DURHAM — On Juneteenth, the day marking Black freedom from slavery, protests around North Carolina celebrated American freedom and tore down monuments to the Confederacy, literally.
That didn’t happen in Durham — protesters there tore down city’s Confederate statue three years ago, on Aug. 14, 2017.
While protests around the state have focused on symbols of white supremacy, Durham’s organizers sought to topple what they called institutions of white supremacy — the county jail and municipal Police Department.
“We want to abolish the police,” Kyla Hartsfield, a Durham resident and co-organizer of Friday’s protest, said. “We believe policing is harmful and cannot be reformed.”
Hartsfield works with a coalition of groups called Durham Beyond Policing, and their vision is to create broad societal reform by taking money out of the criminal justice system and investing it in health care, education, after-school programs or wages for city workers — investments to specifically benefit Black and historically marginalized people.
“Our vision is to make the budgets so small that there is none, and there is no police department,” Hartsfield said. “I mean, we know that is a long-term vision, but we want to keep it clear that we are for abolishing the police. We are for abolishing (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). We’re here for abolishing prisons and jails.”
Durham City Council renewed the protests’ vigor when it voted unanimously to increase the police budget by 5%, to $70 million, on June 15.
That was devastating, Hartsfield said, especially right now.
The decision spurred Skip Gibbs, a Durham resident and leader of a small band of impromptu protesters, to set up camp in front of the police station last week. They will leave, he said, when the mayor and City Council agree to recall the city budget and reinvest the money in community programs.
“At the end of the day, if y’all want change, then you have to take to the streets,” Gibbs said to the crowd at the end of the protests on Friday night.
He decried still having to protest even 155 years after the first Juneteenth and said he would stay camped in front of the police headquarters until the city “cut the check” to invest in the Black community.
Juneteenth in Durham
Friday’s protests were a microcosm of the protests that have moved through the downtown streets of cities throughout the country, including across North Carolina, since the end of May, sparked originally by videos of George Floyd dying while a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee to his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
At 5 p.m., Durham Beyond Policing organized an “art action.” Protesters painted “DEFUND” in front of the Police Department and “FUND” in front of the Durham County Department of Public Health a block away, a representation of the “divest and invest” strategy to move money away from policing and toward public health, for example.
At 6 p.m., the Durham Workers Assembly, which advocates for better wages and employment protections, started playing music and building energy for the rally.
At 7:30 p.m., the young, Black women organizers of BYP100 led the crowd of several hundred from Durham’s police headquarters to the courthouse and jail. BYP100 is a group that trains Black community organizers between 18 and 35 years old and is one of the leading groups in the city pushing to defund the police
On the way, they chanted: “Ain’t no power like the power of the people, and the power of the people don’t stop.”
Protest marshals, trained in nonviolent direct action by a group called Ready the Ground, blocked traffic while wearing bright orange vests and making human shields across intersections.
Their idea is to not rely on police for safety during the protest. There was a chant for that, too: “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe.”
Once the crowd arrived at the jail, BYP100 organizers spoke against the jail’s cost and the poor conditions inside. The jail was not needed, they said, and it was a symbol of white supremacy and pointed to the disproportionate incarceration of Black people.
As with the Police Department, the organizers want to close the jail.
In a symbolic “eviction” of the jail from downtown Durham, protesters formed a human chain roughly the equivalent of four square blocks around the jail and courthouse. They then passed caution tape hand to hand until the jail and courthouse complex was surrounded by the same tape that is put up in front of people’s doors when they are evicted from their homes.
When the protesters came back together again, they cheered, called out to the people detained in the jail and sang.
Paris Miller came out to the protest in part to hear the messaging from Durham’s organizers. Miller is a Durham native who now lives in Chapel Hill and serves on that city’s Community Policing Advisory Committee.
Calls for police reform are not new in Durham, she said, but the strength of the messaging in these protests has caught people’s attention.
“Now we’re able to delve deeper into what the people are calling for when it comes to defunding the police,” Miller said.
“And really, it goes back to what we’ve always been calling for. Fund health care, fund education, fund social services, fund mental health institutions. Now, police budgets have gone up. All of those civil services have gone down.”
Divest and invest, protesters say
At least a half dozen different groups have organized and led protests in the last two weeks in Durham.
That’s part of the city’s strength as a progressive hub in North Carolina, according to Erin Carson. She’s the co-chair of the Durham chapter of BYP100.
Across the protests, different groups have made different demands of the police and used different organizing tactics. But one message remains clear and consistent: They want the city’s funds to be allocated differently.
“If you can spend you know, 60,000-something dollars on a police charger to burn gas and run through a neighborhood and make people feel watched and monitored and terrorized all day, you could fund a counselor,” Carson said.
The investments, advocates like Carson say, should specifically benefit Black and historically marginalized people who have been the target of overpolicing and other discriminatory practices for all of American history.
The basic argument is that the investments in community health will do more for public safety than police departments ever have.
“The ultimate goal is to abolish police, and we know that in order to abolish police, we have to fund and invest in the things that actually work,” Carson said.
Keep up the cycle, according to Carson and Hartsfield, and the community investments will improve living conditions and remove the structural problems that cause crime in the first place, like multigenerational poverty, insecure housing and the violence of overpolicing itself. Meanwhile, police budgets will shrink until they are nonexistent.
This, they say, will take many years, but they aim to see the ending of policing and jailing in the city within their lifetimes.