In a city reeling from a deadly week, Durham residents gather, pray and call for action

They stood in a circle and prayed where the teenager died. There was a small bouquet of flowers and four candles on the ground on Saturday afternoon, as about 100 people gathered to remember one of Durham’s most recent murder victims, Zaeveon Tucker.

He died on Tuesday, shot in the back, police said, while crossing North Driver Street in East Durham. He was 17. He died on the grounds of Shepherd’s House United Methodist Church, in the grass near the road. Now Tucker’s “blood cries out from this ground,” a man named Ben Haas said on Saturday afternoon.

Haas is the director of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. Usually, he said during his opening remarks on Saturday, the coalition offers support for the families of victims of violence. Its role, he said, often plays out in the aftermath of that violence, in the shadows.

“But here we are, today,” Haas said. “Because this is a spot that we as a coalition have called home.”

And now it had become a crime scene. Tucker’s death came amid a particularly grim 24 hours in Durham, where earlier in the week four shootings left eight injured and two dead. That stretch of violence began on Monday night with two drive-by shootings, minutes apart.

In both, police said the shots came from a dark-colored car. The first of those shootings, at 10:23 p.m., left two injured in the 1200 block of Wabash Street. The second, six minutes later, injured three people at a bus stop near Urban Ministries of Durham.

One of the injured, Kerry Graham, 24, later died in the hospital. The violence continued into Tuesday, when Tucker was shot while crossing North Driver Street, police said. It happened in daylight, at around 2 p.m.

Another shooting on Tuesday injured three people — two from bullets — near the corner of Watts Street and Club Boulevard across from Northgate Mall.

And so Haas and his religious coalition gathered on Saturday to pray. They gathered to remember not only Tucker, but all of Durham’s growing list of murder victims.

‘Here today to stand firm’

No arrests have been made in any of the shootings from earlier in the week.

“This is not a vigil,” Rev. Annette Love said during her remarks, while witnesses stood in a circle. “This is a gathering of the people that have a consciousness about what is going on. And we are here today to stand firm and let the people out there know that we’re not going to continue to take this.”

Love was one of several Durham religious leaders who spoke on Saturday. They represented different churches, and different denominations, but they brought similar, impassioned messages about the need to address the violence — particularly gun violence —that has gripped this city in recent days.

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry.

Some spoke about a need for faith amid trying times. Others about the need to address community poverty and inequality that, they said, pushes young people toward crime, violence and gangs. Among those who attended the gathering was Satana Deberry, the Durham district attorney.

She stood quietly and listened to the speakers. She said she wanted to show support.

“I live here,” she said. “This is my community. Every death of a person in this community saddens me.”

A violent year in Durham

The people who gathered — reverends and pastors and just people from the neighborhood — came together at the end of a particularly bloody week in Durham. But there have been several of those kinds weeks in 2019, starting with the first. Three people were shot and killed in two separate shootings on New Year’s Day. Another was shot and killed a week later.

By the end of January gun violence in Durham had claimed the lives of seven people, including a 10-month old-infant named Ruia Reams. There was an arrest in that case, which police have attributed to domestic violence.

Most shooting deaths, though, have come and gone without an arrest. Between May and August, 13 people died after being shot. More than half of the victims were 25 or younger. The youngest was Zion Person, 9. Among those 13 shooting deaths, all separate incidents, there have been just two arrests.

Overall, there have been 34 homicides in Durham in 2019. That’s already more than the city’s 32 homicides last year.

“I am so tired of these senseless killings,” Love said after the coalition’s formal gathering Saturday, which lasted about an hour. “It makes no sense. I am trying to figure out what in the world is going on. What are people thinking. Why?”

Love said the violence makes her fear for her four grandchildren, two boys and two girls, who range in age from 7 to 14. They live in Durham, Love said, and she has been a Durham resident since 1974.

In recent years, she said, she has become active in trying to seek solutions to what she sees as a gun violence epidemic in the city. She said she has shared conversations with gang members in an effort to understand why they turn toward crime and violence.

“They say, ‘well, the money. It’s easy money,’” she said. “So if you give these kids a few dollars to commit crimes, they’re going to commit crimes because of the money. That looks good to them.”

A place for refuge and comfort

That a teenager died from a gunshot on the grounds of the Shepherd’s House church made for an especially emotional gathering on Saturday. The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham holds monthly meetings at the church. It’s also where, every February, the coalition gathers to read off the names of Durham homicide victims from the previous year.

Now the violence had come to that church. A victim had died just outside of its doors. Rev. John Gumbo, the senior pastor at Shepherd’s House, was not inside when Tucker was shot. Gumbo arrived 15 minutes later to the scene, a body in the grass. On Saturday, Gumbo provided testimony.

“This place is there for refuge, is there for comfort,” he said afterward. “And we wanted to put a statement into our community to know that we are still going to continue the work that we are doing.”

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Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.