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Heel Talk episode nine: Protests in the Triangle against police brutality

Graphic of Heel Talk podcast

The ninth episode of Heel Talk went live Monday morning. 

Protests have erupted across the United States following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police officers. Activists are calling for an end to police brutality toward Black Americans. Locally, protests have occurred in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill in response to George Floyd’s death. On this episode of Heel Talk, host Evely Forte talks to three Daily Tar Heel journalists — Chase Cofield, Maydha Devarajan and Claire Perry — to discuss the protests, what activism, in the midst of a pandemic, looks like and how community members feel about the national conversation moving forward. This episode was co-edited and co-produced by Evely Forte and Meredith Radford. Reporting by Chase Cofield, Maydha Devarajan and Claire Perry. 

For more information on today’s episode, click here.

The transcript of Monday’s episode is available below: 

Evely Forte: Eight minutes and 46 seconds. That’s the amount of time George Floyd — a 46-year-old Black man — was pinned to the ground with the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin wedged into his neck. The officers arrested Floyd after a deli employee accused him of buying a pack of cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. The white officer continued to press Floyd to the ground even after he lost consciousness and paramedics arrived at the scene. 

I’m Evely Forte from The Daily Tar Heel, and this is Heel Talk.

Hey everyone, welcome back to Heel Talk. Today’s episode strays a bit from the usual COVID-19 coverage we’ve brought to you these past two months and will instead focus on another crisis taking place across this country — that is, police brutality against Black people. Following the death of George Floyd, many Americans have taken to the street to protest the injustices perpetuated by systemic racism in this country.  

According to The New York Times, protests have occurred in at least 140 cities across the States. Locally, peaceful protests have occurred in the Triangle area in response to George Floyd’s death in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. 

[Raleigh protest: “George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd! No longer will we sit idly by and continue to take police brutality.”]

EF: Today, I’m joined by a few DTH journalists who covered these protests and who will share their analysis, experiences and observations from these gatherings. First, we have Chase Cofield, a staff photographer on the Photo desk, who covered the Raleigh protest. Welcome to the show Chase.

Chase Cofield: Hi, nice to be here.

EF: And we also have Claire Perry with us today, summer City & State Desk Editor, who covered the Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill protests. Welcome back Claire.

Claire Perry: Thank you for having me.

EF: And finally, we also have summer University Desk Editor Maydha Devarajan joining us again, who covered the Raleigh protest. Welcome back Maydha.

Maydha Devarajan: Yeah, thanks for having me.

EF: Claire you covered the protests in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. Can you start us off by explaining what the scene was like at these protests? How did you perceive the crowd?

CP: So to be clear, there have been multiple protests in Durham and Raleigh since last Saturday. I attended the Raleigh Demands Justice protest this past Saturday and the BYP100 protest in Durham on Monday. Each night of protests in both cities has had very unique energy, so I speak only from what I’ve seen and the research I’ve done. Conservative estimates at the first night of Raleigh protests that I attended, say 2,500 people were in attendance, but those estimates extend up to 5,000, and that was just for the first night. I’m not sure how big the crowd was in Durham, but I know the crowd filled the entire courtyard of the Carolina Theatre, so it was pretty massive. The Raleigh Demands Justice protest was explicitly designed to be peaceful, and it was organized by a coalition of groups including Black activists and other supporters. BYP100’s protest was designed and led almost exclusively by Black activists, and from what I saw, it had more of a concrete structure than that first night in Raleigh — there was a march protected by police cars, the entire group stayed together for at least three hours, that kind of thing. The vibes were very different at each protest, from the beginning, and I think that was reflected in how each city looked the next morning.

EF: So, Chase, what did you gather to be the general sentiment among protesters as to the importance in attending this protest, even if it occurred in the middle of a global pandemic? 

