Durham Black liberation minister Paul Scott has often been the city’s Socratic gadfly that calls attention to grassroots issues with a biting commentary that pierces the skin of an elephantine local government.
Last month, the slim, bespectacled minister posted a YouTube video accusing Elaine O’Neal, the city’s first Black woman to serve as mayor, of secretly meeting with gang members amid her ongoing effort to curb the city’s gun violence epidemic.
The YouTube video begins with Scott standing behind a podium draped in a flag featuring the Pan-Africanist red, black, and green colors, alongside shelves stocked with books. He announces that he wants to discuss an issue “that people in Durham are talking about.”
“They are talking about the secret meetings that our mayor Elaine O’Neal is involved in and members of the city council are involved [in] to stop the violence in Durham, to stop the shootings in Durham,” Scott says. “That’s the purpose. But some of us have a problem with that strategy … because it’s secret meetings that’s got the Black community in the condition that it’s in right now.”
“Should the mayor of a city be involved in secret meetings and not talking to the press and not keeping the community informed? No!” Scott says during the little-over-20-minute video. He adds that the murders of Black leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were the result of secret meetings.
Scott later says that O’Neal was asked why she’s not talking publicly about the gun violence and that the mayor said she’s “having meetings with gangs, with the streets, and [that the gang members] don’t trust the government.”
The accusation incensed O’Neal.
“There have been no secret meetings,” she told the INDY. “More than 100 people have attended a retreat that we held with gang members at [city council member] Mark-Anthony Middleton’s church.”
Middleton, an ordained pastor, says the retreat took place at his church shortly after O’Neal became mayor-elect.
“It was done before she was sworn in,” says Middleton, adding that the purpose of the retreat was to hear from officials with Hayti Reborn, an initiative that envisions a vibrant residential, educational, and economic district along the historically Black Fayetteville Street Corridor. Middleton says about 100 people, including media, were at the retreat.
“There were some folk there who I definitely recognized as gang members,” Middleton says. “Was the mayor-elect interacting with them? Absolutely. Because of her rapport, the mayor has an ability to navigate in spaces the rest of us don’t have. You can be aghast, but you can’t be surprised.”
Durham County sheriff Clarence Birkhead this week told the INDY that it’s not unusual for him to meet with residents “one on one, two on two, with the understanding that we can accomplish a lot together.”
He added that sometimes the work to stop gun violence calls for “strange bedfellows. We have to come at it in a different way. Traditional methods don’t always work.”
“And certainly Mayor O’Neal has a long history of community advocacy, and certainly a knowledge of the streets of Durham that contributes to her ability to do the work,” the sheriff later added.
Gang-fueled violence in Durham, and in much of the country, has been a major issue during the pandemic. Over the past two years, the city reached a dismal plateau of more than 800 shootings and last year tallied a record number of homicides.
O’Neal is a lifelong Durham native who still lives in the modest red-brick home her father built in the same West End neighborhood where Scott gives away books. Soon after O’Neal announced early last year that she was running for mayor, she made clear that she wanted to make a difference in the lives of young people, who in the past stood before her in the courtroom when she was a judge, and are now dying or at risk of dying from gun violence in the streets. Voters heard O’Neal. She won with 85 percent of the vote.
Three months into office, O’Neal has taken the step of personally interacting with some of the city’s ranking gang members.
She shared with the INDY some of what’s taking place behind the scenes. The work is revealing, and astonishing:
A large quantity of drugs went missing and gang members made calls to other states in order to prevent bloodshed in the Bull City, she says. There was a night when young men who were “riding six deep in a car, fully armed, locked and loaded,” were intent on carrying out a revenge shooting. A community leader “made a call [to the gang members] and that was quashed.” A mom and her children had to flee to a nearby county because gunmen were threatening to shoot up her apartment while looking for one of her children. In order to ensure the family’s safety, a call was made to “the guys,” who went to the woman’s apartment and helped her retrieve clothing and other items after she and her children moved out.
