This is a work in progress, and there is much more I need to learn. Since I was not present at the demonstrations downtown on Dec. 5 or more recently on Swift Avenue, I have had to rely on the reports of others – police, demonstrators, reporters and spectators – to come as close as I can to the truth about those events. I’ve talked to a lot of people, watched a lot of videos, read a lot of emails and Facebook posts. Now I’m ready to write about what I know and believe, and I look forward to hearing from you about this.
Here is the most important thing I know: The demonstrations in Durham following the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case are heartfelt, legitimate and important expressions of grief and outrage. The desire to interrupt business-as-usual, to force people to face the injustices of our criminal justice system, is real, and I admire the people who have taken on this work. This moment demands our attention to racial injustice and our commitment to fight it. Durham can lead this crucial work, and we must.
The second important thing I know is that the charges about “outside agitators” deny a critical truth about these demonstrations: They are homegrown, right here in Durham. I know many Durham people who have been participating. Some are veterans of many political actions; but most of the ones I know are young, first-time demonstrators whose hearts are full to bursting with the injustices they know exist in our society and feel they must make their voices heard. Indeed, it is true that there are people from inside and outside Durham who are on the Internet urging reckless behavior on the demonstrators (more on that below). But these demonstrations are not the product of those Internet posts. They are the product of the ideals, hopes and dreams of Durham’s young people for a society where racial injustice is a thing of the past, where #BlackLivesMatter.
To deny the legitimacy and authenticity of these cries for justice is to deny the future that we all need to embrace.
After the death of Jesus Huerta last year, I criticized our police department for what I considered their overly aggressive response to the demonstration on the plaza. What I see now in the department’s response to the demonstrations is a much more complicated picture.
On the one hand, I believe there has been at least one time when our officers acted with too much aggressive force. On the other hand, I think they have worked hard to improve their practices from the Huerta march last year, and I think they have succeeded, often performing their incredibly difficult task with admirable patience and restraint under severe duress during the recent demonstrations.
A few days ago I had a 90-minute conversation with a young woman who was arrested on Foster Street on the night of Dec. 5. She wants her name kept private, so I will simply call her Mary. I knew Mary because I had spoken to a class at Duke for which she was the professor’s assistant. She is gentle, determined and totally trustworthy.
The events surrounding the arrests of Mary and others that night are contested. Police say that they gave ample and loud warning for the demonstrators to disperse. Mary and other demonstrators I trust claim they never heard these warnings. Mary says she was shocked when she saw an officer throw a young woman to the ground by her hair. Mary says that she then herself asked the officer to tell her his badge number and was immediately thrown hard to the ground – hard enough to lose a shoe and her glasses. She said a knee was put into her stomach from underneath her while two other officers handcuffed her. She was hurt, shocked and bruised. I believe her. I believe another witness who saw this happen. I believe this is unnecessary use of force. I believe we must not have this in Durham.
And yet there is another truth about that night. For three hours the Durham police reacted with great flexibility, calm and patience as they escorted the marchers throughout downtown. The marchers were switching directions unpredictably, blocking streets, disrupting traffic, and, at one point, jumped fences and blocked 147. Some – few! – marchers hurled sticks and rocks at the cops. Several officers were hit, and one officer I know well and respect greatly was struck hard in the chest by a rock.
The police didn’t arrest the demonstrators who blocked the downtown streets for hours. They didn’t arrest the demonstrators who blocked the highway. At DPAC, they arrested a few people (six, I understand) who tried to force their way through the police line there and disrupt the show in progress.
I admire this work by the police under tremendous pressure. I believe that for the great majority of the protest over a very difficult three-hour period, our police officers acted with good judgment and restraint under duress. Then, on Foster Street, five minutes of bad decisions and unnecessary force marred the night.
Here’s the point: Since the marches following the death of Jesus Huerta, our police department has made significant strides in its handling of demonstrations. Still, they need to continue to do better. The department’s leadership needs to evaluate the use of force, minimize the use of force, and give ample warning before arrests are made. I have confidence that they will do this.
I have a plea to demonstrators as well, and it involves civil disobedience. I have participated in hundreds of demonstrations in my 63 years. I never got to march with Dr. King, but I marched with his compatriots including C.T. Vivian and Fred Shuttlesworth. I have linked arms with Father Philip Berrigan and Sister Elizabeth McAlister to block the Pentagon. I was arrested at Moral Monday last summer. After one act of civil disobedience, I went to jail for eight days.
I list these bona fides only to claim solidarity with those who are committing civil disobedience in Durham now. Sometimes, I believe, civil disobedience is warranted, even necessary.
But as you disobey, I beg you to do so peacefully, lovingly. Civil disobedience must not mean intentionally provoking the police, or dehumanizing them, or making them the other, or resisting them when they come to arrest you for blocking a street.
I know many police officers well. Three times this year I have ridden along with young police officers on a Saturday night. I have watched them make difficult split-second decisions on each ride-along, officers no older than the young demonstrators, officers putting themselves into dangerous situations on our behalf. We need to respect and support these men and women who are doing their best to keep us safe.
I have one more plea. There are, indeed, disturbing posts on the web which include threats to Durham police officers and calls to confront them with violence. I have read these posts. There have been demonstrators who have chosen a violent response, who have attempted to provoke our officers into making a mistake. My plea is for the great mass of demonstrators whose motives are pure to separate themselves from those who would do harm, who would provoke violence if they could. It is the obligation of all of us to reject them.
What is happening here in Durham with the police is part of a national effort for reform, as you all know. I am proud of the actions the city council took recently to reform our practices of racially disproportionate car searches, including our decision to require written consent for any consent searches. It puts us way out in front of most cities in the nation. Now we need to make that work. And we need to continue to work with our police department to make sure that our officers know how to handle demonstrations – even very, very challenging ones – without mistreating people.
We need to hold our police department to the highest standards of behavior –and we need to thank them and support them when they do their difficult work with skill and patience.
I believe Durham can lead this work.
I welcome your thoughts.
Steve Schewel is a member of the Durham City Council.