Durham has worked hard to reverse an image as an unsafe community, but a wave of protests worries some that progress is now in danger.
In an interview, Habel, vice president of Capitol Broadcasting’s Sports Group, said the protests’ impact on the city’s reputation and the business community has been glossed over. The sports group manages the Durham Bulls.
“A humongous number of people left for the day and many of them were frightened, including at American Tobacco,” he said.
The chamber conservatively estimates 7,000 workers – including 4,000 workers at the America Tobacco Campus – left downtown Friday, Aug. 18, in response to a rumored white supremacists rally.
A rally never materialized, but an hours-long counterprotest in front of the old Durham County courthouse on East Main Street shut down many downtown buildings and businesses.
I think we really scared a bunch of people in the midst of that protest.
George Habel, Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce
Habel was eating at Tyler’s Restaurant & Taproom when the American Tobacco Campus issued a lock down in response to presence of weapons at the rally. Customers had to leave mid meal.
“My concern is not the loss of productivity, that’s a one off Friday afternoon ... it’s that we are so concerned about Durham’s image, and the folks who really embrace protest as a form of expression were exuberant with what they had accomplished,” he said. “I think we really scared a bunch of people in the midst of that protest.”
Protests aren’t new to Durham, but the chamber wants city leaders to establish ground rules for future rallies, Habel said.
“We have a protest every month here – that’s how we roll in Durham,” he said. “The chamber’s concern is that there’s not a coming together over whether or not (last month’s protests) presented a problem that needs a better solution next time.”
The Chamber isn’t the only group asking for new ground rules for protests. The Sheriff’s Office, which has been criticized for its own response to the protests, has also asked government leaders to set ground rules for rallies.
“On Friday Aug. 18, the images on a man wielding an axe, another with a gun visibly strapped to his hip and a protester armed with a semi-automatic weapon in downtown Durham where a daycare and places of business operate a short distance away were disheartening to witness,” Sheriff Mike Andrews wrote in a letter to Durham County Commissioners, the Durham City Council and Police Chief C.J. Davis.
“I hope never to see again such reckless disregard for human life during a purportedly peaceful demonstration,” he wrote.
Habel said he believes the protests were “sincere and wonderfully Durham,” but they showed the rules of engagement for protests had changed, especially with the presence of guns.
“My concern is ... the exuberance among the protest organizers at what they accomplished that day,” he said. “I think it is only by the grace of God that it ended as well as it did that day, that it ended up as a dance party.”
The images of guns downtown reinforces an image that Durham isn’t a safe place – a reputation that it has worked hard to overcome, he said.
“Safety in downtown Durham has long been an issue,” Habel said. “I think we have overcome it with good security and the fact that thousands of people work downtown and it’s safe ... I wouldn’t want to see that undone.”