‘It takes extreme measures to get attention': Police reform protesters take demands to mayor’s residence

“What you stand for is incredibly important, and I appreciate it,” said Durham, N.C., Mayor Steve Schewel after having an “honest conversation” with protesters in front of his home


About 20 people gathered outside the home of Durham Mayor Steve Schewel this week to have an “honest conversation” about the changes they’d like to see in how the community approaches public safety. Image: screengrab

The News & Observer
By Ashad Hajela

DURHAM, N.C. — For weeks, protesters in Durham have taken to the streets to sound their calls about police department funding, ending racial injustice and remembering those who have died at the hands of police.

They’ve blocked highways, painted murals on the street and camped outside the police department.

Tuesday, they took their concerns straight to the home of Durham Mayor Steve Schewel.

About 20 people gathered outside his home, not far from 9th Street, and waited for him to speak with them. Shortly after 8 p.m., Schewel came out of his house and walked down a set of steps to listen to Skip Gibbs, an artist who is the founder of the Other American Movement grassroots group.

Gibbs said he knows he could have emailed the mayor or called him. But he felt going to his residence “was more effective in getting him out to have an honest conversation.”

Schewel, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and mask, listened and nodded his head as Gibbs passionately outlined their demands. Schewel’s wife sat on steps behind him while fellow protesters recorded the conversation on their phones.

Gibbs told Schewel they want a crisis response team to respond to mental health-related situations; a community garden to be used for after-school programs and food security for the homeless; and ensuring that $3 million designated for the city’s small-business relief program go to businesses owned by Blacks and people of color.

In the course of the discussion, which lasted about 20 minutes, Schewel addressed Gibbs’ points.

He said he would work to divert the funds to businesses owned by people of color.

The News & Observer previously reported the city initially will select applicants at random, allowing smaller businesses more time to apply for the aid earmarked for businesses that have struggled during the pandemic. Other council members also have called for ensuring the aid goes to businesses owned by Black people.

He said he would speak with the city manager about allocating land for a community garden.

And he said the city established a community health and safety task force earlier this year, before the pandemic. The city has allocated $1 million for the task force and has asked the county and school system to join them. He told Gibbs that they will get together in August to research other programs around the country, including one in Eugene, Oregon that Gibbs mentioned called CAHOOTS.

We know already a lot of what the most important things are, and they’re what you’ve said: mental health response, crisis response, social work response, all those things,” Schewel said. “The things they’ll recommend are not secrets, but we do want to know what the best things are.”

But Gibbs pushed back, saying people who look like him will lose their lives unless a crisis response team is implemented sooner. He pleaded with the mayor to start a pilot program, like the one in Eugene, and then evaluate how it works in Durham.

Schewel said the planning is necessary, though.

“You don’t have to convince me,” Schewel said. “I agree with you. The example isn’t the only thing out there.”

Before the mayor returned to his residence, he told the group that he was glad that the protesters were continuing to remain active.

“What you stand for is incredibly important, and I appreciate it,” he said.

Gibbs told The News & Observer he was pleased with how the mayor responded.

I know Mayor Schewel is a good man, and I trust him,” Gibbs said. “It was successful because we got him on camera saying he’s going to give money to black and brown people.”

Gibbs has taken part in several demonstrations in Durham as well as a discussion with Schewel, City Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton and city and county law enforcement leaders on June 5, following George Floyd protests in late May.

Some of the members who stood outside the mayor’s home drove to Durham from Fayetteville, where they have advocated for similar reforms. Myah Warren said she came to Durham to “support her brothers and sisters,” but also to learn some tactics she can use at home.

“We need to come together as a state,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to learn from other people in other cities. ... “It’s not just a Fayetteville thing, it’s a North Carolina thing.”

Fayetteville, Warren said, is “a work in progress.” She said protesters would consider protesting outside the Fayetteville mayor’s residence, too.

“It takes extreme measures to get attention,” she said.

(c)2020 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)