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CC: Well, so the general sentiment was that everyone was sick and tired of being sick and tired. You know, the virus and pandemic will eventually end at some point, but, and the economy will recover from it. But, however, systemic racism and police brutality against Black Americans won’t end anytime soon. Because of the circumstances regarding the pandemic, I feel like the protesters were even more passionate than they usually would, because people are exhausted from the killings, and police officers, and that they’re risking gathering in large numbers, despite the virus, because they want their voice to be heard and for real change to take place. 

EF: Maydha, do you have a sense as to what some of the protesters’ general demands are? 

MD: So, I can only speak on the Raleigh Demands Justice protest, since that’s the one that I attended. But as Claire mentioned, the organizations that put this together, they were a coalition of groups including Emancipate NC, Young Americans Protest, Raleigh PACT and The Carolina Peace Center. So, some of their demands included a policy that would require officers to intervene when a fellow cop becomes belligerent or abusive, they also demanded an investment in community-lead health and safety strategies instead of investing in police, they also demanded more transparency in police disciplinary actions. I spoke to Dawn Blagrove, she’s the executive director of Emancipate NC and the Carolina Justice Policy Center. She was saying it’s really important to have a change in law enforcement culture. She said it was really important to shine a light on what’s going on, so that transparency again. In particular, she said she wanted to see a police oversight board that has actual power to effectuate change. 

Dawn Blagrove: Those officers did not wake up murderers. We have to change the culture in law enforcement that fosters and protects bad cops. 

MD: She said she also wants the ability for the public to have access to officers, personnel and disciplinary records. 

I was also able to speak to Rolanda Byrd, she’s the executive director of Raleigh PACT. And, her son, Akiel Denkins, was shot four times by police in February of 2016. She said she wants to see the Raleigh Police Department receive further training on methods of de-escalation. She also spoke to the crowd in front of the Wake County courthouse at the beginning of the protest, where she repeatedly encouraged to community members that they come together and if they have suggestions for ways to take actionable steps that can address issues of police accountability, she really wants to have those conversations with people within the community. 

[Rolanda Byrd at Raleigh protest: “While y’all are worried about what I ain’t doing, come tell me what I need to do. Come sit down with me and let me know what we need to do, please. As a people. Got to come together and get this work done. I can’t do it by myself.”]

CP: Yeah, so to add to that, the Durham protest, although I think it came from a very similar place, and very similar concerns, definitely had a few different goals than the Raleigh protest. So, the BYP100 protest was organized by folks who think that capitalism is where a lot of these equity disparities and just injustices, stem. So, a lot of the dialogue at this protest was centered around abolishing capitalism, just on the whole. And, with that, there was also talk about abolishing the police department and having more of a community-led, community-focused system of justice, and just taking the resources that would be diverted to the police department, and putting them into supporting community resources and just developing a community where, perhaps less law enforcement would be needed, because there’s more of an environment of trust and just general recognition of problems and being able to address those problems through stuff like support and education and equity. So, definitely both protests had similar goals, both protests were, kind of, spawned from the horror of police brutality and anger and pain, all of which I believe are very fair emotions to have. But, they both definitely had different approaches as to how these problems would be addressed. So, I think it’s a very interesting dichotomy, especially considering what happened at both protests, and just how both cities looked in the morning. 

EF: Though George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, we know that Black individuals have endured these types of injustices well beyond the state of Minnesota. Claire, did any of the protesters shed light on local incidents of police brutality?

CP: So, absolutely. At the Raleigh Demands Justice event, two moms whose sons had been lost to police brutality spoke. It was heartbreaking. As a society, I think we become so numb to events like this, especially in communities that are not Black, like white people and other people of color. But, when you hear those names and realize those men who died were someone's sons, it takes a completely different tone. Gloria Mayo’s son, Keith Collins, was fired at 11 times before passing away this January. 11 times. Let that sink in. It's hard to hear, but imagine how hard it is to experience as a mother, to see that happen to your own son. It was heartbreaking to hear these women talk about their experience, especially because I know these two incidents are representative of a much larger problem, and many more deaths. 

