The first publicly funded police force began in St. Parish, South Carolina in 1704. Its purpose was to catch enslaved people who had run away and to maintain discipline in the forced-labor camps known as plantations.
Small wonder that 35 years later, about 100 captives—reportedly kidnapped from the Kingdom of the Kongo—led an insurrection known as the Stono Rebellion in the South Carolina colony. About 25 colonists and 40 insurrectionists were killed in the uprising. It led to the Negro Act of 1740, which made it illegal for enslaved Africans to move abroad, gather in groups, raise food, earn money, or learn to write. It also gave people the right to kill those they had enslaved if they rebelled.
Centuries later that dark melody resounded when James Baldwin wrote that the police presence in Black communities was akin to the occupation of foreign troops that viewed Black citizens as suspects instead of as people they had sworn to serve and protect.
“And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population,” Baldwin wrote in “A Report from Occupied Territory.” Police “are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country that makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.”
And while much has changed since Baldwin penned his essay in 1966, one thing has not: Police are still killing Black people.
George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer spurred a national conversation about persistent inequalities in policing that culminated in two weeks of mostly peaceful protests with catchphrases like “Defund the Police” scrawled on thousands of handwritten signs.
But what might dismantling the current system of policing look like, and more specifically, what might it look like in Durham?
Young activists are working to figure that out. From the Black Youth Project 100 to Durham Beyond Policing Coalition, this group of mostly Millennials is at the forefront of re-imagining what public safety means in our community.
This week, Durham Beyond Policing Coalition asked the city council members not to approve a 5 percent increase to the police department’s budget and instead invest in social and community-based programs that are viable structural alternatives to policing and incarceration.
Activists point out that the police department’s $68 million draft budget—about half of the city’s entire General Fund—is so much more substantial than the $18.9 million slated for funds that go toward eviction diversion and affordable housing.
This time, the city’s elected leaders are listening and taking action. In a statement Monday, Mayor Steve Schewel responded by calling on his fellow city council members to approve an initial investment of $1 million for a new vision of community safety. A portion of it will be used to support the work of BYP100’s Community Safety and Wellness Task Force. The lion’s share will go toward implementing the task force’s recommendations.
BYP100 was at the forefront of a rally this month in downtown Durham where hundreds of people clad in black marched to the county jail and demanded the defunding of the police department and an end to the prison-industry pipeline. Residents housed inside of the detention center banged their windows in a show of solidarity.
Durham has made some reforms in recent years. They include requiring written consent for vehicle searches, expanding misdemeanor diversion and access to U visas, deprioritizing misdemeanor marijuana offenses, and emphasizing crisis intervention, racial equity, and de-escalation training.
But what’s really needed, Schewel said in a statement Monday, is a set of “community safety institutions that don’t involve the police.”
“We anticipate that these new institutions will be able to prevent violence, peacefully intervene and stop ongoing violence, and be able to take on work that is currently performed by the police, including responding to crisis calls.”
City officials have also committed to “review and reform” the police department’s use-of-force policies over the next 90 days.
Durham Sheriff Clarence Birkhead and Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis have not yet said if their departments intend to adopt the recommendations that BYP100 shared at the summit. But Schewel’s statement, crafted with the help of council member Jillian Johnson, mirrors Durham Beyond Policing’s recommendations, including transferring 911 calls to mental-health professionals for residents who struggle with mental illness, addressing domestic violence by creating safe houses across the city, and providing de-escalation workshops that move toward transformative justice so that residents who call for help will have options other than riot gear and guns.
Since its formation in 2016, BYP100 and DBP have become powerful voices in the city’s policing and public-safety plans. In 2016, the city council approved a plan to spend more than $80 million to build a new police headquarters on East Main Street. BYP100 members questioned why the police are constantly able to get funding, while the needs of impoverished neighborhoods, like the Liberty Street public-housing apartments just across the street around the corner, or McDougald Terrace, where residents contend with the threat of carbon monoxide, are ignored (see page 10).
The group points to a survey they conducted with Durham residents who said affordable housing, healthcare access, well-paying jobs, and better transportation were needed to keep their communities safe.
BYP100 members also point to the glaring racial disparities in policing methods and policies “that have cost thousands of people their freedom and resulted in many lives taken from our communities.”
In calling for an end to the police militarization, the Durham Beyond Policing’s proposal lists residents who have died at the hands of the police since 2010, and 14 more who died while in custody at the county jail between 2008 and 2018.
“It’s about putting our dollars where our values are,” Durham BYP100 chapter co-founder Chanelle Croxton told the INDY. “City workers are cut out because there’s a budget shortfall, but the police budget is increased.”
Last year, DBP members presented detailed research to city council members who decided not to fund the police chief’s request for additional officers and instead raised the salaries of the city’s part-time employees.
At the center of the coalition’s work is its proposal for a Community Wellness Task Force, which Schewel supports, that will research wellness models here in Durham and in other cities, particularly southern cities.
Croxton hopes that Durham, with its history of civil rights and progressive politics, will serve as a social justice model for other towns and cities across the state.
“We need that spark,” she said. “If Minneapolis can do it, we can do it.”
“Police departments only function to control Black and brown people’s bodies,” and to protect the interests of capitalism,” Croxton added. “It’s an antagonistic vision of a free society. Police institutions are about violent control. That’s not necessarily the place where folk can live, can live well, and can live in harmony. They say there are steps we can take together to work and live harmoniously with the police, and we know we cannot.”
It won’t happen overnight, Croxton said, but it really is about the deep work to eventually eliminate the elimination of police departments, jails, prison, and our reliance on systems of punishment as a solution to social problems and punitive criminal justice.
“That is the north star of this movement,” she said.
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