The Durham County commissioners will consider rules for public demonstrations on county property during their work session Tuesday.
The proposal follows up on a letter from Sheriff Mike Andrews last summer in which he called for “simple and common-sense” measures to handle demonstrations after hundreds of people gathered downtown Aug. 18 amid rumors that white supremacists were marching toward Durham.
The march never happened, but three people brought an ax, gun and semi-automatic weapon downtown, and the event led to some offices and businesses closing early.
“I hope never to see again such reckless disregard for human life during a purportedly peaceful demonstration,” Andrews wrote in the Aug. 31 letter to county and city leaders.
The proposal for the commissioners’ work session requires groups that want to demonstrate within or on county buildings and grounds to notify the county via its website within 48 business hours of any event “if the group will be 50 or more individuals or has the potential of 50 or more individuals.”
The county’s Department of General Services will review and provide confirmation of the notification, which will allow local law enforcement and other government agencies to prepare, according to the draft policy.
The meeting begins at 9 a.m. in the commissioners chambers at 200 E. Main St. Community members may speak to the board for three minutes each during a public-comments period that starts the work session.
The sheriff’s letter also followed a demonstration outside the old courthouse Aug. 14 in which protesters toppled and damaged a Confederate statue. That protest, attended by several dozen people, was in response to the clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, that weekend between white supremacists and counterprotesters in which one woman was killed.
‘Make it go away’
Durham activist Greg Williams was in Charlottesville and has also protested in Durham, both as local coordinator of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union and with the Inside-Outside Alliance, which advocates for inmates at the Durham County jail.
Williams says the proposal would restrict people’s right to protest.
“They know they can’t criminalize it, but they also want to make it go away,” he said Monday
Protests like the Aug. 18 counterdemonstration are often spontaneous or very quickly organized, he said, making much advance notice impossible.
“That’s not uncommon when there’s a death in the jail or a major crisis that calls for an immediate response,” Williams said. “Oftentimes there’s a real-life situation on the ground in which we’re trying to intervene.”
Trespassing and removal
The protest notification is included in a broader county facility-use policy the commissioners will review Tuesday. Among other rules, it spells out hourly costs for renting county buildings and lists banned items – tobacco, illegal drugs, animals except for service animals, profanity, and skateboarding, unless it is a county-sponsored event.
Groups that fail to notify the county of protests of 50 or more people may be considered trespassing and removed by law enforcement.
The proposed policy also states that any damage to county grounds or items on county grounds may lead to criminal or civil charges.
The latter rule appears to respond to some public responses the sheriff received after charging protesters accused of toppling the Confederate statue. City Council member Charlie Reece, for example, has said he asked Andrews to reconsider the felony charges lodged against some of the protesters.
Those charges were participation in a riot with property damage in excess of $1,500 and inciting others to riot where there is property demand in excess of $1,500. Reece questioned whether the statue of the soldier – which he called a “hunk of junk metal” – was worth $1,500, the felony threshold.
The proposed policy also includes a requirement that any fliers, posters or other advertisements for an event on county property include a statement that reads, in part, “The views and beliefs of this event do not necessarily reflect those of Durham County Government. This is not a Durham County sponsored event.”
In his August letter, the sheriff also called on the city to enforce its permit process for closing or blocking streets and sidewalks. When groups fail to secure required permits, he called on the city to “disband those individuals and charge them appropriately.”
The county proposal does not include that language but does say when protests on county property do spill onto city streets and sidewalks “all city ordinances and state statutes should apply.”
The most current city language was unavailable Monday, but in 2014, after three protests following the death of Riverside High School student Jesus Huerta in police custody, the city outlined rules of conduct based on city and state regulations.
The then council, of which only current Mayor Steve Schewel still serves, approved a statement that said:
▪ anyone wishing to march on public streets must obtain a parade permit and march only during daylight
▪ demonstrators shall not impede traffic on city streets or wear masks or hoods that conceal their identity
▪ demonstrators shall not damage property, commit assaults or possess dangerous weapons including rocks
▪ demonstrators shall not enter Police Department headquarters and substation parking lots and grassy areas