MD: Yeah. To add to that, as I said before, I was able to speak to Rolanda Byrd, who addressed the crowds in front of the courthouse. She was saying it’s been four years since her son was killed, but it’s really important for her to be out here, fighting for someone else’s son, and her grand-kids and her younger son and husband. 

RB: So, but I know my son left behind two boys, that I have to fight for, and until my breath is gone, that’s what I’m going to do.

EF: Chase, in Raleigh, how did you perceive the interaction between police officers present at the scene and protesters in attendance? 

CC: I mean, as far I was aware, like, it seemed pretty peaceful and I didn't really notice any hostile interactions between police and protesters. At one point, Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker did speak out to the crowd in front of the courthouse, but he wasn’t met with the warmest reception. At another point, I was taking pictures of all these people marching from the capital, and circling back around to Wilmington Street, and I just, I took a quick break, sitting down on Wilmington Street. And, I ran into my friend, Maxwell Bryn, who also goes to UNC. And, he was a part of a crowd of protesters that got tear gassed by security officers from the Wake County Detention Center. According to him, “they loomed over the protesters with SWAT-level gear, before anything had already escalated."

CP: So, at first there was a peaceful tone, definitely, at both events. But, at the Raleigh event, even from the beginning, there just seemed to be so much tension in the air, and a degree of hostility between the law enforcement and the people who were there. From the beginning, the sheriff had officers standing inside the courthouse, and he came out and made a statement, that’s Wake County sheriff, by the way, Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker, came outside and made a statement to protesters, that he had officers there, but they were just to protect the peace and that they wouldn’t be instigating any kind of violence. That did not turn out to be true, unfortunately. Some protesters had gone into the reception well, through which cars could drive through, and I believe, at the courthouse, and I believe this was the site of the first tear gassing of the night. So that did not pan out. And just throughout the night, there developed different confrontations between officers and protesters. Like, the group split up into multiple different groups at the beginning of the night, and the one that I was with didn’t have initial tear gassings or anything, but they did go to the old state capitol. And, at the old state capitol, there were police officers. And, just, the police officers were standing there, and I think it was bringing up so many emotions, and many of these protesters, who had gone to the protest to stand up against police brutality, to have, just manifestations of all of these things that they had been feeling there, in human form. And, people were yelling at the police officers, but at that interaction there was not any teargas used. However, through the night, there absolutely was escalation to using teargas. And, it was from, like, throwing water bottles, that police officers began to use teargas on protesters. So, take that as you will. But, yeah. There absolutely was confrontation. There absolutely was tear gas, there was pepper gas, there were rubber bullets. It wasn’t always the protesters. I know multiple journalists talked about how they had been targets of tear gas and rubber bullets. Personally, I experienced being teargassed twice, and I, just, I don’t know. The amount of force used varied throughout the night. But there was absolutely escalation.

EF: Claire, it seems like the protest in Raleigh was peaceful for hours. At what point would you say that things began to escalate? 

CP: So, the complicated thing about that first night of Raleigh protests is that what I personally saw is not representative of everyone’s experience, and I know that. The first time I heard about tear gas being used was probably around 6:30, when word got back to the protesters I was following, who were walking outside of downtown to meet a police barricade on the street, that some other protesters back downtown had been gassed. The first time I personally saw gas being used was around 8, at the corner of Salisbury and W Cabarrus. Unarmed protesters were throwing rocks and half-full water bottles at the police, who were wearing lots of protective equipment, and their projectiles were returned with tear gas. 

In my experience, this escalation was sudden and shocking. From there, consistent gassing of protesters and bystanders continued throughout the night. I was caught in the crossfire twice. I can’t speak to how the protesters felt in those moments, but I didn’t see any damage or destruction of property until after teargas was deployed. In the morning, there were broken windows and graffitied walls across downtown, but personally, I don’t think the initial damage I saw was representative of any malice or thoughtlessness. Protesters were angry. The presence and actions of the police seemed to reinforce the ideas behind the protest — that Black people are disproportionately arrested and targeted by police, and that this can lead to violence against Black people, and even death in the case of George Floyd and many others.

