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Raleigh And Durham Protests Play Out In Stark Contrast

Protesters and police in riot gear face off at demonstrations on Sunday night in Raleigh.
Jason deBruyn

Images and video from Saturday and Sunday nights in Raleigh have ricocheted across the internet. Cameras captured heavily armored police and sheriff’s deputies pushing protesters with sticks, the air thick with tear gas. On Sunday, Raleigh Mayor Mary Ann Baldwin criticized the rioting and looting that took place.

"There's a group of people who came in the dark of night who had no intention of protesting peacefully," Baldwin said. "Instead their goal was destruction, theft and violence, as you can see in our streets today."

But some protest organizers say they weren't the instigators. Instead, they say it was law enforcement who escalated things first. On Saturday and Sunday, police dressed in full riot gear were quick to form a barricade across roads. They stood almost like statues in gas masks and heavy body armor. On Tuesday, the police presence was far different. On that night, only a handful of police in the normal light blue uniforms were seen. To protest co-organizer Grazie Boccia, that made all the difference.

"The police's response made this different from what it was over the weekend," Boccia said. "Because it is not about the way that we protest. It is about the way that we are responded to."

Another organizer, Taari Coleman, says she was grateful for the way this protest on Tuesday was handled.

"But the fact of the matter is, if the police had been as kind to every black person as they have to me personally, we wouldn't be out here marching," Coleman said.

A Right To March

Many have argued in the past week that chemicals like tear gas should be used only sparingly by police. ACLU of North Carolina Interim Executive Director Chantal Stevens reinforces the right to protest safely. 

"When I woke up this morning, we still lived in a country where people have a constitutional right to demand justice and make their voices heard," Stevens said. "It is a fundamental part of this country, the right to protest."

Many protesters have contrasted the police response to these protests with those to the "ReOpen NC" group urging Governor Roy Cooper to ease stay at home restrictions. Tactical units were never out in the streets at those rallies, but were present during the day in Raleigh on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

Stevens said those protesting police brutality are exercising their rights just as those who want to reopen the state.

"So it is unconscionable – truly unconscionable – that doing so is causing them to be subjected to what we all know is not only military style assault, but also what we can term chemical warfare,” she said.

A Raleigh Police Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment about any change in policing strategy from the weekend to later in the week. However it was clear those nights ended dramatically differently than nights during the weekend.


Demonstrators in Durham sign hymns in front of Durham Police headquarters, protesting police brutality against black people.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC
Demonstrators in Durham sing a hymn in front of Durham Police headquarters, protesting police brutality against black people.

Cities In Contrast

In Durham, protests against police brutality on the black community have been notable for their relative peacefulness from the very start, a stark contrast to the tumult and destruction seen last weekend in Raleigh.

On Wednesday, as several hundred protesters marched through downtown, there were no lines of officers in riot gear. Rather, police cruisers provided an escort for the procession and helped close-off streets around the demonstration. 

Seventeen-year-old Chance Daye was among the protesters. He took to the streets, he said, to ensure black people like him and his 10-year-old brother will no longer be criminalized on the basis of their skin color. He said demonstrators themselves deserve a lot of the credit for keeping things peaceful.

"We're not doing anything," Daye said. "As you can see no one's out here looting, no one's out here rioting so there's nothing going on for them to really be offended or want to go and push against us."

Rayna Patterson saw it play out differently at the Saturday protest in Raleigh. Patterson and her husband, Alex, who brought their four-year-old daughter out for Wednesday's march in Durham, said that in Raleigh, on Saturday, there were militant protesters determined to cause trouble.

"They dress in all black, all you can see is their eyes," Patterson said. "They have bags of rocks; who comes to a protest with a bat and a bag of rocks?"

Patterson said she saw the Raleigh police strike a different posture than officers in Durham.

"The police officers - what they did was they did army tactics on us," she said. "They pretty much blocked us out of the vicinity around downtown Raleigh and it got people upset."

Space To Speak Up

Evan Hepler-Smith teaches history at Duke University and said it's a rare moment when people take responsibility for changing the world into their own hands.

"I just want to stand here in solidarity with black men, black women and lend my support, listen, hear what they have to say, hear their stories," he said.

And Hepler-Smith gives credit to the Durham police for keeping a respectful distance during the demonstration.

"Allowing people to say 'Stop, enough is enough' and giving people that space as it seems like the police around here are doing," he said.

Wednesday's demonstrators in Durham were split into two groups – one of which wanted to deliver a more aggressive message, using profanity as well as signs like "Defund the police."

A member of that group announced their intentions at the start of the rally so that protesters with kids could position themselves accordingly. That announcement elicited a response from rally organizer Curtis Gatewood, who said, "They have the right to do that."

Seperated by method, but unified in message — part of the recipe for another night of peaceful protests in Durham.

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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