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'I Understand Why People Are In The Streets': Durham Mayor On Police Funding, Systemic Racism

Mayor Steve Schewel stands for a portrait inside Durham City Hall.
Ben McKeown
Mayor Steve Schewel stands for a portrait inside Durham City Hall.

The new fiscal year started this week, a time when local governments implement the new budgets they spent months working on over the spring.

In the city of Durham, that budget has been the subject of a protest for several weeks now. In particular, demonstrators object to a 5% increase in funding for the city’s police department, which is getting more than $70 million over the next year.

It’s a sit-in of sorts, a camp-out in front of police headquarters. A message painted on the road in big yellow letters says “DEFUND” with an arrow pointing to the building.

Last week on this program we heard from one protester, Durham activist Skip Gibbs. Today, you’ll hear from the man who leads this city, Mayor Steve Schewel.

In this Sunday, June 21 image, a message of 'DEFUND' points to the Durham Police Headquarters. The street art was painted as part of the Black Lives Matter protests in the city.
Credit Chuck Liddy / For WUNC
In this Sunday, June 21 image, a message of 'DEFUND' points to the Durham Police Headquarters. The street art was painted as part of the Black Lives Matter protests in the city.


STEVE SCHEWEL: Everything that's happened in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, which was a horrible, terrible, cold, inhumane act of murder, racist murder… I understand why people are in the streets.

WILL MICHAELS: On a hot afternoon earlier this week, Schewel and I spoke in front of Durham City Hall. There are six feet between the two of us, and about six blocks between us and the protest camp. He says he’s just come from there, the third conversation he’s had with Gibbs about protesters’ demands to redirect money from the police department to other city services.

SCHEWEL: I respect them and I'm happy to keep talking to them. But the council has already had a plan. And we have continued that plan and now funded that plan to move ahead the work that we want to do, to find alternatives to some of the activities that police officers are doing now and have other people do it… We had established the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force. And the whole purpose of that task force is to find things that are other ways of keeping our community safe besides what a police officer can respond to.

MICHAELS: Schewel says one of those ways could include crisis interventions by trained social workers rather than police, a point on which he and Gibbs appear to agree. The task force is getting $1 million in this year’s budget.

Two things: Is that enough? And does the continued presence of these protesters indicate to you that that's not adequate for how they would like to see things change?

SCHEWEL: The $1 million, as I said when we passed it, was a down payment. Most of this work - social workers, mental health counselors - those are things that our county government and our state government traditionally fund, not the city. So we're putting in $1 million for things that we ourselves don't ever traditionally do to get this started. So yeah, it's a lot, it will do a lot. Especially if it's ongoing $1 million a year, you can pay a lot of mental health counselors and social workers out of that…

MICHAELS: Schewel says he understands the broader context of ongoing demonstrations has to do with systemic racism. And he says the city has been working to fight it.

SCHEWEL: We have, you know, for example, in the last several years, misdemeanor diversion court, where the vast number of what would have previously been arrests that got a record for somebody is now put in misdemeanor diversion court before that ever goes to our criminal justice system. The person that goes there doesn't get a record… U visa certifications for undocumented people who have helped solve crimes… Our department now helps them get the  U visa certification, which they deserve. The fact that we require written consent to search a car...

MICHAELS: Schewel says he’s proud of the way the city’s police department has handled the ongoing demonstrations. Interactions between police and protesters have been relatively peaceful in Durham. One exception was last week, when protesters at the camp in front of police headquarters briefly barricaded Main Street. Skip Gibbs  and three other activists were forcibly removed from the road and arrested for blocking traffic.

SCHEWEL: You know, I've been in jail for civil disobedience, but there are consequences that come with it. And I thought the police handled it well.

MICHAELS: Schewel reflects on his own past as an activist… blocking the entrance to the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War… being a part of the anti-nuclear proliferation movement… and being arrested while he was a Durham City Council member during a Moral Monday demonstration in Raleigh in 20-13. Today, he says he has certain responsibilities as mayor.

SCHEWEL: The demonstrators don't have to worry that, you know, our buses can get people to work down Main Street or that our fire trucks can get out on Main Street. That's not their responsibility to worry about. And it's mine.

MICHAELS: In a post on social media, Gibbs again expressed disappointment in his latest conversation with Schewel, and described it only as an attempt to end the protest. The camp is still standing in front of police headquarters.

SCHEWEL: I'm happy to talk to them anytime. But my objective is not to stop protests. My objective is for the city of Durham to do the right thing to help. You know, John Herbie Wheeler, the longtime chair of the Committee on the Affairs of Black People, who this courthouse was named after right here, the federal courthouse… he used to say, “the fight for freedom begins every morning,” and that's true for a lot of these protesters. It's true for me. And so that's what I get up thinking about and how to make that real. … Systemic racism is a great national sin, and we have to fight against it every single day and everything that we do, whether or not you're the mayor or someone who's protesting.


Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
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