Letter from Steve Schewel, December 18, 2014

Durham City Councilman Steve Schewel sent this to many folks, and posted it on our Facebook walls. I’d like to amplify it further by posting it here:

Dear Friends,
This email is a work in progress, and there is much more I need to learn. Since I was not present at the demonstrations in Durham downtown on December 5 or more recently on Swift Avenue, I have had to rely on the reports of others—police, demonstrators, reporters and spectators—to come as close as I can to the truth about those events. I’ve talked to a lot of people, watched a lot of videos, read a lot of emails and Facebook posts. Now I’m ready to write about what I know and believe, and I look forward to hearing from you about this.

Here is the most important thing I know: The demonstrations in Durham following the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case are heartfelt, legitimate and important expressions of grief and outrage. The vast majority of people demonstrating are motivated by an authentic desire to make our nation—and our beloved city—more just. The desire to interrupt business-as-usual, to force people to face the injustices of our criminal justice system, is real, and I admire the people who have taken on this work. This moment demands our attention to racial injustice and our commitment to fight it. Durham can lead this crucial work, and we must.

The second important thing I know is that the charges about “outside agitators” deny a critical truth about these demonstrations: They are homegrown, right here in Durham. I know many Durham people who have been participating. Some are veterans of many political actions; but most of the ones I know are young, first-time demonstrators whose hearts are full to bursting with the injustices they know exist in our society and feel they must make their voices heard. Indeed, it is true that there are people from inside and outside Durham who are on the Internet urging reckless behavior on the demonstrators (more on that below). But these demonstrations are not the product of those Internet posts. They are the product of the ideals, hopes and dreams of Durham’s young people for a society where racial injustice is a thing of the past, where ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬.

To deny the legitimacy and authenticity of these cries for justice is to deny the future that we all need to embrace.

After the death of Jesus Huerta last year, I criticized our police department for what I considered their overly aggressive response to the demonstration on the plaza. I spoke to our city manager about it, to my city council colleagues, and to our police chiefs. I wrote about it publicly.

What I see now in our police department’s response to the demonstrations is a much more complicated picture. 
On the one hand, I believe there has been at least one time when our officers acted with too much aggressive force. On the other hand, I think they have worked hard to improve their practices from the Huerta march last year, and I think they have succeeded, often performing their incredibly difficult task with admirable patience and restraint under severe duress during the recent demonstrations.

A few days ago I had a 90-minute conversation with a young woman who was arrested on Foster St. on the night of December 5. She wants her name kept private, so I will simply call her Mary. I knew Mary because I had spoken to a class at Duke for which she was the professor’s assistant. Mary is highly regarded by my teaching colleagues at the public policy department at Duke. She is gentle, determined and totally trustworthy.

The events surrounding Mary’s arrest—and the arrests of others on Foster St. that night—are contested. Police say that they gave ample and loud warning for the demonstrators to leave the middle of the street and disperse. Mary and other demonstrators I trust claim they never heard these warnings. Mary says she was shocked when she saw an officer throw a young woman to the ground by her hair. Mary says that she then herself asked the officer to tell her his badge number and was immediately thrown hard to the ground–hard enough to lose a shoe and her glasses. She said a knee was put into her stomach from underneath her while two other officers handcuffed her. She was hurt, shocked and bruised. I believe her. I believe another witness who saw this happen. I believe this is unnecessary use of force. I believe we must not have this in Durham.

And yet there is another truth about that night. For three hours the Durham police reacted with great flexibility, calm and patience as they escorted the marchers throughout downtown. The marchers were switching directions unpredictably, blocking streets, disrupting traffic, and, at one point, jumped fences and blocked 147. Some marchers also threatened to disrupt the show at the DPAC and sought to breach the police lines there. Some–few!–marchers hurled sticks and rocks at the cops. Several officers were hit, and one officer I know well and respect greatly was struck hard in the chest by a rock.

