Durham County

‘The streets are crying’: Durham community members mourn activist

A public memorial service for community organizer Umar Muhammad of Durham will be announced soon. Muhammad died Monday after a driver collided with his motorcycle on South Alston Avenue. He was 30 years old.
A public memorial service for community organizer Umar Muhammad of Durham will be announced soon. Muhammad died Monday after a driver collided with his motorcycle on South Alston Avenue. He was 30 years old. courtesy of Rodrigo Dorfman

Umar Muhammad was angry.

Someone had broken into his storage shed and stolen five bikes.

But he wasn’t going to call police, and he wasn’t going to retaliate. Instead, he made a video.

He posted it in on Facebook in May, asking the community to help him find his bikes, asking if the person who had taken the bikes needed a job and saying he wanted to get at the root cause behind the theft.

“I feel that in order to practice what I preach I have got to rely on community,” he said. “It ain’t about shooting whoever’s riding down the street on my bike or jumping and causing some harm to them. It is about restorative justice and community being a stake for their own change, and I need the community to help me get my bikes back.”

Muhammad never got his bikes back, said Dave Hall, a friend and a former colleague at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

But the video post showed Muhammad living the Harm Free Zone model, which seeks to build up the community and respond to violence and crime through dialogue and other tools – not calling the police.

That is how Muhammad lived, said Hall, a senior attorney at the coalition.

“He would constantly talk to folks about getting their (criminal) backgrounds checked and cleaned up, and getting folks empowered and understanding the power within the community,” Hall said.

That mission ended for Muhammad, 30, on Monday morning. He was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead after a 1996 Cadillac Seville hit his Honda VT1300CX motorcycle on South Alston Avenue.

The driver of the car, Rodney McLaurin, 45, of Durham, was charged with misdemeanor death by vehicle, failure to yield right of way and driving while his license was revoked, police said.

The crash ended the life of a father of a 2-month old girl. He was also helping to raise his partner’s twin boys.

Muhammad had returned to the community in 2012 after serving nearly five years in prison for armed robbery. He became involved with SpiritHouse and other organizations and began a journey that turned him into what others described as a visionary who convinced people who had served time in prison that they mattered, while fighting for cultural and policy changes on the local, state and national level.

“We are losing one of the best organizers in the country,” said Daryl Atkinson, co-director of Forward Justice, a law, policy, and strategy center seeking to advance social, racial and economic justice in the South. “And the movement is losing our next wave of leadership.”

A public memorial service for Muhammad will be announced in coming days, colleagues said.

‘He wanted to change’

Muhammad worked for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice as a community organizer for two years. In July he left to become lead organizer and campaign strategist for Forward Justice.

In that role, he planned to work on national issues through the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People’s & Families Movement.

Across the region he would advocate for SpiritHouse’s Harm Free Zones Movement, and in North Carolina he would work through All of Us Or None-NC, a state chapter of a human rights organization advocating for current and formerly incarcerated people. Atkinson and Muhammad started the state chapter.

Nia Wilson first met Muhammad at a Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement (FADE) Coalition meeting, shortly after he had been released from prison.

“He wanted to change,” said Wilson, SpiritHouse’s executive director. “He wanted to serve his community, but he didn’t know how.”

He was rough around the edges, Wilson said. He came to meetings but would only stay 15 minutes or so. He didn’t have a job. He didn’t have a resume.

“Nobody would take a chance on him,” Wilson said.

Wilson would invite him to her house, and they would sit on her porch.

“I would just let him talk about what he wanted,” she said. “Because you can’t just take somebody to meetings, you have to take them in your heart.”

He loved Durham and believed there was something better for the people he knew in prison and in the street, Wilson said, but he didn’t know how to turn that into action.

He talked about how much people wanted jobs, and that if people could afford to buy food things would be better.

“That people needed to understand that his people, that his friends, that they weren’t people to be thrown away,” Wilson said. “And he wanted to be the one to keep fighting for them.”

Wilson would listen, she said, and guide him. She and others provided “unconditional love” and a “place to heal” after his time in prison.

“When you have been discarded by society and you have vision and hopes and dreams, somebody just needs to listen to them and believe in you,” Wilson said. “We never tried to turn him into anything. Everything you saw was what he was.”

Changing culture

When Muhammad was hired at the Southern Coalition it gave him a sustainable wage, a new environment and a positive projection, said Atkinson who worked as an attorney at the coalition before accepting a position at Forward Justice.

“That is what set him on fire on changing policy, practice and culture,” said Atkinson, who became Muhammad’s mentor, supervisor and friend. “He knew that if other men and women had access to opportunity that they could achieve their dreams to be successful as well.”

Muhammad walked the streets and identified people who had criminal histories and connected them with coalition attorneys, who would help them get their records expunged. He pulled people from the shadows and helped connect them to various resources and organizations.

“Umar was showing them their voices mattered and they believed him, and they trusted him,” Wilson said.

He advocated for restorative justice, including participating in the successful push for the Obama administration to adopt a policy not to ask job candidates about criminal records until a job had been offered.

He attended trainings across the nation. He did a lot of speaking engagements, sharing his story.

“He was an unapologetic truth teller,” said Caitlin Swain, co-director of Forward Justice. “You could not look away when he was telling his truth.”

On Tuesday Wilson sat in what was supposed to be Muhammad’s new office.

“This is so hard. He is supposed to be here,” Wilson said. “The streets are crying. Durham’s streets are crying.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges