top of page

While other cities erupted, peace reigned in Durham. No bull.

It might've been the weirdest telephone call ever received.

It definitely led to the weirdest call ever made.

Back in the 1990s, when Durham was internationally renowned for its contentious school board meetings - "contentious," my eye: police sometimes literally lifted and carried livid residents out - friends from around the country who'd watched CNN would call and ask me what the heck was happening in the Bull City.

Me? I viewed the raucous meetings as a badge of honor: who wouldn't want to live in a community where residents were passionate enough about their children's educations to risk going to jail?

Fred, my former Gary, Ind., housemate, called recently - again, while watching CNN - to ask what was happening in Durham. Only this time, he seemed dismayed that there weren't violent protests here, that the city wasn't aflame.

He explained that since there were no sports on TV, he was channel-surfing, watching pockets of certain cities explode in paroxysms of pent up rage after now-fired Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd while putting the full weight of his body and, he thought, the law on Mr. Floyd's neck.

The day after receiving the call from Fred, I made a weird call.

Me: Hello, Mayor Schewel, how come there weren't any violent uprisings in Durham?

Mayor Steve Schewel paused a moment, no doubt to discern if it was a joke.

"I don't want to jinx it," he said, "so I'll say 'so far.' This is not over. There will continue to be protests. There should continue to be protests. We have to very much hope that they will continue to be peaceful."

Schewel attributed the thus-far peaceful demonstrations to Durham's diversity and "the leadership of the protesters. They have been adamant in their advocacy for a racially just society, but at the same time they've been very clear that they don't want violence in Durham."

Diversity has long been regarded as Durham's greatest strength, especially among its residents. It remains the only city I've ever known where you don't think twice when seeing a

"Black Lives Matter" sign in white residents' yards.

In Raleigh, where property damage has been substantially greater than in Durham, police chief Cassandra Deck-Brown drew the ire of protesters recently by disingenuously insisting to protesters that "all lives matter."

"The other super--important thing" in keeping the peace, Schewel said, "has been the philosophy and practices of our police force. They have been non-confrontational and supportive of free speech and the right to assemble. That has made all of the difference... We have a history of demonstrations where, honestly, the police have not done so well, but in recent years we have a history where our police have learned that non-confrontational tactics and a philosophy of cooperation with demonstrators reduces violence and keeps us all safer."

Lest anyone conclude that all of North Carolina's cop shops are ready to take a knee and join with protesters singing "Kum-ba-ya," allow me to quote the late Gershwin brothers, Ira and George: "It ain't necessarily so."

You see, while Durham's Police Chief C.J. Davis was saying "We should continue to work with our protesters and individuals in our communities so that they can have the opportunity and the space to express themselves," Charlotte's top cop was calling for an investigation after his officers were accused of bombarding boxed in protesters with tear gas and other chemical agents.

A 97-second video shows hundreds of Charlotte protesters peacefully strolling downtown, as though en route to a Carolina Panthers football game, when an explosion and tear gas sent them fleeing and coughing in the opposite direction. Upon discovering that they were boxed in on both directions, panicked people screamed "We're trapped."

Chief Kerr Putney said later that "There is nothing to indicate whatsoever that there was intentional abuse on the part of our officers" and that he is asking the SBI to investigate "to determine if CMPD actions were lawful."

Lawful or not, U.S. Rep. Alma Adams is calling for police to cool it with the tear gas. In a speech at the Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte, Adams, who represents the 12th District, said "First of all, we are a civilized nation... These are chemicals that, in my opinion, don't need to be on the streets of America. These are wartime things, and we're not in wartime."

In Asheville - yes, artsy, laidback Asheville - the mayor is demanding an explanation after 10 rampaging. inartistic cops were seen destroying a medical aid station set up for protesters. At least they were only smashing food, water bottles and medical supplies and not heads.

Not even little bitty Rockingham was immune to protests of Mr. George's death: About two dozen people marched last Sunday to show their support for Mr. Floyd, and police blocked automobile traffic so they could proceed safely.

Police major E.W. Grant told one of the marchers "We feel the same way you do."




Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  


Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 


  • Twitter Round
  • Instagram - Black Circle
  • b-facebook
bottom of page