The police didn’t arrest the demonstrators who blocked the downtown streets for hours. They didn’t arrest the demonstrators who blocked the highway. At DPAC, they arrested a few people (six, I understand) who tried to force their way through the police line there and disrupt the show in progress.

I admire this work by the police under tremendous pressure. Despite the stones and the provocation, they remained calm and did their jobs well.

I don’t want us to lose sight of the whole, complex truth here. I believe that for the great majority of the protest over a very difficult three-hour period, our police officers acted with good judgment and restraint under duress. Then, on Foster Street, five minutes of bad decisions and unnecessary force marred the night.

There have been other demonstrations, too, and one—on Swift Avenue—which is the subject of dueling narratives about the behavior of demonstrators and police.

Here’s the point: Since the marches following the death of Jesus Huerta, our police department has made significant strides in its handling of demonstrations. Still, they need to continue to do better. The department’s leadership needs to evaluate the use of force, minimize the use of force, and give ample warning before arrests are made. I have confidence that they will do this.

I have a plea to demonstrators as well, and it involves civil disobedience. I have participated in hundreds of demonstrations in my 63 years. I probably marched or rallied 20 times just this past year. I have committed acts of civil disobedience many times. I never got to march with Dr. King, but I marched with his compatriots including C.T. Vivian and Fred Shuttlesworth. I have linked arms with Father Philip Berrigan and Sister Elizabeth McAlister to block the Pentagon. I was arrested at Moral Monday last summer. After one act of civil disobedience, I went to jail for eight days.

I list these bona fides only to claim solidarity with those who are committing civil disobedience in Durham now. Sometimes, I believe, civil disobedience is warranted, even necessary.

But as you disobey, I beg you to do so peacefully, lovingly. Civil disobedience must not mean intentionally provoking the police, or dehumanizing them, or making them the other, or resisting them when they come to arrest you for blocking a street.
I know many police officers well. Three times this year I have ridden along with young police officers on a Saturday night, and I have seen close up the desire they have to do the right thing. I have watched them make difficult split-second decisions on each ride-along, officers no older than the young demonstrators, officers putting themselves into dangerous situations on our behalf. We need to respect and support these men and women who are doing their best to keep us safe.

I have one more plea. There are, indeed, disturbing posts on the web which include threats to Durham police officers and calls to confront them with violence. I have read these posts. There have been demonstrators who have chosen a violent response, who have attempted to provoke our officers into making a mistake. My plea is for the great mass of demonstrators whose motives are pure to separate themselves from those who would do harm, who would provoke violence if they could. All of us who have been in demonstrations know that such people can be present and can mis-lead. It is the obligation of all of us to reject them.

And we must expect that when our police officers are physically threatened by fists or stones that they will don their plastic helmets, their “riot gear.” They need to be physically safe, too.

What is happening here in Durham with the police is part of a national effort for reform, as you all know. I am proud of the actions the city council took recently to reform our practices of racially disproportionate car searches, including our decision to require written consent for any consent searches. It puts us way out in front of most cities in the nation. Now we need to make that work. And we need to continue to work with our police department to make sure that our officers know how to handle demonstrations–even very, very challenging ones–without mistreating people.

We need to hold our police department to the highest standards of behavior—and we need to thank them and support them when they do their difficult work with skill and patience.

I believe Durham can lead this work.
I welcome your thoughts.
Steve Schewel
18 December 2014

