When the worst of white America finally decided to take a knee, it was on the neck of a Black man as he lay dying, begging for his life.
The death of George Floyd was a tipping point. But the anger that exploded and damaged American cities over the weekend was payment due for a decades-long litany of the killing of Black people by the police and self-appointed vigilantes.
Saturday marked the 99th anniversary of a race massacre in Tulsa, and 35 years ago, on May 13, Philadelphia police bombed the home of MOVE, a Black liberation group. Black people’s distrust of the police across America is not happenstance, and those here in the Triangle are aware of that history. They feel it in their bones.
So why did protesters tear up Raleigh over the weekend, prompting Governor Cooper to call in the National Guard, while Durham demonstrators gathered peacefully, marched, and at one point sang “Lean on Me” in front of the downtown police headquarters?
Quiet as it is kept, it’s because downtown Raleigh is a place where diversity, inclusion, and equity aren’t celebrated, but merely tolerated.
To put it more bluntly, Raleigh treats Black people like shit.
In Durham, values of inclusion and diversity are celebrated every day, even as the city grapples with the racially informed issues of affordable housing, gentrification, violent crime, poverty, and a pandemic that has laid bare racial disparities in health care.
“I’m glad they stayed on message,” a cashier at a Moroccan-owned convenience store downtown says of the protesters. “If they get off-message, then people who want to support them will get distracted, and nothing will change.”
Durham’s demonstration briefly threatened to flare up into ugliness early Saturday afternoon, when the protesters gathered in the middle of Corcoran Street, near the Durham bull. It was just after 1:00 p.m. when a motorist behind the wheel of a copper-colored BMW X3 tried to drive through the demonstrators.
“A news crew caught it on camera,” says Michael Taylor, one of the protest organizers, who had just finished an interview with WRAL and was about to do another with NBC’s local affiliate when the BMW approached the demonstrators.
As the female driver approached the crowd, she starting blowing her horn. She rolled her window down and began screaming when some of the protesters approached the BMW.
Another one of the Durham organizers, Skip Gibbs, used a megaphone to shout a warning as the protesters approached the BMW. Mindful of potential violence, Gibbs told them, “You can’t roll up on people like that! She’s got a right to defend herself!”
“We had to make that known,” Taylor says.
Instead of venting their anger at the woman, the protesters helped the driver back up and go down the street, Taylor told the INDY on Monday.
Taylor says he received “a million phone calls” from Raleigh protesters telling him to come out and join them. He declined.
“That’s not how we do what we do,” he says. “Everyone expected Durham to get torn up. But hey, the people who helped me organize our thing—we love our city. Our problem is not with the city. It’s with people in the city who hold important positions that need to be held accountable. We’re not going to burn down the police building. We have to channel that anger to where it needs to be. We have to assume those elected positions. We need Black federal judges and Black legislators.”
Taylor wonders if outsiders invaded the Raleigh protests for reasons other than to demand justice for George Floyd.
“Last night in Raleigh, community organizers weren’t part of the protests,” Taylor says. “There are protesters and there are looters. Looters raise hell and chaos. Last night [in Raleigh], the looters were there.”
Durham’s origins are rooted in racial interdependence. It’s the kind of city where white residents plant Black Lives Matter signs in their front yards. There’s a proprietary feel here. It’s a place where every voice—Black, white, Latinx, LGBTQ folk, young and old, rich and poor, Jew and Christian and Muslim—can gather in the marketplace of ideas and argue long and loud.
Last year, the Durham Beyond Policing coalition presented detailed research to city council members who decided to not fund the police chief’s request for additional officers and instead raised the salaries of the city’s part-time employees.
In early March, Mayor Steve Schewel called America’s legacy of racism “our great national sin,” and he asked council members to join a coalition petitioning Congress to enact reparations “for all Black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States” to close racial wealth and income gaps.
“That wealth gap, more than $10 trillion nationally, is the most powerful indicator of the full effects of racial injustice in the United States,” Schewel said during his State of the City address, in which he shared a vision of city policy that connects racial equity, climate change, poverty, housing, and public transit.
There were a significant number of white people at the Durham protest, including Ben Rippie, a state parks employee who held a sign that read, “White Silence Must End. Black Lives Matter.”
Rippie’s takeaway should inform Durham residents and beyond: The death of Black people at the hands of the police is an American problem that everyone must work together to end.
“It’s outrageous,” he says. “And I don’t think it will stop until white people stand up as well.”
Durham is no utopia, and racial arguments remain front and center. On Monday, the nonprofit Organizing Against Racism released a statement that expressed a lack of confidence in Wendy Jacobs, who chairs the Durham County Board of Commissioners.
On Monday, an anonymous Durham resident submitted a letter to county commissioners saying that the public is still awaiting answers on whether county manager Wendell Davis, who is Black, violated state law and the International City/County Management Association code of ethics.
Also on Monday, Durham County Commissioner Brenda Howerton woke up with a heavy heart. For her, George Floyd’s death prompted heart-wrenching personal memories.
On September 8, 1994, her youngest son, college sophomore Daryl Howerton, was killed by a rookie officer with the Greensboro police 32 seconds after his arrival in response to a call about a disturbance.
About a year and a half before, on January 14, 1993, her oldest son, Lamont, who was completing his final year at Hampton University, was shot and killed by a naval officer.
“I lost both of my sons to men in uniform,” Howerton says.
Howerton wasn’t sure why Durham protests did not lead to the ransacking of the downtown district.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I do know that racism is alive and well and that justice cannot happen without us addressing racism. That’s the underlying reason for all of this stuff. They see us, but they don’t see us.”
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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