Days after an ugly, profane standoff this month at Durham City Hall between Durham’s mayor pro tem Mark-Anthony Middleton and council member DeDreana Freeman, a source who witnessed the confrontation tells the INDY that Freeman punched two council members, including the mayor, while trying to attack the mayor pro tem after the March 23 work session.
Of four people involved in or confirmed to have witnessed the confrontation, two confirm this source’s accounting of the events to the INDY.
Freeman has not publicly disclosed nor denied the reports that, along with the litany of profanities she shouted at Middleton, she tried to attack him when they ended up in a room next to the city council dais out of the view of the WRAL camera that chronicled audio of the incident.
While in the adjoining room, Freeman threw down the items she was carrying, including a bottle of water, and “went after,” or tried to physically attack Middleton, according to the eyewitness source who asked to remain anonymous.
Instead of landing punches on Middleton, Freeman ended up punching council member Leonardo Williams twice in the face. The eyewitness source says Freeman also struck mayor Elaine O’Neal once in the face when the former judge tried to intervene.
The source says Middleton and Freeman were in a room behind the council chambers when she first “went after” Middleton by “putting her finger on his chest.
“Mark-Anthony never touched her,” the source tells the INDY.
The mayor told Middleton, “If you’ll be quiet, she’ll be quiet,” according to the source.
“DeDreana was still shouting. She tried to hit Mark. She swung several times,” the source says.
The source says Freeman did not calm down until Williams, with tears in his eyes, restrained her by pinning her to a wall in city hall.
It was late Tuesday night when the INDY first learned that Freeman reportedly had to be restrained from attacking Middleton. That night, Freeman responded to a request from the INDY for comment and stated via text message that she has a civic duty to honor “the implicit contract between the government and the people.”
Freeman added that as a member of the city council she is “held to an even greater charge as a mother and role model.”
Freeman described the fracas between her and Middleton as an “unfortunate moment off-the-record” that was “made for public fodder.
“There is never an excuse for profanity,” she said.
When the INDY asked in a follow up if she had to be physically restrained from attacking Middleton, she sent the following in a text:
“Please [refer] to my statement. Have a good evening.”
The INDY on Friday followed up with an email to Freeman detailing the source’s eyewitness account of what transpired. “…We all need to remain focused on the work and moving forward,” Freeman wrote in response. She added that she stands firm in her original statement to the INDY last week and had no further comment.
The mayor, along with Middleton and fellow council member Leonardo Williams, all declined to comment when asked about allegations that Freeman was throwing blows in the back room. The council’s three other members—Monique Holsey-Hyman, Jillian Johnson, and Javiera Caballero—were not present in the room where the incident took place.
The roots of the profanity-riddled argument and alleged physical attack were foreshadowed during the work session. About 23 minutes into the meeting, the mayor read a statement from city attorney Kimberly Rehberg announcing that, on March 13, Rehberg informed her and the other council members that a private property developer had reported to a city staffer that a council member running for election in the fall allegedly suggested they would support a private developer’s land use plan if the developer donated to the council member’s election campaign.
The mayor instructed the city attorney to consult with lawyers and faculty members at the UNC School of Government, and consulted with members of the school of government herself, to receive guidance on how to address the allegations.
O’Neal met with council members in small groups on March 20. It was the consensus of the majority of the council members, the mayor said during the meeting, to refer the matter to state law enforcement for potential criminal investigation.
Although the mayor did not identify Holsey-Hyman as the target of the probe, reports identified her as the council member in question.
During those small groups meetings, council members confirmed, they also discussed with the mayor allegations reported to them via emails from city staff that Holsey-Hyman improperly engaged two different city staff members to work on her fall election campaign as well as ways to address those actions.
One such incident is alleged to have happened in September in which Holsey-Hyman, who was appointed unanimously to her current post on May 5 of last year after former council member Charlie Reece moved out of the country with his family, asked a city staffer to research Durham PACs and other organizations related to political campaigns. The other conversation allegedly took place in January; Holsey-Hyman asked a city staffer about potentially working on her campaign if she ran for office this fall. In March, the staffer sent an invitation using their personal social media account to a Holsey-Hyman campaign event during work hours.
To address the allegations, the School of Government recommended options that included referring the matter to the State Bureau of Investigation, investigating internally, formally censuring Holsey-Hyman, or doing nothing, council members said.
Johnson says that, following the small group meetings on March 20 with the mayor, she volunteered to write a resolution censuring Holsey-Hyman in relation to Holsey-Hyman’s behavior with city staff around her political campaign.
The resolution states that Holsey-Hyman “is expected to uphold the public trust of the residents of the City of Durham by following all federal, state, and local laws as well as city policies.”
Additionally, the resolution points to the state’s general statute that “prohibits city employees from engaging in partisan or political activity in the workplace or with city resources, and from using their official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”
In a statement in her defense made during the work session, Holsey-Hyman said, in September, she was trying to gather information from a staff member about different PACs and resources in the city “to educate myself about organizations in Durham.” She said she was informed that the request was considered campaign-related research and that it was dealt with between herself, the staff member, and the staffer’s supervisor.
In the second incident, Holsey-Hyman said, a city staffer discussed their experience as a former candidate and their previous work on city council campaigns and offered to assist Holsey-Hyman if she decided to run for her seat in the fall.
Johnson and other council members told the INDY they assumed the mayor would bring up the resolution during the work session, but when she did not, Johnson says she took the initiative to do so during the “other matters” portion of the council meeting following the day’s work session’s scheduled items.
