The weekend before last, Steve Chalmers, the Bull City’s police chief from 2003 to 2007, helped organize a cease-fire, with activities taking place Saturday morning at the old Hillside Park. It was part of a community group effort in several Durham neighborhoods to kick off a day of peace at the tail end of one of the city’s deadliest years on record. 

Late at night the Friday before, gunfire erupted near a railroad crossing in the eastern part of town, killing a teen and wounding two other people. By early Sunday morning, police had reported another fatal shooting, of a 24-year-old man in north Durham.

But in between, on a sunny late-morning Saturday, Hillside Park was buzzing with activity. A disc jockey served up old-school rhythm and blues music underneath a picnic shelter. Several food trucks in the parking lot served tacos and fish. A couple of teens tossed a Nerf football, while smaller kids jumped up and down inside a bounce house or romped in and around the playground in the middle of the park. A group of young men hung out along the park fringes. 

Chalmers was among a cadre of current and former elected officials, including former city council member Jackie Wagstaff, current council member DeDreana Freeman, and Durham county commission chair Brenda Howerton. 

The cease-fire was part of a violence prevention project that began two years ago when Chalmers, Durham County district court judge Pat Evans, and Harold Chestnut, a member of Partners Against Crime (PAC)—a city-supported, community-based volunteer organization—came together to create a new partnership, “New Durham Vision,” that’s collaborating with N.C. Central University professor Henry McKoy’s Hayti Reborn project.

“The group started a dialogue with individuals who are involved in gangs and gang activity to find out what’s going on, and what we could do to reduce the activity,” Chalmers told the INDY.

A series of intervention strategies, including jobs, housing, education, and health care opportunities, followed. Chalmers describes the project as a “one-stop shop,” an “ecosystem” designed to reduce violent crime. The initiative focuses on older gang members who have rank in the organizations’ hierarchies.

“They came up with the name ‘New Durham Vision,’” Chalmers explains of the city’s gang-involved men and women with whom the group of community leaders are in contact. Chalmers says mayor-elect Elaine O’Neal has spoken with the group, too, and affirmed addressing gun violence as one of her top priorities when she takes office next month. 

“[O’Neal] contacted me after she announced she was running and said she felt good about her chances,” Chalmers said. “She said the first thing she wanted to do is address violent crime.”

In recent months, Durham leaders have pointed to local gun violence as part of a national trend that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated. With the rise in violent crime, calls nationally and locally for more police have nearly drowned out demands to defund the police following George Floyd’s murder last year. 

By this time in 2020, Durham police had reported a new dismal tally of 882 shootings, 291 people struck by gunfire, and a yearlong total of 37 homicides. But police say this year has been the worst on record for homicides in the Bull City, worse even than bloody 2016, which saw a total of 42 homicides. With a little over a month left in 2021, 43 people have already lost their lives to violence, including the child killed two Fridays ago in East Durham. 

During this month’s cease-fire, police detectives searched for evidence in the 1000 block of Drew Street. Neighbors reported hearing multiple gunshots overnight that had killed the child and wounded two others. Investigators used yellow caution tape to cordon off the shooting scene near the intersection of Drew and Granby Streets. A police patrol car was parked in front of the crime scene tape. A police mobile command center was parked just beyond the railroad tracks in the working-class neighborhood.

Lt. Jackie Werner said it was about 11:18 p.m. Friday, when police arrived in response to reports of gunfire. The officers found two people, both wounded by gunshots, inside a vehicle. Paramedics rushed one of the victims to the hospital with life-threatening injuries. Paramedics pronounced the other victim, the child whose name hasn’t been released, dead at the scene. 

Police found another man “nearby” who had been seriously wounded, Werner said in a press release. He, too, was rushed to the hospital with life-threatening injuries.

While detectives scoured the area for clues, a young couple who had moved into the neighborhood four months earlier worked in their modest yard. She mowed the grass. He used a weed eater to clear the high weeds that encircled a tree stump.

The couple, who declined to give their names, said they were in bed when they heard gunshots on Drew Street, behind their home, at “11:30-ish.”

“Ten or so,” the young man answered when asked how many gunshots he heard.

Other people in the neighborhood told area news outlets they heard as many as 20 to 30 gunshots and that officers put down more than 20 evidence markers along Drew Street during their investigation.

