Just after nightfall on May 30 of last year, a brick smashed through a window of the Wake County Sheriff’s department’s headquarters. Seconds later, a canister of expired tear gas exploded, pluming white smoke into the air. Dozens of protesters scattered, running and choking on gas, with tears streaming down their mask-covered faces. Then more bricks, more tear gas, and smashed windows. The CVS pharmacy on Fayetteville Street was looted and set on fire. By night’s end, the sidewalks of downtown Raleigh glistened with broken glass.
That afternoon, thousands of peaceful protesters flooded the downtown streets, calling for an end to police brutality after watching George Floyd suffocate to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s death was the spark, with fodder built from a seemingly endless string of microaggressions to fatal encounters between Raleigh’s police force and its Black citizens.
Floyd’s killer, officer Derek Chauvin, was found guilty of his murder. But the killer of Keith Dutree Collins, a Black man gunned down by a Raleigh police officer in February 2020, was never charged. There was no body-camera video of the officer who fatally shot Soheil Antonio Mojarrad, a man with a history of mental illness, in a parking lot in 2019. There was video of police pulling Braily Andres Batista-Concepcion from his car and beating him bloody, but Wake County’s district attorney declined to have the incident investigated by the state.
In the nights that followed May 30, the national guard was called into Raleigh and Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin implemented a curfew, turning the city into a kind of desolate warzone. But for weeks protesters defied orders and continued to march after dark, chanting the names of the dead: Floyd, Collins, Mojarrad.
A year later, downtown Raleigh looks different. There are no longer monuments of Confederate soldiers guarding the old Capitol grounds after protesters dethroned them from their pedestals last summer. Downtown storefronts are no longer boarded up with plywood and are reopening as the pandemic recedes into the rearview. Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown is preparing for retirement and a new chief will be chosen soon. There’s a police advisory board, but no one is quite sure what it does.
Whether this all spells progress is in the eye of the beholder.
“In speaking with George Floyd’s family, they want to see our community unite. And they want to be leaders in getting us there. There is change that is needed, but we won’t get there overnight,” Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin told the INDY. “I’m confident, however, that we will use this moment, this opportunity in time, to make impactful changes in our systems to address social justice issues. And in doing so, we must address the issues of poverty, education, and housing.”
For activists like Dawn Blagrove, the last year feels more like regress.
“In Raleigh I feel like we have been met with a lot of lip service and window dressings, but ultimately what the people of Raleigh are left with is no real change in the status quo of police accountability,” Blagrove says. “I would venture to say we are moving backward.”
Case in point: despite the mounting pressure to defund police departments and reappropriate taxpayer dollars toward civil services that can more adequately support the homeless and mentally ill, the council is considering increasing the police budget by $5 million to fund a new patrol unit for the city’s greenways, which citizens reported in a survey felt less safe after two deaths on the trails last year. The new unit could include six officers and a supervisor, increasing the size of the police force.
But beyond that budget line item, there have been some changes within the police department.
Last year, the police department shuffled funds to create the ACORNS—Addressing Crises through Outreach, Referrals, Networking, and Service—unit, which will deploy social workers on certain 911 calls involving mental health crises or homeless individuals. Interviews for three social workers’ positions have taken place, according to an RPD spokesperson, and city officials hope to fill the positions soon.
The council also created a police advisory board to review policies. While the board lacks “teeth”—the oversight and subpoena powers that activists have been demanding for years—the council requested the legislature consider granting Raleigh’s board the ability to view police records currently protected by state law. That request isn’t likely to go anywhere as long as Republicans maintain control of the General Assembly.
The board has also faced internal challenges. After struggling to recruit members for the board, two members abruptly quit this spring, citing poor leadership and a lack of autonomy from council and city staff.
The council is slated to consider the budget and new appointments to the police advisory board on Tuesday, as this paper goes to print. Grassroots organization Refund Raleigh planned a protest in Nash Square for Tuesday night in opposition to the budget increase for the police department.
Chief Deck-Brown plans to retire from her position with the city at the end of this month. The council hired a search firm to find her replacement and the top three applicants selected to replace her will be vetted at a community forum on June 10, where citizens are invited to ask questions. A new chief will be sworn in by July 1, according to city staff.
Councilmember Nicole Stewart is excited about the direction a new chief would take the department. Though she says she sympathizes with the community’s frustration, she says, “if a switch could have been flipped, it would have been flipped a long time ago, and progress takes time.”
“I think the past year we have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue and making progress,” Stewart says. “We’re at a point now where we are actively trying to reimagine what policing looks like moving forward.”
Vision-boarding the future of Raleigh’s police force while Black residents continue to endure discrimination and over-policing isn’t good enough for many, though, including activist and former mayoral candidate Zainab Baloch. For her, talk is cheap, especially from politicians.
“The changes really came from a place of public perception. I feel like we’ve publicly made more commitments, we’ve publicly said more stuff, but I can’t point to anything that has made things better for people of color and stopped the militarization of the police force,” Baloch says. “In my opinion, I believe it’s gotten worse.”
Activist Kerwin Pittman says firm policies are the answer. The laws need to protect residents from police, not the other way around, he says.
“If we’re looking at one issue instead of looking at the larger issue, which is that there is not an accountability mechanism across the county, we’re going to see more [violent policing incidents] happening,” Pittman says. “It’s going to be legislation, litigation, education, and demonstration.”
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