A group of demonstrators, including a city councilwoman, rallied Monday night against the new police headquarters planned for East Main Street.
About 175 people, including student activists arriving from a national meeting in Raleigh in two charter buses, blocked traffic for about 90 minutes outside the existing Durham Police Headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street. Police stood by, watched and diverted motorists. There were no arrests.
“The police say they want new toys. The police say they want a new building,” said community organizer Nia Wilson of Durham’s Spirit House.
“We say we want new schools,” she continued. “We say we want affordable housing. We say no one should be homeless in this town. We say no one should be hungry in this town. We say everyone deserves to make a livable wage.”
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The rally was organized by the Black Youth Project 100 Durham chapter and Say Her Name Collective, a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, with help from Southerners on New Ground, a regional queer liberation organization.
The protesters invoked the names of people of color who have died in police-related shootings, including Jesus Huerta, the Riverside High student who shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, and La’Vante Biggs, who was fatally shot by police after pointing an air gun that looked like a real gun at officers.
The City Council is moving ahead with plans for the new building, with construction tentatively set to start this fall or winter. It will house the Police Department and Emergency Communications.
The current headquarters was built in 1957 as offices for a life insurance company, according to the city’s General Services Department. Studies of both departments in 2001, 2006 and 2012 each found crowding, outdated electrical and mechanical systems and no space for future service and staff growth.
Originally estimated at $62.4 million, the cost of the new building was up to $80.9 million last fall, though design changes could save $9.6 million, city officials have said.
Last month council members approved a charcoal brick and terracotta metal design for thebuilding, which features a large glass atrium on the corner that the project architect described as a symbolic gesture of openness.
But some community members still oppose the project because of its cost and location on Main Street between Golden Belt and the East Durham area and the city’s resurgent downtown. In 2013, The N.C. Central University trustees asked the city to build a headquarters off Fayetteville Street, saying it would be an asset there and give students greater security.
“There’s a lot more we can do with $81 million,” said Max Davis, president of the Durham City Workers Union, who said part of the money could be used to pay local government workers aliving wage of $15 per hour.
“More of my (fellow) city workers would be here if they weren’t working two and three jobs,” Davis told the rally crowd. “$81 million just seems like a ridiculous amount of money to waste.”
City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson, who made police accountability a priority in her successful campaign last year, said it’s not too late to reverse course.
“There are seven people on City Council, so we need three more,” to change their minds, she said.
In an interview Tuesday, Johnson said the city could renovate the existing headquarters for less money or still choose another location.
“People felt it was the best of a lot of bad options,” she said. “Nobody really felt very excited about putting the police station on Main Street, but for some reason it’s happening anyway.”
The city disputes that renovating the current headquarters is feasible.
“Although a series of renovations have already taken place, façade, roofing, elevators, bathrooms, electrical and mechanical systems are all nearing the end of their useful life,” according to an email Wednesday from the General Services Department, which called protential upgrades “cost-prohibitive.”
But Johnson said she opposes the new headquarters for another reason as well.
The location also sends the wrong message to the people of East Durham, she said Tuesday, echoing speakers at the previous night’s rally.
“It feels like what the city is saying is well, these are the people who need to be policed, so let’s put a police station in that community.”
Wilson, a veteran organizer, said the groups will continue their fight.
“The ground hasn’t been broken; the building hasn’t been built,” she said. “If the city wants to do what the people want, they can stop it.”