Durham County

How activists are changing policing, politics, in Durham

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews
Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews Durham County

Political activists helped force a Durham police chief into retirement.

They helped keep Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews from getting a raise.

And Monday night they brought down a Confederate statue that state law had protected.

The demonstration has put the Bull City in the national spotlight, but activists have always had influence in the city with two universities and numerous grassroots and established groups.

Andrews said county officials will prosecute, and it is not clear if the statue will be replaced.

For now, demonstrators are calling the moment a victory.

“I think it will help lead to more victories in terms of people as communities recognizing their own power,” said Qasima Wideman, 21, of Durham, an N.C. State University student and a member of the Workers World Party, one of the groups that organized the demonstration.

“(It shows) they have the power to protect each other and accomplish really big things when they come together,” she said.

Nia Wilson, executive director of SpiritHouse, said activists in Durham have been successful for multiple reasons. The community organizing group has been part of a coalition pushing for police reform and other issues.

“I think it is not just activism, it is organizing,” Wilson said, which includes electing officials who care about the issues that activists bring to them.

“It it one thing to organize around an issue, to demand change,” Wilson said. “But if you are demanding change of people who have, for instance, a completely different value system, you are not going to be successful.”

Wilson and other activists supported the two newest City Council members, Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece, whose Tweets this week seemed to sympathize with the Monday protesters’ cause.

After someone tweeted that if it were legally possible for Durham officials to take down the Confederate statue, city leaders would, Reece replied: “Fact check 100% true.”

Durham is more of an activist community than probably any city in the state, said Mayor Bill Bell.

“That is just Durham,” Bell said. “That is just the community.”

Still, Bell said, he hopes activists understand that there may be consequences for their action.

Not all elected leaders were so receptive.

“We are talking about the destruction that occurred,” said County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. “The focus right now is to determine who the perpetrators were and prosecute them appropriately because lawlessness in this community cannot be condoned.”

Commissioner Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs said pulling down the statue may be dramatic, but it doesn’t pull people together or highlight the pain those symbols cause or give people a voice who see history differently.

“Durham has a very proud tradition of elected officials being responsive to citizens, but we also have a very proud tradition of peaceful, civil, thoughtful ways to address change,” Jacobs said. “I think right now it is going to be very important that we continue that as a way forward.”

Recent successes

The Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement (FADE) Coalition was among the groups whose complaints about the Police Department prompted Bell in 2013 to direct the city’s Human Relations Commission to investigate. After months of hearings, the commission concluded racial bias and profiling existed within the department.

City Manager Tom Bonfield has since overseen a number of changes, including requiring police to get written permission from drivers before doing a consent search. The activist group’s efforts also led to the Police Department’s tracking and sharing traffic-stop data, including disparity information, semi-annually.

Bonfield eventually forced former Police Chief Jose Lopez to retire last year under mounting criticism of the chief’s response to racial concerns and a rising violent crime rate.

For years, inmate advocacy group the Inside-Outside Alliance has protested Durham County jail conditions, in some cases targeting county commissioners to force action by the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail.

Until recently, county commissioners have mostly said they have no control over the jail. However, last week commissioners cited poor communication about a move to add inmate visitation via screens in the lobby, as one of the three reasons they didn’t grant Andrews a raise.

In March, five protesters were arrested after interrupting a county commissioners meeting and clashing with deputies outside of the chambers. Le’Andre Blakeney, who challenged the charges in a trial last week, was acquitted of the two misdemeanors he was charged with, and a judge dismissed the third.

On Tuesday Andrews cited that court challenge, as well as public safety, in explaining his department’s decision to not intervene Monday night during the destruction of the Confederate monument.


Durham has a history of activism with groups such as the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, which was founded in 1935; people organizing to address a variety of issues and support African-American leaders; as well as professors and others at local universities, including N. C. Central University.

In 1957, the Rev. Douglas Moore, pastor of Asbury Temple Methodist church, and seven African Americans staged a sit-in that challenged racially segregated seating at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor at the corner of Roxboro and Dowd streets.

Over the next three years, activists continued to challenge segregated businesses, escalating to a point in 1963 in which thousands of protesters converged on the Howard Johnson’s.

Meetings among city leaders and local organizations led to a biracial committee that within two weeks announced all hotels and motels and a significant number of food-service operators would serve customers without regard to race. Leading businesses in Durham also agreed to employ black citizens.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges