It was raining cats and dogs Tuesday afternoon, but Rosalie Underwood was a picture of determination just outside the Durham Police Department.

Clad in a clear plastic rain poncho, Underwood wielded a megaphone like it was a battle-ax amplifying her calls for justice.

“Hey Durham!” Underwood said into the megaphone while striding up and down the bicycle lane of the city’s police station. “Look out your windows! You can make a difference!”

“Hey Durham! Look out your doors! You can make a change!”

Underwood’s ranks were thin—only about dozen people were gathered beneath four tents in front of the downtown police station headquarters on E. Main Street—but that didn’t deter them.

“No better day than today to be out here,” Raheem Williams, 31, told the INDY. “Justice won’t wait for anybody.”

Williams, who goes by the stage name “JooseLord,” arrived at police headquarters to demand “significant and immediate change, financially.” 

At the crux of the protesters’ concerns was a city council vote the night before that awarded the agency a 5 percent budget increase, bringing the department’s budget up to $70 million.

“We got nothing, we the people,” Williams said. “We’re asking for you to say that financially, Black Lives Matter. We want to be a part of this community as well.”

But Mayor Steve Schewel told the INDY Tuesday that it wasn’t a 5 percent increase.

“The police department budget went from $69,170,000 this year to $70,363,000 next year. That’s an increase of 1.7 percent,” he said.

On Monday, Schewel made public a statement calling on his fellow council members to allocate $1 million for alternatives to police responses that are to be identified by the city’s Community Health and Safety Task Force. That night, the council voted 4-2 in approval of the initiative.

Over the past year, Schewel noted, council members and community activists have worked together to identify and create institutions to take on social welfare and crisis intervention that “don’t involve the police.” 

“I support the powerful protests against police violence and systemic racism,” Schewel said Tuesday when asked about the demonstration at the police headquarters. “We need people to protest for change and they are making a difference. I support them.”

By Jade Wilson

Underwood’s son is Skip Gibbs, the young Durham activist emerged as a central figure in the city’s protests following the murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man whose death under the knee of a police officer ignited global calls for Black Lives and police accountability. 

Gibbs and his organization, Other America Movement, led a massive downtown protest June 1 where hundreds marched from downtown’s historically black Hayti district to the Exit 11 blue bridge. There, organizers dropped a banner that read “We can make a deal, we can make a change.” Scores of the protesters held aloft signs that read, “Defund The Police. “ Below the bridge, motorists honked in support.

Hayti was a once-thriving Black residential district that had been razed in two by Highway 147 in 1970, one of the many Black communities to be destroyed in the name of urban renewal. When the banner dropped, protesters marched down the exit ramp. Gibbs’ objective, he said, was to get a community summit with the city council and Sheriff Clarence Birkhead. 

“Settle in for a long afternoon,” Gibbs instructed protesters.

City leaders acted quickly—within 30 minutes Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis was on the phone with Gibbs to confirm a meeting at The Fruit downtown. The protesters marched back to Los Primos, where Mayor Steve Schewel was waiting in the parking lot. He agreed to meet with them on June 4 to continue discussions about law enforcement tactics and policies. 

Moments after the meeting ended, Birkhead made public a statement, writing that he and Davis had met with “various community groups.”

According to Birkhead, it was a meeting with people angry at the country’s “unfulfilled promise” to Black Americans. Birkhead said the law enforcement leaders and community members talked about systemic racism and how many Black and Brown residents feel intimidated by the police.

“I hear you,” Birkhead stated before thanking Gibbs and the other meeting organizers. “I am committed to being part of the solution.”

Thirty minutes before the city council members’ regularly scheduled meeting’s 7 p.m. start, Gibbs arrived at the police headquarters to begin #OccupyDurhamPoliceDepartment.

After staying overnight inside a tent in front of police headquarters, Gibbs briefly left Tuesday afternoon for a shower and a change of clothes. 

Williams said the groups’ demands during the summit with the city leaders include the financing of a Black-owned grocery store in East Durham, “so that it’s no longer a food desert” as well as programs that will help the residents of struggling communities like McDougald Terrace and the Liberty Street public housing complex just across the street from the police headquarters.

“Until we get concrete solutions,” Williams said when asked how long will the occupation of the police headquarters take place,“this is our police station. We paid for it. Everybody out here works and pays taxes. We want to have a say in where the money goes.”

Meanwhile, Underwood briefly put aside her white megaphone and challenged clergy leaders and their members with a sign she held above her head. 

“Churches Where R U,” the sign read, sans a question mark.“Our religious leaders are nowhere to be found.” 

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