5 arrested at Durham County commissioners meeting over jail protest
Le’Andre Blakeney was the only one who didn’t take the deal.
Blakeney, 26, a Duke University divinity student, and four others were arrested and charged with three misdemeanors – disorderly conduct, resisting a public officer and inciting a riot – at a March 13 county commissioners meeting.
The four others, Duke math lecturer Rann Bar-On, 37, youth pastor Joe Stapleton, 28, Duke student Greg Williams, 27, and Mia Hutchins-Cabibi, 33, agreed to do community service in exchange for the charges being dismissed.
But Blakeney said he arrived at the commissioners meeting late and should not have been arrested.
By fighting his arrest, he said he is standing up against unjust charges tied to the Inside-Outside Alliance’s protesting the sheriff’s plan to start a video visitation program, in which inmates would meet with visitors via a monitor in the jail’s lobby.
So on Monday he took his case to court.
The alliance has been protesting jail conditions relating to food, health care and other concerns for more than two years, but recent protests have centered on the video visitation program. They worry video visitation will end in-person visits, but Sheriff Mike Andrews said that isn’t the case.
During County Commissioner Chairwoman Wendy Jacob’s March 13 state of the county address, members of the alliance started reading inmates’ letters outlining their concerns.
The protest remained mostly peaceful until everyone had been escorted into the lobby. In a scuffle between deputies and protesters, Williams ended up on the ground.
One man asked for a deputy’s name and badge number, and words were exchanged. That man was arrested. Protesters started to chant “Let him go,” and eventually stopped. Sheriff’s Maj. Paul Martin warned that protesters who didn’t leave would be arrested. Shortly thereafter, he blocked the door and called for some of the protesters to be arrested.
Blakeney’s attorney, Scott Holmes, complained in a hearing before the trial started Monday afternoon that Assistant District Attorney Alex Herskowitz changed the inciting a riot charge to unlawful assembly just minutes before the case was set to begin.
Special District Court Judge Nancy Gordon agreed with Holmes’ protest.
“Poor practice is an understatement,” Gordon said, adding she didn’t have the authority to address it. “I just don’t think I can help you. If I could I would.”
Holmes didn’t want to reschedule the trial, he said, and inconvenience his client and the 12 others members of the Inside-Outside Alliance there to support him.
While Blakeney contends he arrived to the meeting late, Martin testified Monday that Blakeney was part of the chaotic crowd, pushing and chanting outside the commissioners’ chambers.
“I have been in many riots, and I am sure he pushed me,” Martin said.
Another deputy testified he saw Blakeney inside the commissioners chambers, but Blakeney contends he never went inside.
Testimony resumes at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.