In August 2018, Paul Scott asked the Durham City Council to paint a dilapidated crosswalk in the McDougald Terrace housing project in the Pan-Africanist colors red, black, and green—a way to “instill self-pride” in the impoverished and violence-plagued community, he says.
“I thought it would be a good look for McDougald Terrace,” Scott says. “Maybe if gang members saw those colors, they would lay down their gang colors.”
Scott has often resorted to untraditional means to effect change. A decidedly unorthodox Baptist pastor, former Herald-Sun columnist, and founder of the Black Messiah Movement—which combines black liberation theology with social activism and argues that black communities need to become their own saviors—he spends Sunday afternoons in West Durham handing out books that celebrate black history.
Scott says the city was initially receptive to his sidewalk proposal. Department of Transportation officials assured him “it wouldn’t be a big thing to get done between November and December,” he says.
But then “they moved the carrot,” he says, asking him to get community support. So he started a Change.org petition that garnered about twenty-five signatures.
From there, he says, he was told there needed to be a community meeting “to determine who wanted the crosswalk painted. This is a community who is never asked its opinion on anything.”
Scott says he went through months of phone calls, emails, and meetings, but nothing came of them. Eventually, he decided to put his energy elsewhere.
But in October, Scott began thinking about the crosswalk again when McDougald was the site of one of a string of high-profile shootings that killed two and injured eight in Durham in forty-eight hours.
Then, last month, the neighborhood was again in the public glare after a man was shot to death in broad daylight not far from where Scott wants to paint the crosswalk.
The violence, city council member Mark-Anthony Middleton wrote on Facebook, “is leaving in its wake a trail of young black bodies, heartbroken families, and a frightened community. What is possibly more ominous is that I believe we are creeping up on a dangerous inflection point. That point is where we become desensitized to the gun violence robbing us of our children because it happens so often. … It is time for true organizing and activism.”
It’s easy to dismiss Scott’s proposal to use art to combat violence as an empty gesture. But at the moment, nothing else is stopping the gunfire in McDougald Terrace—not the police substation in the neighborhood, nor the heavy police presence, nor the perpetually closed Bull City United nonprofit, housed in a Ridgeway Street apartment, which aims to reduce gang violence.
Perhaps the crosswalk could serve as a bridge between McDougald residents and city leaders—in synchronicity with Middleton’s call for “true organizing and activism,” or Scott’s plea for besieged communities to become their own saviors.
In any event, it couldn’t hurt.
At a minimum, says Travis Mann, who spends a lot of time in McDougald with his toddler son, the crosswalk would show that city officials are paying attention.
Right now, Mann says, council members only visit “when it’s an election, or when some kid gets shot. As far as them coming out to hear from the community, hell no. So much happens in the projects that doesn’t get televised—every day, literally, something is happening.”
Scott moved his proposal back to the front burner two weeks ago, when Durham officials announced the colorful painting of crosswalks titled “Snapping!, Crackling!, and Popping!,” riffing on the Rice Krispies characters. It’s one of three creative efforts that are part of SmART Durham, the city’s $10 million, multi-year public art and urban design project.
Scott was incensed.
“The only snap, crackle, and pop you hear in the hood are gunshots,” he says. “Carrboro [in 2017] does an LGBTQ crosswalk, and there’s no controversy. It was applauded. But if we want a crosswalk celebrating black history in McDougald Terrace, we have to go through bureaucracy, and it’s not fair.”
For Scott, the crosswalk became a metaphor. City leaders could spend millions for public art but wouldn’t spend a fraction of that on the expression of black pride in one of the city’s most marginalized communities.
So he fired off an email to council members: “You can’t imagine my astonishment when I recently learned that crosswalks are being painted in the gentrified areas downtown. What message does it send to the community when our officials pay more attention to the beautification of downtown than the areas that need it the most? Placing a crosswalk in McDougald Terrace could have helped saved lives instead of giving the well-off in Durham something to gaze at while they walk their poodles and sip Starbucks.”
Council member Jillian Johnson responded on November 21, copying Scott on an email asking the city’s neighborhood services department to give him an update.
Scott says he’s still awaiting word from the city. And he thinks he knows why his proposal has gone nowhere.
“I think any symbol of black unity scares white people,” he says. “I think that’s the two-ton elephant in the room no one wants to talk about.”
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at email@example.com.
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