By Lamont Lilly and Dante Strobino
The Liberty and Justice Coalition for Carlos Riley Jr. organized this city’s first-ever “Block Party for Justice” and speak-out against racial profiling and police brutality on Aug. 3. The event was co-sponsored by the Durham Solidarity Center, the NAACP and the Durham branch of Workers World Party.
The coalition was formed to defend the African-American youth, currently incarcerated in a Durham County jail on a $2.5 million bail for defending himself against a racist police attack last Dec. 18. He is being charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer, robbery with a gun and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Numerous marches and rallies have been held demanding his freedom. Read more about this case at workers.org.
The block party was a community assembly organized as a day of fun and much needed fellowship. Event organizers conducted outreach for two weeks leading up to the speakout by knocking on doors, specifically targeting Black working-class neighborhoods in East Durham, where the event was staged. Resistance posters and Aug. 3 fliers were all over the neighborhood.
The block party was held at Long Meadow Park. Over 200 community residents attended, from mostly the African-American and Latino/a communities. There were three grills all cooking food at the same time. Community residents received free hot dogs, baked beans, salad and homemade desserts. For many oppressed communities, a free balanced meal goes a long way, if only for one day.
The block party was an interactive community rallying cry for peace and justice. The purpose of the event was not only to discuss important political and social issues, but to engage the community on a more personal grassroots level. It was critical that activists and organizers could speak face-to-face and really listen to residents on a one-on-one basis. It was an opportunity for the oppressed to connect, gather and speak in a safe space. Even the presence of Durham police officers circling the park in their vehicles throughout the event could not interrupt the spirit of peace, resistance and community empowerment.
Speaking out against injustice
There were victims of police brutality who shared personal testimonies. There were parents who opened up in sharing their children’s’s experiences with law enforcement in the public school system. There were poets, hip-hop emcees and deejays who kept the crowd spirited in the name of mass consciousness. There was live jazz, guest speakers and a conference call with incarcerated Carlos Riley Jr.
Guest speaker and local activist Taurean Brown delivered a powerful and insightful address, highlighting the ills of capitalism, racism and the history of injustice in the Black, Brown and poor communities.
There were community vendors and literature tables to distribute information. There was a voter registration tent that also housed the police complaint drive. The organization is now gathering those complaints of police violence and racial profiling to be delivered in a public action in the coming week.
There were banners calling for the freedom of Carlos Riley Jr., CeCe McDonald, Marissa Alexander and justice for Trayvon Martin so that residents begin to conceptualize the local issues within a national context. A poster board was constructed where community residents could honor and remember the names of people killed by police and government agents — including Black Panthers such as Bobby Hutton and Fred Hampton, and many more.
Community residents actually came up and wrote the names of folks they knew. It was quite powerful to see.
Antonio Dixon shared how his 15-year-old brother was blatantly killed by Durham police after being shot in the back a few years ago. The young man himself was also brutally attacked by a Durham police officer. His face was smashed into the concrete. He is now permanently disabled. He currently suffers regular seizures and is unable to work. Hearing his story is an example of why providing such a space was so important.
North Carolina was the first state a few years ago to pass a law that requires cops to record racial data on every stop, detention and arrest. This has also been used to show widespread racial disparities. Racial profiling is running rampant in Durham, producing the worst statistics in the state. According to a June 2011 study conducted by the Racial Justice Task Force at the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, African Americans who reside in Durham County are nine times more likely to be arrested during a traffic stop than whites. Police brutality and excessive force have also been quite prevalent.
One week prior to the block party, a Durham police officer, R.S. Mbuthia, fatally shot in cold blood a 33-year-old Honduran immigrant, José Ocampo, at his front door. It was an absolute outrage. As three uniformed officers approached Ocampo, not one of them was able to speak Spanish. He was killed with one shot to the head and two shots in the chest.
In the days that followed, Durham Police Chief José López did not even issue an apology to this family. López excused such actions as police procedure and basically stated that Mbuthia and the other pigs were just doing their job. In addition to the case of Carlos Riley Jr., the Ocampo shooting was also discussed at the Block Party for Justice. A vigil was held Aug. 4 for Ocampo and attended by over 100 community supporters and family members in Old East Durham. Read more at tinyurl.com/lpj6g2f.
As the capitalist crisis and greed of the elite continue to clamp down on the necks of the people, forums, rallies, teach-ins and cultural events must all work together in maximizing mass consciousness and activism. The Block Party for Justice was just the beginning in Durham. Justice troops are now on the ground and mobilizing the people, any and every way possible. Power to the people!
Dante Strobino and Lamont Lilly are members of the Durham branch of Workers World Party.