'The World Is Watching': Durham Activist On Why He Is Camped Out At Police Headquarters
In the month since George Floyd’s killing sparked protests nationwide, some demonstrators in Durham have literally taken their message to the police.
They've pitched about a dozen tents in front of police headquarters, and have been camping out since the city council unanimously approved $70 million in funding for police, a 5% increase that council members said was necessary due to inflation.
WUNC reporter Will Michaels joined local activist Skip Gibbs at the makeshift camp for a conversation about what defunding the police might mean for the Black community in Durham.
SKIP GIBBS: Today marks eight days. We all got up, man, and had a celebratory shot. You know what I'm saying? We're like, 'Hey man, we're at day eight and we're not letting up.
WILL MICHAELS: On a cloudy morning earlier this week, I met with local activist Skip Gibbs of the group Other America Movement as he cleaned a card table set up underneath a tailgate-style tent. There's a spot for donations of water and ice and a hand-washing station built from a home improvement store bucket and plastic tubing attached to a foot pump. The camp stretches about a quarter of a block around the police department. Coolers flank an area that looks like an outdoor living room with an area rug, folding camp chairs, and high-speed fans to cut through the humid summer air. A few steps away is a handful of smaller tents where Gibbs and fellow protesters sleep. We walk about 50 feet down Main Street, where someone has painted a message on the road in big yellow letters that stretch halfway down the block.
GIBBS: It's a lot of yellow paint for one and it says "DEFUND," and there's an arrow that points towards the police station, this beautiful $71 million monument of oppression.
MICHAELS: So what does defunding the police mean?
MICHAELS: Our conversation starts with a question that Gibbs has clearly heard before. He laments that the phrase "defund the police" has been — in his words — sensationalized since Floyd's death.
GIBBS: It's different from the complete abolishment of the police force. I don't want to live anywhere where there's no police. I don't want to live anywhere where there is no law and there is no order. But let that law and order be true to society. Let it be fair, let it be evenly distributed ... So whenever I say, "defund the police," I say they should take some of that $70 million they just got and give about $11 million of it to the people here in the neighborhood and in the communities so they could get away from the stigma or that correlation between poverty and crime.
MICHAELS: About a block and a half away, there are also letters painted in yellow...
GIBBS: Yep, big yellow letters that say "FUND," and they point toward the social services building.
MICHAELS: "So that brings me to my next question, which is how do you think those funds would be better spent, redirected from the police department?
GIBBS: Putting them into social services, and by social services, I mean all things social. If their job is to actually solve crime, maybe they should go to some of the systemic reasons as to why crime is actually present. They should maybe go toward better schools. People with better educations typically commit less crime. I think that it should go to community resources like workforce initiatives so people don't have to steal things, they can work for it.
MICHAELS: As we talk more about where Gibbs believes that money would be better spent, supporters of the movement honk their horns every so often to show solidarity as they drive down Main Street, and Gibbs raises his fist in response.
GIBBS: ...train social workers, therapists, crisis workers, people ... people who are familiar with social injustice and they're familiar with social issues... I think that police should only be used in the event of existential crisis.
MICHAELS: Earlier this month, Gibbs met with Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis, Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead, Mayor Steve Schewel and other city officials. Gibbs says he was initially excited about that meeting, but has been disappointed in what has happened since.
GIBBS: They gave us a bunch of bullshit. They haven't done anything to change the lives here. They immediately passed a bill giving the police force a 5% increase, giving them $70 million and they did absolutely nothing for the Black community.
MICHAELS: Gibbs points across the street at low-income neighborhoods less than a block away, then back to police headquarters.
GIBBS: Those officers in there that say that they care, those sheriffs and those chiefs and all those guys that care, they should be over there in that community explaining to them why they deserve $71 million over here for new toys or whatever. Because in the proposal, they said that nothing would fundamentally change, it's maintenance or for inflation... Why their economic hardships due to inflation don't matter, but the police station's does.
MICHAELS: The city council argues police need the $70 million to keep protecting the 300,000 people they serve. Gibbs argues police do not get enough training to properly serve and protect. But he gives credit to Mayor Steve Schewel for presenting what Gibbs calls a brave face.
GIBBS: I met with Mayor Schewel and he was actually cooperative and he was listening and he cared about food insecurity. So he was definitely willing to help get us the funding that we need for a Black co-op. He wants us to put together a proposal and give it to him, and he'll see what he can do as far as getting us funding. [But] all my life, I'm 34 years old, all my life I've heard white men say, 'I'll see what I can do.' You know what I'm saying? And I've never seen what they can do.
MICHAELS: A fellow protester has just returned to camp with a breakfast biscuit for Gibbs. Our conversation ends with another question he has heard before. How long does he plan to stay here camped out in front of police headquarters?
GIBBS: Oh, until they do something.
MICHAELS: He pointed to the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960 when four Black college students sat at a white lunch counter.
GIBBS: Four guys sat out there in front of Woolworth's, you know what I'm saying, and they got beat up pretty bad, and arrested, but when they got out, 300 more guys were out there, and when those guys got out, 600 more were out there, until things actually changed. And I think when the needs of the many outweigh those of the few, you know? When this whole block is covered in tents and when they start to get pushed out into the street, it'll be an issue for them, and they'll have to do something. And the world is watching. Are they going to come out and beat our ass? Or are they [going to] come out like men and women who have taken an oath to protect and serve, and figure out what it is they can do legislatively to enrich the lives of these people who they say matter?
MICHAELS: Since our conversation, the protest did push out into the street. Gibbs and three others were forcibly removed and arrested for blocking traffic. But the camp remains in place on the sidewalk and Gibbs has returned. We reached out to the Durham Police Department and mayor's office. Police Chief C.J. Davis declined an interview. Mayor Steve Schewel agreed to speak with us. And you'll hear his take on [WUNC’s Morning Edition] next week.
Correction: A previous version of this story did not include credit for muralist Whitney Stanley. The caption has been updated to provide credit for both muralists featured in image.