To close out this year, we want to reflect on the stories that defined the last 366 days. Some—the pandemic, George Floyd Uprising, and November election—won’t surprise you. But if the banner stories of the year made it difficult for you to keep up with or remember the biggest local news stories of 2020, consider this your refresher.
1. The Coronavirus Pandemic
Some events leave the lives of those who bear witness to them forever bisected. There was the time before COVID-19, before masks, social distancing, curfews, remote learning, and indefinite shutdowns. And then there is now, a time of uncertainty, social upheaval, and indelible fear. Hospitals running out of beds and ventilators, while outside in the parking lot, the dead are stored in refrigerated trucks.
The four walls of our homes, once a sanctuary, morphed slowly into gilded cages as work-from-home turned from a luxury to a necessity. Workers forced to brave the front lines in healthcare, retail, and hospitality risked exposure to the deadly virus for inadequate pay.
More distant by the day grow memories of bustling restaurants, the transcendent power of live music, and even the sometimes fractious family holidays where peak discomfort was squirming out of a prolonged embrace. Increasingly, we say our end-of-life goodbyes over Facetime.
Much like 9/11, there is no going back to the before-time. Although a vaccine is knocking on the door, the fallout of this year won’t merely evaporate. That means reimagining the working class and coming to terms with the inequities four decades of unfettered capitalism have wrought in this country. It will mean recreating systems for healthcare, education, and housing as human rights. If we fail, we’ll be forever pining for the unreachable before, with darker days ahead. —Leigh Tauss
2. George Floyd/BLM Protests
George Floyd should’ve been TIME’s Person of the Year. His cold-blooded murder at the end of May sparked what’s been declared the largest social movement in U.S. history. About 20 million people reportedly participated in demonstrations after his death (and the murder of other Black Americans including Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor), according to The New York Times. While the Black Lives Matter movement didn’t begin with Floyd’s gruesome murder, it’s far from over and will no doubt continue into 2021.
Locally, the movement has taken various shapes since May. In Raleigh, protestors repeatedly faced state repression and curfews—the latter often preemptively. It later came out that Raleigh police used expired tear gas on protestors, according to a review of the department’s response. And a consultant hired by the city council said the department needs to review its use of force policies and tear gas. Some cities—like Portland, Oregon—banned tear gas this year.
In Durham, high school students organized a massive march where they demanded that officers be removed from public schools. Protestors painted a gigantic yellow “DEFUND” in front of the city’s lavish new police station. Despite significant public pressure on the Durham City Council, the body still approved requested funding increases for its department, drawing protestors to the mayor’s home. The movement reverberated throughout the Triangle in countless smaller ways, influencing everything from book sales to art on boarded-up storefronts. But deeper, more meaningful change largely remained elusive. —Eric Ginsburg
3. Biden and Cooper Win, But Dems Fail Big
In a normal year, this would be the top story by far. Trump’s one-term disaster presidency normalized incompetence to the point that his impeachment was barely a blip on the radar and his goons became more ghoulish by the day (see: melting Giuliani). But even though things felt very, very hopeless gearing up to the election, and no one was particularly excited about Joe Biden, Democrats were able to wrestle back control of the White House. It was a victory we had to hold our breaths for in the weeks after the election, and which the president still vehemently denies. Suffice it to say, most of us won’t breathe easy until January 20.
Back home in North Carolina, while Governor Roy Cooper defeated anti-LGBTQ Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, a bona fide science-denier, it was a disappointing election for Old North State Dems overall. Cal Cunningham, after raising more money than god in his bid to unseat U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, threw it all away at the eleventh hour after the news broke that he was cheating on his wife.
In the state legislature, Democrats aspired not just to break the GOP majority in the legislature, but take it and finally implement long-needed goals like Medicaid expansion. Unfortunately, Democrats gained just a single seat, which won’t move the needle on any crucial votes this term. We’re also stuck with another conspiracy theorist as lieutenant governor in Mark Robinson, who defeated Yvonne Lewis Holley. Plus, Biden lost the state. Thanks, split-ticket voters. —Leigh Tauss
4. Amid Closures, A Deeper Restaurant Reckoning
The restaurant industry has always been a slippery creature. Margins are wire-thin, the work is often grueling and thankless, staff dynamics often play fast and loose, and HR departments largely don’t exist. When the economy began to cautiously reopen this year, employees were (and continue to be) put under impossible strains. Cracks began to surface.