O’Neal appeared to be irritated by Johnson’s bringing up the resolution.
“Last night, I did receive a draft of a resolution from a council person that had my name down as a signee,” O’Neal told her fellow council members after Johnson read the document. “From my understanding, a resolution had never been signed, and I ask that my name be removed from that resolution.”
O’Neal added that she would “admonish anyone who uses my signature in a manner that I didn’t give permission…to know you do not have permission to do that.”
Johnson says the template she used for the censure resolution was signed by [a different] city’s mayor, “and so my initial draft included a blank line for [Mayor O’Neal’s] signature.”
“It obviously did not include her signature because she would have had to sign it,” Johnson wrote in an email to the INDY. “I removed the blank signature line at her request.”
Still, it looked to some other council members like the mayor was allowing Johnson to take the fall for bringing up the resolution of censure that the majority of council members had agreed upon.
In an email to the INDY Friday, O’Neal said she has “no comments regarding this matter.”
After Johnson—who said during the work session that she “was up until four in the morning literally panicking about this situation”—brought up the resolution to formally censure Holsey-Hyman, Freeman called the proposed resolution “troubling.”
Freeman said during the work session that the manner in which the resolution was used misrepresented Holsey-Hyman and that Holsey-Hyman’s explanation of the staffer receiving approval from the city’s human resources department to assist her with researching local political action committees was “dismissed [by other council members] in a very matter of fact way.”
Freeman said that although women comprise five of the seven city council seats, their comments are “often dismissed whenever a woman is speaking at the [city council] dais.”
Middleton said he took issue “with the bizarre allusion to gender with the number of women on the dais, one of whom holds the gavel, and one of whom wrote this resolution.
“So, as one of two men on the board, what?’ he added. “What does that even mean?”
“You’re a bully,” Freeman replied. “It means stop bullying women. Stop being a bully. Stop being a bully. Stop! Bullying women. That’s what it means.”
“You close to the line,” Middleton replied.
“You close to the line,” Freeman answered.
“Again,” Middleton said, “a female colleague has drafted a resolution about acts that touch on ethics and legality, and there’s five women on the council. So that’s a moment for me that’s hard to follow.”
What followed after the testy work session certainly crossed the line and was truly bizarre, even considering that a raucous brand of democracy is a feature and not an aberration of Bull City politics.
The angry post-work session confrontation between Middleton and Freeman began with the two shouting at each other outside the city hall chambers. O’Neal and city manager Wanda Page were seen on camera leaving the council’s dais, and the mayor tried to placate the heated exchange.
“Hey, hey, hey,” the mayor said in an unsuccessful attempt to squelch the confrontation.
But then four council members walked into the room next to the council dais, where they were out of sight but clearly within earshot. Freeman can be heard loudly telling Middleton, “Get off of me! Get off of me!”
“This is how you treat Black women! This is how you fucking treat Black women, and it hurts!”
“Wait, wait,” O’Neal is heard saying.
“I’m done! I’m done!” Freeman said. “No, I don’t care. ‘Cause he’s full of shit! Full of shit!”
“She listens to you,” Middleton can be heard saying, alluding to Holsey-Hyman. “She listens to you. The mayor listens to you.”
“What she need to listen to me for? She got a fucking brain of her own. She can listen to her damn self!” Freeman replied. “She can think for her fucking self. If you didn’t think she was smart enough, why the fuck did you vote for her [onto the council]? … She’s not fucking dumb. She can think for her fucking self! Just like every single woman here!”
The two minute and 18-second video ended while O’Neal can be heard in the adjoining room calming down the argument between the two council members.
On Tuesday, Middleton wrote in a social media post that, while serving as Durham’s mayor pro tem, “there has been a deliberate, relentless, coordinated, sustained, and mean-spirited attempt to foster a narrative that I am somehow anti-Black Woman.”
He explained that the narrative “has been promulgated by some elected officials and community members in hopes that it would color the public’s perception of me.”
“It is not a large group of people, but it is a very vocal and committed group set on convincing the thousands of Black women and others who voted for me that they have somehow been duped,” he wrote.
Middleton may be referring to a Monday post, headlined “City Council member DeDreanna [sic] Freeman says she will always fight a bully,” and published by the journalist Carl Kenney on his blog.
Kenney wrote that Freeman’s “profanity-filled outburst after a recent city council meeting is her response to the actions of a bully.”
“It matters that Johnson, a Black woman, wrote and read the proposed resolution to censure Holsey-Hyman,” Kenney wrote. “Freeman’s profanity-laced attack, combined with Middleton’s response, places Black women in the center of a conversation involving what it means to protect the hearts of Black women.”
Middleton said the accusations are “a cynical insult of the intelligence of the people of our city, and a dangerous perversion and weaponization of the sacred struggle of the generations of Black Women who have fought to step in the light, including the one who raised me.”
“The mayor needs to lead,” the source, who detailed the March 23 confrontation, says of O’Neal, who was elected in 2021 as the city’s first Black woman mayor. “Her council is falling apart.”
Meanwhile, Middleton says he is “deeply saddened” by the ugly confrontation, adding, “as we near the end of her first term the only legacy for the council [and O’Neal] will be discord and dysfunction.
“I didn’t want that for her.”
The council could vote on the resolution to censure Holsey-Hyman at its regularly-scheduled meeting today.
Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed a quote to the wrong speaker. The story has been updated with the correct attribution.
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