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

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