Mayor Bill Bell repeated Thursday that demonstrators in Durham need to obey protest guidelines the City Council approved last February.
“There is no question persons have right to participate in peaceful protest and civil disobedience,” Bell said. “Persons from Durham or outside Durham ... as long as they do it by the rules of conduct.”
Bell was speaking during a discussion with council members about several recent demonstrations that have led to dozens of arrests. Their discussion came at the end of their regular work session, where earlier a large number of audience members staged a brief demonstration before leaving.
Demonstrators sang, “Which side are you on? We’re on freedom’s side!” then read statements about a number of famous civil-rights figures, including Harriett Tubman and Martin Luther King, who engaged in civil disobedience and confronted police.
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“This ends today and black lives matter!” one person said. “It is our duty to fight for our freedom.”
The demonstrators, who had filled the City Hall committee room to standing-room only, went out singing, “Which side are you on?” a phrase used as the subject line of numerous emails sent to council members earlier this week.
Bell, in the later discussion, said the emails were hard to answer because the writers gave no choices of sides. He commended council members Steve Schewel and Eddie Davis, however, for replies they had written.
Davis had written, in part, “ As a person who has been involved in many protest movements, I support and advocate for responsible demonstrations. ... I “simultaneously” stand tall for civil liberties ... and ... for civic responsibility.”
The recent protests have come after authorities in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City declined to prosecute white police officers who killed black suspects Michael Brown Jr. and Eric Garner.
Five of the protests involved demonstrators blocking streets – twice impeding the Durham Freeway. According to police, demonstrators have set off fireworks, thrown rocks and sticks at officers and verbally taunted police.
Citizens have also complained to council members about police brutality toward some protesters, though others have complaints about the protests themselves and what they consider the city’s leniency.
Comments “pretty much run the gamut,” Bell said.
In an email to Councilwoman Diane Catotti this week, City Attorney Patrick Baker said he had heard that police officers had expressed concern that they were being “set up for confrontation” by the city’s allowing protestors to illegally block streets.
Baker wrote that he had told officers that there is a “balancing test” authorities must consider when deciding “when to disperse a generally peaceful protest.”
Bell made a similar point Thursday afternoon, referring to the crowd on hand for the demonstration earlier in the meeting.
“I’m sure we violated some fire rules. People decided to do what they wanted to do. I could have said (they) were out of order, but that’s the kind of confrontation I think some people wanted. We’ve got to be mindful of that,” he said.
During Monday night’s regular council meeting Bell had also reminded the public of the conduct rules approved in the wake of protests after Durham teenager Jesus Huerta fatally shot himself while in police custody in November 2013.
The guidelines require marchers using the streets to obtain parade permits; current city policy is not to issue permits for nighttime parades, but the city code does not prohibit them. Baker, who went over the guidelines for council members, said nothing forbids nighttime demonstrations as long as they are not done on the streets.
“Because you’d be obstructing traffic, which is against the law,” Baker said.
Council members talked but made no decisions about informing the public better what the city’s protest guidelines are. One suggestion was posting temporary signs at CCB Plaza, where several demonstrations have gone peacefully and others have begun before crowds took to the streets.
“We’ve got to get this message out,” Bell said. “People need to understand what those rules are and what the consequences are.”