Letter from Steve Schewel, December 18, 2014

Letter to Durham City Council, December 18, 2014

Dear Council,

I’m writing to add my support to Laura Friederich’s letter of earlier this morning, which I assume you’re already in receipt of. If not, it’s also posted here: https://www.facebook.com/laura.friederich/posts/828265822088
Laura touches on many excellent points in her letter, and she is entirely correct when she redirects your attention to the fact that these protests are about calling attention to the racist foundations of our current society.
The police, and particularly Chief Lopez, seem to want to make this issue about themselves. They seem to feel like they’re under personal attack – and perhaps they carry some level of institutional guilt that encourages that impression.
But the majority of the protesters I have seen and engaged with are concerned about much bigger issues than policing in Durham. They are truly trying to send the message that Black Lives Matter, all over the US, and all over the world. Unbalanced policing and unexamined racial biases on the part of police departments are certainly a big part of this, but it cuts much deeper than that.
I’m sure there are legitimate questions about why so many of the recent protests have happened in Durham, and not other cities in the Triangle. I’m curious about that myself – not in the sense of asking why Durham, but rather in the sense of asking why not Raleigh, and Chapel Hill, and Cary, and everywhere else as well.
I think it says *wonderful* things about Durham that our citizenry are the most politically active, the most impassioned, the most likely to speak up when they see injustice, whether here at home or elsewhere in the world. I think it’s wonderful when our locally-led protests are joined by citizens of other towns, where apparently the population at large aren’t nearly as engaged or impassioned.
Laura makes an excellent point when she says that the police have shown at various times that they are capable of restraint, and of respecting the rights of the people to assemble and to let their voices be heard. Durham could set a shining example to the rest of North Carolina as a place where citizen engagement is valued and fostered and encouraged. 
But it will require your leadership –  not just from the few of you who have spoken out publicly already, but from each and every one of you. I encourage you to speak up, as Steve Schewel already has, in favor of free speech, in favor of Durham’s activist history, in favor of the rights of the citizens to be passionate, and politically engaged, and yes, sometimes angry.
Warmest regards,
Ross Grady

Letter to Durham City Council, December 18, 2014

December 8-9, 2014

Monday was a vacation day, which meant I only spent half the day working on work stuff. 

I neglected to mention this the other day, but at some point over the three-day weekend I successfully replaced the cords in one set of cellular shades, so I guess I can add that skill to my CV. All hail FixYourBlinds.com for selling the special string.

Monday afternoon I met with Durham City Councilman Steve Schewel for an hour or so to discuss development, incentives, and the recent protest-related arrests. I really appreciate Steve taking the time to talk to me. Full disclosure: I worked for Steve, indirectly, for several years in the early 90s, when he owned the Independent and I was a frequent contributor.

He was extraordinarily kind to me then, and has continued to be so in the intervening couple of decades. 

I came away from the discussion with a slightly better understanding of just how comparatively little power municipalities have in North Carolina, since we are a state without municipal home-rule, meaning that the legislature fully controls what powers it does or does not grant to cities.

This is actually a reasonable high-level primer, if you’re interested.

Makes me doubly glad that I focused all of my campaign contributions this cycle on state legislative races, even though the outcome wasn’t enough to change the balance of power in the legislature.

At work lately I have been doing a lot of technical interviewing, the first time that I have done so at any sort of scale. It has been an interesting experience.

One thing I have noticed, and have been thinking about, is that some universities have Computer Science curricula in which any given student might do coursework in any of three or four different languages over the course of his or her studies. They might be trained initially in Java, take a couple of courses in C, and then pivot to Python or some other language for some of their higher-level electives.

Based on my experience as a technical manager & interviewer, at the undergraduate level, anyway, this is perhaps not an optimal configuration.

I’ve talked to a decent number of students who have difficulty keeping the syntax and structural idiosyncrasies of their various languages straight in their heads. (To be fair, I suffer from this myself – and it’s a real problem.)

Moreover, it seems clear to me that many of them haven’t used any single language long enough to have mastered it, or to have begun to understand its nuances and idioms.

This effect seems to have increased in recent years, as more schools switch their entry-level courses to different languages, while leaving the professors of higher-level courses free to use whatever languages they want.

Presumably once these students graduate & get jobs, they will eventually wind up in a situation where they’re able to focus on a single language for more than 6-9 months at a time, and will get a more holistic view of that language. 

But I feel like students are missing out on an opportunity to dig deeper and master a discipline in an educational environment that should be designed to support that.