Through the destruction, there was a permeating sense of anger, of pain, and of sadness for the lives lost to police brutality, but hope for a future beyond police brutality. I hate the misconception that these protests are thugs, because it simply isn’t true. The destruction of property stemmed from a place of deep emotion and years of frustration, and I don’t think it’s fair to consider the damage done to Raleigh without considering the teargas that agitated protesters to a breaking point and the years of systemic violence and racism these people showed up to protest.

CC: To add to what you were saying, Claire, you know, it was surreal seeing 90% of downtown Raleigh being boarded up the day after. But, I feel like, for the most part, those buildings or, you know, businesses, they could repair. All the lives lost to police brutality won’t ever be able to, we won’t be able to gain them back. So, I think that’s why a lot of people are just angry and are destroying stuff right now. 

EF: So, Maydha, do you know how many arrests were made at each of the protests and how many people were injured or hurt at the end of the day?

MD: So, as we’ve mentioned, there’s been protests in Raleigh and throughout the state, for multiple nights in a row. As of two days ago, the News and Observer reported that at least 45 people were arrested in Raleigh, between Saturday and Monday. We know that, as of Sunday morning, five police officers were taken to the hospital. I’m not sure about the number of protesters who were injured or taken to the hospital. Also, to add to Chase and Claire’s comments, Greear Webb, he’s a rising sophomore at UNC and the cofounder of Young Americans Protest and NC Town Hall, as we mentioned before, Young Americans Protest helped to put together the Raleigh Demands Justice protest. Both Greear and Dawn emphasized that although they didn’t necessarily condone certain actions as the night continued on Saturday, and as the protest intensified, they understood the anger and frustration that people have with this case, and obviously with years of injustice and police brutality. 

DB: What we want people to take away, number one, is that they are not powerless. The power lives with the people. And, that we have the power, individually and collectively, to reimagine what justice is and what justice looks like. 

EF: Following the protests, I know there were some cases of looting local restaurants and businesses throughout the Triangle. Claire, do you have a sense as to how some local businesses owners are responding to this, in light of the protesters' demands and the economic strain some are feeling because of the pandemic?

CP: So again, I’d like to clarify that the business owners I talked to are not necessarily representative of the Raleigh business community as a whole. But from who I’ve talked to, business owners are hurting from this momentary destruction, especially in the wake of coronavirus. But most, if not all of them, have insurance. All of the business owners I spoke to said they supported the protests personally but were sad that their businesses were targeted in the hours following the protest, and many of them said they don’t think the people who looted their stores are the same folks who were out to protest. One business owner I spoke to even said she was grateful for an excuse to give her business new fixtures and a new start. I think it can be easy to generalize about people involved in big events like these, but just like each protester, each owner’s experience is different, and I don’t think it’s fair to lump them all together into one narrative.

EF: Chase, are there ways that people who cannot participate in protests — due to health issues or other reasons — that they can still participate in local activism?

CC: Yeah, of course. There are plenty of ways to, you know, commit to the cause, through social media, because I’ve seen a lot of people post stories about posts that have, include links to donations for activist organizations, both domestic and local organizations. And, I’ve also seen bail funds for arrested protesters, like the Minnesota Freedom Fund was a very popular, is a very popular bail fund that I’ve seen a lot of people donate to, as well as local bail funds. And, of course, there’s a lot, several memorial funds to the victims of police brutality. There have also been petitions to sign and numbers to text and call, to, like, your local politicians, that, you know, call for justice over the lives that have been lost to police brutality. I think it’s perfectly fine if you don’t feel comfortable going out to protest due to the spread of the virus. That’s something that I’ve kind of felt some anxiety over, and I don’t really see myself going to any protests any time soon, at least for the next two weeks. And, there are so many ways to contribute to the protests online nowadays, it makes it possible for your voice to be heard from home. 

