Durham mayor: Damage done by those 'bent on destruction'
Posted September 24, 2020 1:51 p.m. EDT
Updated September 28, 2020 10:29 a.m. EDT
Durham, N.C. — Violent protests Wednesday night that damaged more than a dozen businesses in downtown Durham "caught us by surprise," Police Chief C.J. Davis said Thursday.
The protest was purportedly a call for racial justice in the wake of a Kentucky grand jury declining to indict any Louisville police officers in the March shooting death of Breonna Taylor. Protesters marched from CCB Plaza to the Durham Police Department headquarters and then through downtown.
But the protest turned ugly, with people smashing dozens of windows to businesses and setting fires.
Mayor Steve Schewel said the damage was done by "people who came to town bent on destruction."
"The folks that were inflicting the damage last night were white. I just want to be really clear about that," Schewel said at a news conference. "I believe that that is an indication of the fact that this is an attempt to co-opt a racial justice movement. This is not something that we can accept."
"I don’t believe that expression [of violence] had anything to do with the verdict and the outcome of the Breonna Taylor case," Davis agreed. "It had everything to do with taking advantage of an opportunity to express other ideology."
Police had no advance warning of any group coming to Durham with plans for violence, Davis said.
"We absolutely have the resources, if we were made aware, to respond in a timely fashion," she said. "By the time the Durham Police Department called officers in to respond to this particular group, they dispersed. Most of the damage had already been done."
Davis said Durham police have traditionally taken a hands-off approach to protests, allowing people to exercise their First Amendment rights. But that position will now change, she said.
"We plan to have more of a visible presence. That is the strategy that we feel we have to take at this point – not in an antagonistic way, but in a manner that our community members know that we are there and we are paying attention," she said.
"Anybody that comes to Durham with the intention of inflicting violence and destruction of property should know that I fully support our police in stopping this activity," Schewel said.
City Councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton agreed.
"Moving forward, we know that we cannot allow this to happen to our friends and our neighbors here in Durham, these business owners," Middleton said. "These are folks that have poured their life savings into these businesses, who serve us, who make Durham what it is. We’re not going to watch it burn because there are some folks who want to take advantage of our legitimate pain."
Authorities don't know who was behind the violence but said those involved had all the tendencies of an anarchist group.
"This was a group that was, in whole, made up of individuals who planned to riot and cause destruction, and their plan was to, obviously, get in quick, do damage quickly and, by the time there was a unified response of the numbers that we needed to engage this group, there was a dispersal of the group," Davis said.
A flier for the event was shared by a group called Durham Burn, which describes itself online as an anarchist group.
"I don’t want to say that none are from Durham," Schewel said. "[But] they're coming downtown to inflict this destructive activity, and it’s not acceptable."
Police are reviewing footage from nearby security cameras to see if they can identify any of the rioters, Davis said.
"We’ll be working with our court system as well so we can find ways to hold people accountable," she said.
The Durham County District Attorney's Office declined to say Thursday whether it would support stepped-up action by police.
"The DA's Office considers all charges on a case-by-case basis. It would be inappropriate to comment further in the event that criminal charges are filed," officials said in an email.
Robbie Caulder of J&H Glass said it could take weeks to repair the damage because the coronavirus pandemic has made it harder to get supplies.
"We hate to see this," said Susan Amey, president and chief executive of Discover Durham, which also had a window smashed. "We don’t like to see violence and vandalism and certainly don’t condone it. But this broken glass can be repaired. It’s the broken hearts and the frustration and anger people feel that is more on our minds right now."
"We can’t keep doing it, and it’s sad that we have to," business owner Howard Brown said as he put plywood over his windows. "The owners have to keep boarding up their places of business. We understand the reason behind it, but destruction isn’t the answer. It’s ridiculous that we have to keep doing this over and over again."