Plus it’s kind of frustrating to me as a hiring manager.

December 8-9, 2014

Letter to City Council re: Friday arrests

Dear Council,

I’m writing to express my concern about the actions of the Durham Police at the end of the protest march on Foster Street on Friday night. 

According to most accounts, the police showed a greater than average degree of restraint during the early hours of the march. Some of my friends who were there might disagree, particularly with the use of the dangerous LRAD device on the protesters at the DPAC.

But compared to events in other cities (as well as previous events in Durham), during the first couple of hours of the march, it seems the police were at least trying to respect the people’s rights.

For some reason, though, as the march was winding down, things got ugly. According to the account of one local blogger, blame for this lies entirely at the feet of the police:

There were six or eight cars with their lights twirling and a line of cops blocking the street. As we got closer, we realized they were in full riot gear and carrying axe handle sized sticks. There were almost as many of them as there were protestors. About ten of us stood on the sidewalk and tried to tell them they were taking the wrong approach. There was no need for a power struggle. No need for a show of force. It was a protest, not combat. When the enemy didn’t show up, the makeshift army loaded onto a bus and went after them. Literally. They saw where the protestors were and blocked the street to create a confrontation. They arrested about forty people and then kept marching up the street even as the protestors went the other way. The only reason there was any sort of agitation was because the police made it happen.

Ginger called 911 three different times to report what was happening. The last time the operator asked if she would like to speak to an officer and one found her on the street. I walked up in the middle of their conversation. He said the protests had been going on for five hours and “you can’t let civil disobedience go on for five hours.” (Why not?) When she asked about the sticks, he said they were for pushing people back, not for hitting them. “They are better than guns,” he said.

There is video of a portion of the confrontations on Foster Street:

It’s worth nothing that this is Foster just south of Geer, a block that is completely deserted after dark. To obstruct citizens, prevent them from moving freely or dispersing, and then violently arrest them for obstructing traffic on a block that is deserted, verges on the Kafkaesque.

“Fitting,” then, that clearly visible in the background of the video is the Elna B. Spaulding Conflict Resolution Center. 

Just around the corner from the location pictured in the video is the corner of Geer and Rigsbee. On pretty much any weekend night, the block of Rigsbee between Geer and Corporation is clogged with cars backed up from the Pit valet stand, with food trucks parked on the sidewalk, and with pedestrians walking freely in the street back and forth between MotorCo and Fullsteam.

If “obstructing traffic” is such a priority in this neighborhood, then why aren’t there riot police down there every weekend throwing the valet parking guys into the bushes & onto the pavement?

From all indications, the size of the march had already dwindled, and given the lateness of the hour, it was likely to break up on its own accord. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the police saw this as their last opportunity to enact some kind of retribution on the protesters.

Perhaps even more concerning, I have just received word that the Durham police have been harassing the citizens who were arrested on Friday. They have reported that there have been police cars parked on the streets in front of their houses. And at a meeting for the protesters at the Pinhook over the weekend, a DPD officer in street clothes showed up uninvited and started videotaping the attendees. He then fled when he was recognized by some of the arrestees.

It would appear that Chief Lopez is continuing to try to bolster his fantasy narrative of “outside agitators.” He said as much in some of his quotes to the media over the weekend.

I only spent about 10 minutes in CCB Plaza at the start of the march, but just in that time I saw at least a half-dozen people that I know, and as the rest of the evening unfolded, I saw tweets from many other friends who were participating in the march. Two of my friends are among those who were arrested.

I can’t imagine what the Chief’s thought processes must be here. In some of his quotes over the weekend, he gave the impression that he thinks these current protests are still about the Durham police specifically, rather than institutional racism and white supremacy in general. 

Whatever the reason, his leadership of the DPD seems to be coming from a position of personal paranoia, rather than actual understanding of the facts on the ground. And that is an incredibly dangerous thing for our city.

Letter to City Council re: Friday arrests