In June, high-profile Raleigh sister restaurants Brewery Bhavana and Bida Manda—both of which enjoyed a progressive reputation—became lightning rods when employees went public with allegations of a cult-like atmosphere and sexual misconduct, among other things. The fallout from these tensions was immense, both for these two restaurants (the owners stepped down, and beverage director Jordan Hester was arrested for allegations that surfaced around the same time) and for the industry at large.
Around the Triangle, whispers of bad workplaces cast a wide net: In Raleigh, former Neomonde co-owner Samir “Sam” Saleh faced very serious allegations of sexual misconduct, while in Durham, employees of East Durham Bake Shop spoke out against the bakery’s owners for fostering a toxic work environment. It was a year of reckoning for the hospitality industry, though there was too much going on in the world for anyone to really get a handle on how restaurants would reimagine employee safety or reckon with these long-standing issues going forward. Perhaps 2021 will bring real change. —Sarah Edwards
5. Raleigh Kills Advisory Councils
Raleigh’s Citizen Advisory Councils were a dinosaur. Enacted in the 1970s, when the population of the Raleigh metro area was a tenth of what it is now, the volunteer-driven boards had become NIMBY cesspools, dead set on opposing development at every turn. The problem: Raleigh is rapidly becoming a big city, and litigating every new development like a stringent home owner’s association was doing nothing to solve the city’s burgeoning affordable housing crisis. The CACs also just weren’t engaging a whole lot of people, and they became highly politicized platforms for a vocal minority.
When the “Council of No” was unseated by a new, much more pro-development Raleigh City Council, we figured some reforms were probably on the way for CACs. But no one could have predicted that the new council would whip votes in secret and dismantle CACs without warning. There was no agenda item, there was little discussion—and rightfully, absolute outrage from the volunteers who had spent countless hours engaging their neighborhoods.
The council promised to revamp citizen engagement. But then a pandemic happened, and by the year’s end, we have little more than an expensive study to show for it. The CACs probably needed to die, but the council should’ve done it the right way—transparently. Instead, they chose a backhanded approach that undermined public trust. It could hurt them come Election Day 2021. —Leigh Tauss
6. First Semester Flops at UNC
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has faced some pretty bad publicity in the last few years, from the NCAA academic scandal to the never-ending Silent Sam saga. My alma mater’s reputation took yet another hit this May when administrators announced that they would be sending students back to classrooms amid a pandemic, then refused to back down as case counts continued to climb over the summer.
The handful of days students were actually on campus was a mess. Several fraternities were written up by Chapel Hill police for throwing parties—and sorority girls flouted the rules, too. UNC’s quarantine and isolation dorms quickly filled up, and students were shipped to local hotels. Four COVID-19 clusters were announced in three days, prompting The Daily Tar Heel to say the “F-word” in an editorial headline.
Classes began Monday, August 10. By August 17, the school announced it was going remote for the rest of the semester.
Several other universities followed UNC’s lead. North Carolina State University announced three days later that it’d be moving classes online, too; East Carolina University followed shortly behind. Now, as a new semester looms and case counts reach new highs every day, students, faculty, and staff are understandably questioning the decision to invite students back to campus in the spring. —Sara Pequeño
7. Raleigh’s Affordable Housing Bond
Saying “the rent is too damn high” is an understatement. Studies show that without serious government intervention, Wake County will face a shortage of 150,000 affordable units by 2035. In 2019, Durham passed a $95 million bond to address housing inequality, more than Raleigh had issued in two decades.
Backing the bond should have been a no-brainer for liberals, but a small political faction began an online campaign that vehemently opposed it, claiming the bond was simply a hand-out to developers. Luckily, voters called bullshit.
