Downtown Durham store owners prepared for a hurricane that didn’t happen.
On Monday, local shop keepers should have been celebrating the reopening of businesses that have been shuttered since March because of COVID-19. Instead, they were putting up sheets of plywood across their windows after hearing rumors of a massive protest—more than one thousand people arriving in Durham to demand justice for George Floyd.
Word was the coming demonstration would bring the protesters who tore Raleigh a new one over the weekend. They were coming to the Bull City after the capital city announced an 8:00 p.m. curfew in response to the weekend’s unrest.
“We opened for about five minutes,” Michael Lee, who works at Taberna Tapas said on Monday. “We saw everybody boarding up and figured it was better to be safe than sorry. We got a good thing going here. I hope the protesters can be heard and be peaceful at the same time.”
Lucy Stokes, a general contractor who owns a string of buildings that house businesses in Five Points, said a downtown restaurant owner sent out a call about the protests at 2:00 p.m. Monday.
Stokes worried that the demonstration could turn ugly. She hired Cody Kuntz, the owner of C and K Construction Company in Durham, to board up the businesses.
“It’s so sad,” Stokes said about the possibility of property damage. “Because the focus is not where it should be. It looks like Durham is about to follow suit with what we’ve seen in Raleigh.”
By 6:00 p.m., a number of downtown business owners had already nailed up sheets of plywood across their windows.
“We’ve just been working our way down the street,” said Kuntz, who used long 2-by-4-inch planks of wood to frame the plywood in front of the windows. Kuntz explained that the planks would brace the plywood sheets.
“We don’t want to make it too easy for [the plywood] to be pulled off,” he said.
David Scarborough, who owns SciMed Solutions, put up five sheets of plywood across his business and spray-painted “Black Lives Matter” across the storefront.
“I’m hoping this is for nothing,” he said. “But I would hate not to do nothing and then realize I could have done something and I didn’t.”
Meanwhile, the coming storm—hundreds of black-clad, mostly white protesters—had gathered in front of the Carolina Theatre after disrupting traffic on Highway 147.
The business owners worried that outsiders—members of Antifa, anarchists, even alt-right creeps—had arrived to wreak havoc. This thought disgusted me: “Man, where are Durham’s Crips and Bloods when you need them?” I asked aloud.
I’m mindful that American police departments’ origins as publicly funded agencies date back to 1704, when South Carolina formed slave patrols to apprehend enslaved people who ran off from the forced labor camps they called plantations. I am also aware of how a slave-patrol sensibility still informs modern policing methods as a form of urban warfare that targets the Black man.
Still, I was peeved.
Raleigh, Wilmington, Charlotte, and Fayetteville had all seen damage and vandalism to their cities. That’s cool. I understand. Most days, I feel like chucking a brick in the face of the status quo, too. But Durham has chosen a different approach. And we sure as hell didn’t need any outsiders rolling in to destroy our city because Raleigh had enacted a curfew.
I pulled alongside a rank-and-file police officer sitting in his patrol car in a parking lot across from the McDonald’s. I rolled down my window.
“Hey man,” I said. “Don’t let these people tear our city up tonight.”
You can’t judge a book by its cover. (An adage the cops in Minneapolis and law enforcement agencies across the country would do well to remember when they see Black people as suspects instead of people to protect.)
Turns out the crowd in front of the Carolina Theatre were mostly members of BYP100, a millennial group that last year presented detailed data to city council members that persuaded them to increase the pay of part-time city workers to $15 an hour instead of approving the police chief’s request for additional officers.
The protesters marched to the detention center to demand the release of all people held in custody, while those imprisoned inside banged on their windows in solidarity. Wary of a pandemic that had not been canceled, I went home.
I returned to downtown Durham around about midnight. I hoped for the best and prayed against the worst. Someone had hurled bricks through the windows of the Main Street pharmacy and the Old Havana Sandwich Shop. It wasn’t a perfect game but I’ll settle for a two-hitter. (I miss the Durham Bulls.) There was no widespread destruction.
For the moment, Durham’s activists are continuing in the path of earlier civil rights movement strategies that led to the Voting Rights Act and major civil rights legislation that dramatically changed this country.
I woke up Tuesday morning singing the Stylistics’ “You’re As Right As Rain” in tribute to the Durham demonstrators who moved with the spirit of development instead of destruction. Later that morning, one of my children, AJ Williams, a member of BYP100, sent me a video tribute of the Durham demonstrators, accompanied by Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”
The Durham protesters are on point: We gon’ be alright.
I’m finishing up this post while listening to Sekou Sundiata’s poem, “Come on and Bring on the Reparations.”
It’s time, Durham, for this country to acknowledge its past. Payment is way past due.
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at email@example.com.
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