“Is it unusual in this exact location? Yes. But far away? No,” the woman mowing her grass replied when asked if gunfire was a usual occurrence in the neighborhood.

A Hillside High School performance run began on Friday night and ended with a Sunday afternoon matinee. The performances featured a massive, 80-foot-long, 5-foot-wide quilt that lists the names of 910 people who have been murdered in the Bull City since 1994. The quilt was on display in the lobby of the Gattis-Tabb Theatre.

Sidney Brodie, an artist, musician, and writer who grew up in Durham, created the Durham Homicide Memorial Quilt. Brodie says the fatal shooting of two-year-old Shaquana Atwater at the old Few Gardens public housing complex in 1994 inspired the quilt. Brodie was working as a 911 communications officer at the time. 

“The first 100 or so squares were actually sewn on in 1996,” Brodie told the INDY. “This work documents all murders in the city or county of Durham regardless of race, method, or weapon used. Occasionally it’s pointed out that I may have missed a name. Once [the name of the person killed is] confirmed, it’s added in an out-of-sequence status.”

On Saturday evening, Durham County sheriff Clarence Birkhead spoke before students in Hillside High School’s drama department, and theatre director Wendell Tabb staged State of Urgency, a moving, riveting play about social justice issues in Durham and across the country. Prior to Birkhead’s short speech, a group of Durham parents who have lost their children to gun violence also spoke to the audience.

Tabb, a Tony Award–winning educator, told the audience that he wrote the play and then asked his students to submit topics and opinions that were important to them. 

“Listen to their dialogue carefully because it’s young people speaking to you,” Tabb said. “During the civil rights movement it was the voices of the young people wanting change.”

More than 40 young people offered poetry, stories, monologues, songs, and dances, all augmented by music and a collage of videos to share how violence has shaped their lives and world-views. Photos of some of the city’s homicide victims appeared on the stage’s triplex of screens.

The Hillside students spoke of a world unknown to them in the late 1970s, decades before they were born, when neighborhoods were truly neighborly, where their grandparents could leave their doors unlocked, and the children who became their parents could safely play outside. They recalled a music that served as the soundtrack for the period that was life-affirming and in which people cared for one another.

“What happened? What happened to our village?” the performers asked, as the music grew dark, discordant, and uneven. How did the neighborhoods where their families grew up become ’hoods and urban alienation become a reality?

The answers lie with a crack cocaine epidemic, unprecedented gun violence, an AIDS crisis, and an ill-fated “tough on crime” bill that led to the mass incarceration of Black people, along with the wholesale loss of good-paying, blue-collar manufacturing jobs that went overseas. 

The students at the historically Black high school addressed the internal conflicts of race as a consequence of colorism and genderism, “good” hair and homelessness, racism and the racial wealth gap, along with Black Lives Matter and police brutality.

“The world needs rehab!” a performer repeated several times throughout the play. 

“It’s normal to hear gunshots. It’s normal to not trust a system that’s supposed to protect you,” another  said. “It’s normal to see a Black person get killed on TV at night.”

“You won’t let us breathe!” the students shouted in unison and frustration.

As the play ended, a young actor pulled a handgun out of his waistband and shot dead another young man near his home. A second young man armed with a gun chased the shooter through the audience and shot him dead in front of his front door. The slain children’s mothers came outside and sobbed over their bodies. As approaching sirens blared, the police arrived and unfurled yellow caution tape before beginning their search for evidence. The student performers were enacting what had taken place minutes away on Drew Street, the night before.

Before the weekend ended, Durham police reported another fatal shooting in the northern part of town, where officers found a 24-year-old man, Kaleak LaShawn Sanford, lying outside an abandoned car. It was just after 1:30 a.m. in the 2300 block of Lednum Street. Sanford was mortally wounded. Paramedics rushed the Durham man to the hospital, where he later died.

By the following Wednesday, police had not announced an arrest in the weekend shootings.

The Durham Memorial Homicide Quilt went on display Thursday morning in the lobby of the county’s justice center at 510 South Dillard Street. 

Toya Chinfloo, whose daughter Daphne-Lorraine participated in the high school play, said if a white police officer kills a Black person, the community is outraged, “and well we should”—but addressing Black-on-Black violence is within reach.

“We’re more empowered to correct the situation in our own community,” she said.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to