[Raleigh protest: “Black likes matter! Black lives matter! Black lives matter!"]

EF: So, these protests that we talked about today are part of an ongoing national movement, really, looking at police brutality toward Black people and issues of systemic racism in our country. Do any of you have thoughts on how journalists will continue to cover future protests and this national movement moving forward?

MD: Yeah, I think it’s been really interesting, in this past week, to see how conversations around the ethics of journalism and objectivity have arisen. We also have an immense responsibility as journalists to be responsible storytellers, in how and what we choose to include in the narrative. Like Claire said, it’s really important that journalists do not sensationalize these protests. Additionally, it’s also really important that these conversations around objectivity and biases in journalism incorporate the perspectives of minorities in newsrooms. It’s very possible to be unbiased and balanced in your reporting, while also explicitly calling out racial injustices for what they are. And, these kinds of conversations shouldn’t be stifling the work, or voices of Black and brown journalists. And, I really hope that these conversations will be a catalyst for making significant changes in how these standards of reporting are taught, because, I think, they are long overdue for a change 

CC: And, to add on to, like, what Maydha said about objectivity, I feel like, as a Black journalist, it’s kind of hard to remain, having a neutral stance, or an objective stance, because one, like, there definitely is a real fear for me about, like, getting pulled over and, maybe, something happened to me, by a police officer. And, at the protest, like, you know, if something wrong happened, I could have gotten arrested or, you know, worse, got harmed, which happened to many other, like, Black journalists all over the country, like CNN’s Omar Jimenez, who got arrested on camera. So, I’d definitely say that is a real fear of mine, and I think it’s kind of hard to remain objective if you, like, come from, like, if you’re, you know, an African American yourself, it’s hard to have an objective stance on it. 

CP: Yeah, and I think as a white journalist, and for other white journalists as well, we need to recognize that the standards of objectivity that are in our newsrooms and in our journalism schools, were made by other white journalists. And, even if you, personally, do not see a problem with some objectivity standards, that’s because you’re coming from a place of privilege and it was created by people who come from places of similar privilege to you. And, I think it’s okay to recognize that it’s maybe not something that you will understand. But, changing the standards in the journalism industry is still something you should support, because how comprehensive can your coverage really be if your newsrooms are 75 percent white? That doesn’t represent the populations of the people that we serve. And, journalism is a profession that is meant to serve. And, I think, if you are a white journalist, you need to recognize that you have privilege, and your privilege levies power. And, you should use that privilege to just stand behind the few minority and Black voices in the journalism community, and levy that privilege towards changing these standards, because they need to change. And you should hold, we should hold the leaders of the journalism industry, especially in schools and newsrooms, including student newsrooms, we should hold these leaders accountable for changing these standards. Because, it is outrageous, in my opinion, that we can’t say something is objectively racist, because racism is wrong and you don’t have to be a journalist to say that, you can say that as a person. And, you should be allowed to say that as a person. And, if journalists are not saying what is wrong, and pointing out the injustices in our society, then what are we doing? And, what do we stand for? So, I think we as an industry, and as students, as journalists, we all need to take a step back and recognize what is happening in our industry, and change these objectivity standards to reflect our newsrooms and what our newsrooms, what we want them to look like, not what they do look like. Because, what they do look like, is a representation of these objectivity standards, and we need to realize that and we need to change them. 

EF: Thank you all for your time today and for shedding some light on local activism taking place in the Triangle, and across the nation really. 

This week’s episode of Heel Talk was co-edited and co-produced by Meredith Radford and myself. That’s it for this week’s episode of Heel Talk. I’m Evely Forte, I’ll see you next week.

So, if you enjoyed today’s episode, please consider subscribing, rating and reviewing the episode and sharing it with someone that you think would enjoy it too. I’ll see you next time.

Episode transcribed by Meredith Radford.

DTH stories mentioned in this episode: 

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