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Another call for Durham to remove ‘Israel’ from controversial policing statement

Durham City Council, left to right: Council member Vernetta Alston, Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, Council member Charlie Reece, Mayor Steve Schewel, and Council members Mark-Anthony Middleton, Javiera Caballero and DeDreana Freeman.
Durham City Council, left to right: Council member Vernetta Alston, Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, Council member Charlie Reece, Mayor Steve Schewel, and Council members Mark-Anthony Middleton, Javiera Caballero and DeDreana Freeman. City of Durham

A City Council statement opposing militarized policing that mentioned Israel has ignited a “level of virulence aimed at council members” that Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said he has not seen in 11 years in elected office.

Some Jewish community leaders have asked the council to revisit the April statement they say unnecessarily singled out Israel. A group of Triangle rabbis called it “a punch in the gut,” and the city and the police chief are being sued by two volunteer Israeli police officers.

Now there’s another call to remove Israel from the statement, which Schewel wrote and the council endorsed.

The Durham Human Relations Commission, an advisory board appointed by the council, has been working on a report about the April 16 “Statement by the Durham City Council on International Police Exchanges.” It is still in the subcommittee draft stage, but the draft is being shared with the community to get more feedback before the Human Relations Commission issues its final report.

The subcommittee comprises four members of the 17-member commission: Susan Austin, Ricardo Correa, Mikel Barton and Andrea “Muffin” Hudson.

They found the statement was not anti-Semitic but did “cause tension.” They recommended rewriting the statement to remove a reference to a memo from Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis’ in which she said the department under her leadership has not and does not plan any police exchanges with Israel. It also added a sentence about the council opposing purchase and use of “military-style” equipment.

The draft report also states that council members use their personal emails too much for city business, and that the statement should have been on the council meeting agenda so the community could review it.

Human Relations Commission Chair Diane Standaert said Monday that it is still “just a draft from the subcommittee, not even a draft HRC report.” She said the draft was shared with the rest of the commissioners and some community members to get feedback before the HRC would take a vote on the report. That could come at their Dec. 4 meeting or not until their January meeting or later.

The commission started studying the council statement in May after a request from the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill and Voices for Israel, which asked the commission to assess whether the statement “was discriminatory and created unnecessary tensions.”

Leaders of the groups met with council member Mark-Anthony Middleton in September, asking him and the rest of the council to amend the statement.

“Remove the word Israel, and it’s taken care of,” said Jill Madsen, CEO of the federation.

In October, Schewel told The Herald-Sun he does not plan to revisit the policing statement.

“I’m Jewish. I can understand anybody who’s worried about anti-Semitism in this country or elsewhere,” he said. “But this has nothing to do with that. This is all about policing.”

Schewel said he considers the issue settled, but is willing to talk to anyone who has concerns. He has been criticized for donating to Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the groups, including Durham for All, behind a petition submitted to the council before the statement. Schewel donated to Jewish Voice for Peace five years ago, but “realized their politics and mine are not close enough [that] I wanted to continue to donate,” he told The Herald-Sun. “But I do deeply understand why they have the politics they do.”

Standaert, the Human Relations Commission chair, said they know this is “an issue incredibly important to a lot of members of our community.”

She said the subcommittee asking for feedback on the draft shows their commitment to hearing from people and “taking our time to move through a process that makes sense.”

Once the commission finishes its final report, they will give it to the council liaison, Council member Javiera Caballero, to share with the rest of the council. Sometimes the commission may also present their reports to the council.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563; @dawnbvaughan
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