams. Protesters in the city held forth for days on end. They blocked traffic downtown and chanted names, including that of George Floyd, the North Carolina–born Minneapolis man killed when a police officer knelt on his neck for a fatal eight minutes and 46 seconds.

In Durham, law enforcement was present and watchful, but from a distance. It was a different scene from the one playing out in Raleigh, the nearby capital, where on May 30 police responded to a large protest with a reprehensible flex of militarized power, firing tear gas and pepper spray into a largely peaceful crowd estimated at around 1,000 protesters. Over three days, about 30 of them were charged with trespassing, resisting arrest, property damage, or public disturbance.

By contrast, Durham Sheriff Clarence Birkhead—the first black sheriff in county history, elected in a 2018 wave that installed six first-ever African American sheriffs in their respective areas—wrote in a May 29 letter to the media, “As a law enforcement leader, I am embarrassed, and outraged, at the behavior of a few officers who fail to demonstrate the professionalism and humanity required to protect and serve our diverse communities. No matter how hard I try, I simply cannot understand how these incidents continue to occur and those officers responsible seemingly go unpunished.”

Yeah, me neither, Clarence. On the one hand, that’s textbook bad-apple rhetoric. But on June 1, he released another statement: “I am proud of these men and women from all races and backgrounds and how they came together to peacefully let their voices be heard regarding needed change in the criminal justice system. The system is not perfect, it is not equitable for all, and it is in need of reform.”

I view such statements with journalistic and citizenly skepticism. But Durham law enforcement has simultaneously stood down and stood up. Birkhead, Police Chief C.J. Davis, and Mayor Steve Schewel had a June 5 meeting to talk about racism, relations with law enforcement, and poverty in the city with activists who demanded a meeting after blocking a local freeway. The meeting drew some ire when community members were turned away. Longtime activist and Durham resident Lamont Lilly was not there. And didn’t want to be. He was in similar meetings with public officials five years ago—albeit with different leadership—and describes such meetings as “Kumbaya sessions, an attempt to cool us down, identify the leaders, and make friends. Make some concessions, go out for coffee and shit. If you cool the leaders down, you ultimately cool the whole movement down.”

Nonetheless, this approach has probably not earned Birkhead brownie points with the conservative-leaning North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association. Some of its members supported a return to church services in a state where coronavirus cases are climbing and looked the other way when religious gatherings flouted shelter-in-place orders. If only they’d ignore protesters the way they ignored the armed white men (one with a supposedly inactive rocket launcher and two other guns visible on his person) who roamed downtown Raleigh on May 9, stopping to eat at a Subway and to harass a black couple strolling with their children.

I recognize the tightrope that Birkhead must be walking and don’t want to minimize the impact of law enforcement choosing affirmatively not to incite and inflame. Yet I don’t want to give Durham’s police officers undue credit or a cookie for doing what law enforcement should already do: enable Americans to express discontent, pursue deescalation as a matter of policy, and refrain from using violence. More important, we can’t ignore the herculean labor of the activists who organized and talked one another through and down from righteous rage. And call me cynical, but it’s also easier for police to be nonviolent when there’s a goodly number of wholesome-looking white folks, not your bearded Proud Boys or cap-backward instigators, among the marchers.

But the absence of mass arrests, looting, and police-initiated violence is not peace, and the idea that there are peaceful protests and then violent ones is a simplistic binary. Durham didn’t burn, but all is not well.

I think back to December 2013, when 17-year-old Jesus Huerta died, reportedly from a self-inflicted gunshot, in the back of a police cruiser. Police dispersed protesters with tear gas then.

I think back to August 2017, when activists tore down the Confederate statue that fronted Durham’s old courthouse. The city waited for a Klan rally in response, an event that never happened.

Many things did happen, however, and went unreported. The city was teeming with homegrown and traveling white supremacists, ready to foment race rumbles. On a reporting trip to the courthouse, I was followed by an elderly wild-eyed white heckler who asked me repeatedly when I was going to cook him breakfast. Two elderly black men sheltered in a nearby doorway despite near 100-degree temperatures and assured me they were watching me—and him. I was sure all three were packing heat. A friend was mistaken for a tall guitar-playing black man in a video of the statue’s toppling and questioned.

Another resident, coming back from a band rehearsal the night of the Klan march that wasn’t, was stopped by a car with a blue light and men wearing generic, suspect uniforms. They wouldn’t show their badges. The driver floored it and sped away, not knowing if he was a target of real but rogue officers or white supremacist impersonators. After all, in Durham, black male drivers are far more likely than whites to be pulled over, day or night.

This in our Durham, a kinda “Chocolate City.” More than a third of the residents are black. African-American political leadership has been comfortably ensconced here for long enough that electing a white mayor here in 2017 was a distinct change. The black middle class has its businesses, bachelor’s degrees, and fancy balls. And with a burgeoning population of immigrant neighbors and Latinx newcomers who relocated from other states, black and brown people now outnumber whites. None of those demographics erase or fully mitigate the inequality inscribed on the landscape. The Durham Freeway bisects the city; from the late 1960s to the early ’70s, its construction sliced through vibrant black neighborhoods and business districts. A Whole Foods Market, so busy that its parking lot is the city’s fender-bender epicenter, anchors one end of Main Street. The other end terminates in East Durham’s food desert. Duke University occupies prime real estate in the city center; you can walk around the stone wall that circles its East Campus. But the $60,000 annual undergraduate tuition tops the 2014–18 median household income of about $56,000.

Until a recent spate of development, the county jail loomed as one of the tallest buildings on downtown’s edge. You can buy a luxury condo in its shadow and have incarcerated people as neighbors you’ll never meet. Those slick condos are going up at a breakneck pace alongside hipster hotels, breweries, and Brutalist modern houses that remind us that our inner-city neighborhoods have appealingly cheap real estate. The Bull City is no longer the Bull Shitty of a decade ago, the dysfunctional blacker stepchild wedged between seemingly bucolic Chapel Hill and Raleigh’s suburban sprawl. And despite local opposition, it has a newish $71 million police headquarters.

It’s no coincidence that eviction filings proliferate here. The Durham Human Relations Commission reported 10,000 in both 2016 and 2017. The boom that makes downtown a delightfully gritty destination—a place white people once feared to tread—had to be someone’s bust. In March new eviction proceedings were paused because of the pandemic. As the courts crank back up, padlocks will be going on doors across the city and county again, and sheriff’s deputies will be the ones escorting people from the homes they’ve lost. Given the hemorrhaging of jobs, evictions will probably rise above the 2016 level of about eight households a day.

Durham may not be in flames. But it’s smoldering.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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