Police response to fast-food protest draws fire

Apr. 22, 2014 @ 06:48 PM

City officials have fielded a complaint about the way police handled a protest, this time one that targeted two fast-food restaurants in north Durham.

It took issue with the decision of officers to cite two participants in the April 3 protest for violations of the city noise ordinance, for allegedly using a bullhorn after receiving orders not to.

City Manager Tom Bonfield on Monday forwarded to elected officials a response from Police Chief Jose Lopez that said the department “after looking into” the complaint will respond officially to it.

But the chief also included an already-penned letter that gave the department’s side of what happened as protestors involved with a campaign called N.C. Raise Up picketed a Taco Bell stand on North Duke Street.

The protest targeted the Taco Bell and a Wendy’s nearby on North Roxboro Street, challenging their wage and labor policies. A video of it is available on YouTube at http://bit.ly/1hm4CFR.

N.C. Raise Up is an offshoot of a group called the Southern Workers Organizing Committee that hopes to unionize fast-food restaurant employees.

The video initially shows protestors inside the Wendy’s, using a bullhorn to address bemused diners. It continues with the protest outside the Taco Bell, on a sidewalk inches from passing traffic on North Duke Street.

Police confirmed having charged Keith Marlon Bullard II, 30, and Labrone Wade, 42, both of Durham, with noise violations. They have court dates coming up in late May.

The subsequent complaint came from an assortment of groups and people that included N.C. Raise Up, the People’s Alliance, Durham Congregations in Action Executive Director Spencer Bradford and local organizer Theo Luebke.

They alleged that police had denied the protestors a city parade permit and arrested people who’d complied with their orders.

The department in the process “created a chilling effect, limited our ability to conduct the demonstration [and] frightened some workers from participating in future events,” they said.

Lopez, however, said police were called when protestors entered the Wendy’s “after having been told not to” by the restaurant’s management.

By the time officers arrived, the protestors had moved to the Taco Bell and were “blocking the entrance and impeding business.” Two were cited for noise violations “after they refused to stop using the bullhorn,” Lopez said.

Officers allowed the protest to continue outside the Taco Bell as long as participants didn’t block driveways or streets, the chief said.

Department spokeswoman Kammie Michael added that a “special events permit” for the demonstration had been issued, but didn’t “allow for amplification.”

Luebke – the son of state Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham – said he’d arrived after the protest moved to the Taco Bell and, once there, was “too far away” to see what precipitated the detention of the two men.

But it’d been “a pretty standard protest march like the ones we have all the time in Durham, pretty low key, a low-tension event with families and kids,” he said, adding that he hadn’t seen anything like the arrest of Bullard and Wade in years of attending marches in the city.

The complaint comes four months after police controversially used tear gas to break up a demonstration at CCB Plaza that was protesting the in-custody death of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta.

The department’s handling of the December confrontation at the plaza eventually drew criticism from the People’s Alliance, a big-three political group that in the past two election cycles endorsed all seven of the City Council’s current members.

Alliance Co-President Sara Terry said the group was “not involved” in this month’s fast-food-stand protest but joined the new letter to advocate “restraint on the part of the police force” and weigh in about “what, in our view, is heavy-handed police response to community demonstrations.”