Monday was May Day, which meant it was International Workers’ Day and in honor of the occasion, a collection of the city’s activist organizers threw a two-and-a-half hour long protest.
Beginning at the construction site for the new Police Department Headquarters on East Main Street around 5 p.m., members of some of Durham’s most active activist groups — including the Durham Beyond Policing Campaign, Black Youth Project 100, Inside-Outside Alliance and The Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the “Wobblies” — marched to the Durham County jail where speakers spoke around 6 p.m., marched on and ended up at City Hall shortly before 7 p.m.
When a group of protesters wearing orange traffic vests took to the street and blocked traffic on North Mangum Street next to City Hall, the driver of a Dodge pickup truck slowed down but drove through the group, forcing them out of the way. No one was hurt. Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael said police “do not plan to cite the driver.”
The Durham City Council was scheduled to begin its meeting at 7 p.m. On the agenda was Police Chief C.J. Davis’s presentation of her department’s 2017 First Quarter Crime Report.
While council members took their seats, a couple hundred protesters on City Hall Plaza chanted, read each other’s signs, listened to words amplified by bullhorns and began to file into City Hall themselves, making for the Council Chambers to a soundtrack of beating drums. Some demonstrators semi-danced through City Hall’s doors. Police checked bags.
Council Chambers filled and a band of seven protesters formed a line in front of the council members, taking center stage and facing away from the council to better address their audience — namely their fellow demonstrators filling the aisles.
Black Youth Project 100 spokeswoman D’atra Jackson explained the protesters’ intent.
“The police in Durham receive $60 million a year and they were able to take at least $71 million out of the city’s budget to build a new headquarters and we are pushing for, trying to understand, why this city has continuously decided to invest in policing and not invest more in the communities,” she said.
Inside the City Council meeting, the group of seven spoke in chorus, announcing, “We are the People’s City Council and on this May Day, we pledge solidarity with workers worldwide by demanding a Durham Beyond Policing.”
One woman said, “I am Dee Dee, representing the people’s housing.”
Protesters said, in unison, “Not Cops!”
One demonstrator said, “I am Jose, representing the people’s education.”
Protesters said, in unison, “Not Cops!”
In succession, protesters identified themselves as representing “the people’s” food, health, employment, environment and safety and after each introduction, the refrain “Not Cops!” was repeated.
Councilman Steve Schewel hunched in his seat, his slightly furrowed brow looking severe. Councilmen Charlie Reese and Don Moffitt leaned forward and with off-and-on and off-again, tiny grins seemingly were either amused or tense but at the least intrigued by the spectacle playing out before them.
The action grew more intense as the speakers barbed law enforcement.
“Police are tools of those in power and harass and tax our city’s poorest and most vulnerable,” the woman who identified herself as Dee Dee said.
Police Chief Davis sat calmly, listening to the protesters. She later declined comment.
In a written release, the Durham Beyond Policing Campaign stated their demands, which were read aloud in front of the City Council: an immediate end to all license checkpoints in Durham; the discontinuation of all unmarked police vehicles; moratorium on police stops for minor traffic violations; a guarantee that the police budget will not be expanded this year; an end to all cooperation between the city of Durham and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.).
Activist Greg Williams read a letter to the council that he said was written by a man once incarcerated in the Durham County jail who had worked in the facility while jailed. “You come out to more problems than what you went in with, which is my case. And they got a lot of my labor,” he read.
A protester identifying herself as Courtney said, “Hearing no further demands, I move to adjourn this meeting.”
A protester identifying herself as Danielle said, “I second that motion.”
“All in favor?” Courtney queried.
The seven said “Aye!” altogether.
The protesters filed out of the meeting and after a brief pause outside the chamber’s doors where they yelled and chanted, danced and several banged on those doors, went back onto the street and City Hall Plaza chanting, “We shut, Sh-- down. We shut, Sh-- down.”
Then, the council began its meeting in earnest.