The $80 million bond that passed won’t solve the city’s affordable housing crisis, but it will help people and expand the city’s housing stock over time. The bond contains funding that will help provide financial relief to existing homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods and downpayment assistance to lower-income prospective buyers. Some funds will be used to buy land that can later be developed into mixed-income developments along transit corridors.
In the long term, these are things that will make Raleigh more equitable. It won’t be enough to curve the crisis—not by a long shot—but it’s a start. —Leigh Tauss
8. Crisis at McDougald Terrace
Before COVID-19, the biggest public health crisis of the year in the Triangle was the discovery of dangerously elevated carbon monoxide levels in hundreds of apartments at McDougald Terrace. In early January, the Durham Housing Authority began relocating more than 300 households to area hotels after inspectors found the deadly gas.
Two months before, the INDY reported that Mac residents were literally sick of the shit pouring out of a sanitary manhole and countless other deplorable, longstanding conditions. The conditions described didn’t vibe with a prosperous Southern city that prides itself on being progressive. The residents also shared their suspicions about three infants who had died between November and January. Although the causes for their death have not been made public, the state medical examiner ruled out carbon monoxide poisoning.
Heroes emerged—particularly Ashley Canady, president of the public housing complex’s resident council. Canady coordinated food and supply distribution to her fellow displaced residents. She spoke passionately on their behalf and demanded accountability from officials during numerous meetings.
In late March, as the world fixated on the pandemic, Mac residents quietly returned to the community following wholesale repairs and renovations to their homes. Afi Byrd was one of the residents who had been staying at a hotel for a month or longer. She asked: “Can you imagine the PTSD that’s going to come from this?” —Thomasi McDonald
9. Saige Martin Exposed, and Stormie Forte Ascends
Saige Martin was one of the more exciting new members of the Raleigh City Council. The most radical and outspoken of the bunch, the District D representative was queer, young, bold, and fun. He doggedly called for police reform and pushed a progressive agenda. We put him on the cover after the election, his model-good looks an easy page pusher.
Martin was the council member who secretly whipped the votes needed to kill Citizen Advisory Councils and quickly made his fair share of enemies. He made moves, and big ones.
But, as the media loves to say about men in positions of power, his promising political career swiftly came crashing down.
In June, The News & Observer dropped a bombshell investigation alleging that Martin had engaged in sexual assault or misconduct with four men—one of them underage at the time—during his time at N.C. State. The story delved into graphic detail about nonconsensual sex that rarely gets air in hetero-abuse stories. The backlash was instant. Within hours of the story’s publication, Martin resigned and disappeared from public sight.
The only silver lining to this story is that the council voted to replace him with the promising Stormie Forte, a black LGTBQ attorney who has taken a measured approach to governance. —Leigh Tauss
10. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Death
With the possible exception of Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown, no judge in a generation or more has enjoyed the level of celebrity and recognition as the Notorious RBG. The liberal icon, famous for her dissent, seemed to cling to life with ferocity, and she nearly held on until Joe Biden’s inauguration. Despite sharing a surname with the justice, more people ask if I’m related to Allen the Beat poet than Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the answer to both is no), which always reminds me how few people are truly familiar with the Supreme Court. Yet public awareness and public significance often don’t correlate, and Ginsburg’s unexpected death in September quickly redefined the nation’s political landscape for years to come.
In a feat of merciless hypocrisy, Republicans rammed through the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett even though countless Americans had already cast their ballot in an election that would unseat an incumbent president for the first time since 1992. It marked Trump’s third lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court—fully a third of the entire body. Biden has been evasive about whether he’ll try to expand the size of the court, but given his insistence on making overtures to Republicans who can’t be bothered to acknowledge his electoral victory, that doesn’t seem imminent. That, paired with the Trump administration’s single-minded packing of the federal bench, means we’ll probably be stuck with a conservative judiciary system for the foreseeable future. —Eric Ginsburg
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Follow Interim Editor-in-Chief Leigh Tauss on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Interim News Editor Eric Ginsburg on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com. Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Interim Arts & Culture Editor Sarah Edwards on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com. Follow Digital Content Manager Sara Pequeño on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.