“I’m working harder than I have ever worked in my life to stop this violence,” O’Neal says. “I can’t put these boys on TV for media fodder. Every night no one gets shot, these men are doing their job. That’s not fair to them, and the government has done nothing for them. It puts their lives in danger and it puts me in danger too. We ain’t playing. This is dangerous work.”
O’Neal added that difficult economic circumstances are compounding the issues young people in Durham are facing.
“These are awful times,” she says. “These guys can’t get decent housing. They can’t get jobs. How much are they being paid? Nothing. It’s been a mess. They have been neglected for so long. And [Scott] wants to intellectualize. Well, come do it yourself. Come on over here, make a phone call, and tell them to stop the violence. Go ahead. Make a phone call.”
Middleton, the city’s mayor pro tem, says it’s important to remember that O’Neal during her campaign said she would not have the same media footprint as the city’s past two mayors, Steve Schewel and William “Bill” Bell, who made regular media appearances.
“No one should be surprised,” he says. “She made it clear during her campaign that she would do a different mode of mayoring.”
Middleton added that O’Neal didn’t say she would never talk to the media about the city’s gun violence.
“But right now, with the people she’s working with, she doesn’t want to spook them,” he explains. “The mayor is being who she said she would be.”
About a week after Scott posted his video, he says O’Neal’s assistant phoned him and said the mayor wanted to meet with him.
O’Neal and Scott met on March 8 at Franklin Village, an apartment complex on North Blacknall Street. O’Neal was accompanied by two gang members and Brenda Howerton, the chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners.
Howerton could not be reached for comment, but O’Neal and Scott both agreed on one thing: the meeting did not go well.
“Let me put it this way,” Scott says. “Like Michelle Obama said, ‘When they go low. We go high.’”
“He asked the gang members, ‘Where are the guns coming from?’” O’Neal says. “That’s exactly what they don’t want, is a political stunt.”
Scott says he wasn’t trying to put the gang members on blast. He says the ubiquitous presence of guns in African American neighborhoods is part of “a larger genocide agenda” targeting the Black community.
“That’s where that question came from,” he explains. “The guns didn’t fall out of thin air. They’re coming from somewhere, and until we get to the root of that cause, we can’t find the solution.”
O’Neal says Scott brought up the importance of exposing young gang members to books about the Black experience.
“[The gang members] told him, ‘These kids aren’t ready for books. They are trying to survive.’”
Scott disagrees. He says it’s important not to “parrot the talking heads on Fox News.”
“I think these young people on the streets, at least the ones I deal with, want knowledge and information,” he says.
O’Neal, a pioneering judge and retired interim dean of the NC Central University School of Law, says Scott pulled out a copy of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
“I told him, ‘Yeah, I got The New Jim Crow,’” O’Neal says. “I lived that system.”
O’Neal says Scott got into an argument with the gang members, and then he told her she had brought the two gang members along for protection.
“I told him I brought them along to explain what was happening,” she says.
The mayor said Scott, toward the end of the meeting, wanted her to be more specific after he asked why she thinks Black people don’t trust the government.
That’s when the bottom fell out of the planned private meeting.
“I told him the answer I gave was all he was going to get,” she says. “He persisted in being argumentative and I lost my cool. I went on a rant about how I had walked these streets, and just two years ago eulogized one of my young cousins who had been killed on these streets and he wasn’t the first of my family members to die on these streets, and I said, ‘I don’t have time for this.’
“I told him, this is the answer: ‘I am the fucking government,’ and I walked out.”
Scott told the INDY that despite the way the meeting went, he and the mayor have the same “end goal.”
“I would like a city council that reflects the interests in the area, like the HBCUs,” he says, “and not one that reflects the Three 6 Mafia.”
“I don’t think it’s useful for an elected official to not be open to criticism from Durham’s citizens,” he later added. “We want elected officials who will answer the tough questions.”
Make no mistake: while Scott and O’Neal approach the topic of gun violence differently, both have the Bull City’s best interest at heart.
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 email@example.com.