Durham, N.C. — Following on the heels of the dropping of felony charges on Jan. 11 for eight Durham activists who tore down a Confederate statue in August, Durham community members and activists held a People’s Tribunal on Jan. 13 to put the state on trial. This dynamic and creative event allowed survivors of the state’s racist violence to speak their truth and be affirmed in it. It also made a mockery of the state’s claim to be an arbiter of justice and bore witness to the severity of its crimes against people in Durham.
The following charges were brought against former North Carolina Speaker of the House and current U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, Durham Sheriff Mike Andrews, Durham District Attorney Roger Echols, and President Donald Trump:
- Conspiracy and Obstruction of Justice – to unjustly thwart the will of the people and uphold white supremacy
- Collusion with special interests to profit off the misery of communities of color and poor and working-class people
- Negligent and Serial Homicide – in public jails and detention centers
- Real Crimes Against the People – racism, poverty, homelessness, choosing profit over people
Loan Tran, one of the day’s judges and a member of Workers World Party, opened the event stating: “We hold this tribunal not as an affirmation of the state nor its laws; we hold this tribunal to expose a system which considers borders to be legal, police killings to be legal, prisons and jails to be legal, but all of which are only legal because they enable this system to harm our people without having to answer to our people. We move through the People’s Tribunal today with the shared understanding that people’s power is what will get us free.”
The event featured testimony from a range of area residents. George Roberson, a longtime Durham community member who moved to Durham after his grandfather was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, testified on how it felt as a kid to walk by the Confederate monument on his way to court. “My heart sunk when I looked at the statue,” Roberson declared.
The Tribunal was held at CityWell, a church that has offered sanctuary to Samuel Oliver-Bruno, a Mexican immigrant who has been fighting a deportation order since December. Oliver-Bruno testified that he and his family came to the U.S. from Mexico to seek medical treatment for his wife, who has lupus. Judge Tran urged the audience to call N.C. Rep. G. K. Butterfield to demand that every space be a sanctuary space.
Takiyah Thompson, one of the eleven people arrested in conjunction with the tearing down of the Confederate statue, noted that after World War II all symbols related to Nazism were removed in Europe. Similarly, she asserted, the monument that stood outside the old Durham courthouse was a symbol of hate.
However, Thompson also called removing symbols of racism only a “first step. The masses have to be reeducated, like in Germany; they have to relearn their education of Black people, Brown people, queer people and others. It is not only imperative from a moral standpoint, but it is tied to our own interests. We must reconceptualize what it means to be southern, and to be human. When symbols of white supremacy are removed, we must also work to remove the ideology that supports these institutions.”
Muffin, an abolitionist, All of Us or None member and director of Participatory Defense in Durham, testified about her personal experiences with the corrupt court system. In 2014 Muffin was pulled over for a broken taillight, then arrested and given nine charges. Although she kept telling the officer they’d made a mistake, the bond was first set at $10,000 and then raised to $30,000. Muffin sat in a Durham jail for 61 days, causing her to lose her job and housing voucher. When the victim of the crime told officials that Muffin was not the culprit and she was finally released, Muffin and her kids found themselves homeless.
“At that point I realized that I didn’t want to do the job I went to school for — being a probation officer, an overseer. There are people sitting in Durham county jail who have not committed a crime, who are only there because they can’t pay the ransom. The whole system is corrupt, from the police who arrest you to the judges that sentence you. The police hand out sentences like candy. They don’t care if you’re guilty or innocent; they just want a body to raise money,” Muffin declared.
At the end of the first panel, Judge Helena Cragg, Director of the LGBT Center of Durham, thanked each witness for taking the time to give their testimony and experience. “Know your testimony is valuable,” Cragg said. Judge Tran invited folks to affirm the witnesses with the following chant: “We see you, we believe you, we love you.”
During the community speak-back, a man discussed the horrific conditions he had experienced in the Durham jail, noting that he personally knew two people who died of diabetes as a result of negligent treatment there.
Eva Panjwani, a Workers World Party member, raised President Donald Trump’s recent anti-black comments in relation to Haiti and African countries and noted that “when things like that happen, there is a knee-jerk reaction where people try to affirm their own dignity. … [But] when you walk in this room [today], it’s a given that people have dignity, that people’s lives matter. We’re not here to judge people.”
Opening the second half of the event, Jose Romero of the Defend Durham crew presented a long list of names of those murdered by police just that week. He then read one of his own poems, entitled “Sanctuary,” and Martín Espada’s poem, “Imagine the Angels of Bread.”
Mikisa Thompson asserted, as the child of Jamaican immigrants, that “we are not from shithole countries. America still doesn’t recognize it’s own borders; colonization and plantationism are still rampant, just with another name.” Regarding the Confederate statue, Thompson stated: “Laws came about during Reconstruction to say that statues are better than the value of your life. My values tell me that I’m worthy, you’re worthy, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. You’re valuable, no matter who’s in charge.”
Speaking on behalf of Felicia Arriaga, a Ph.D candidate in sociology at Duke University, Raul Jimenez testified on collaboration between local police and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, without any transparency or accountability. Arriaga’s talk concluded by stressing, “Liberation can only be reached when Black, Brown, and undocumented immigrants are free.”
Christopher Brazil, a security contractor for the Defend Durham crew, described his arrest for charges in relation to an Aug. 20 counterprotest on the day that the Ku Klux Klan announced they would march through Durham: “I’ve been served with charges … when I was there to protect the people from white supremacy.” Brazil urged: “It is important to continue fighting. I am willing to die for the proletarian working class; I will not stop until we win or I die. Fidel Castro said, ‘History will absolve us.’ After we win this war, this revolution, history will absolve us.”
Elijah Pryor, a local Durham community member present at the Aug. 18 uprising, testified that defending Durham is “personal for me. I found a picture of my great-grandfather, who was a slave. … It gave me something to fight for — you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re coming from. I intend to defend Durham to the last breath.” Pryor was held in the Durham county jail on robbing and kidnapping charges for 90 days — including 14 days after the charges were dismissed.
Rafiq Zaidi, a local community organizer with Inside-Outside alliance and a former political prisoner, told the arrestees: “What you have stood up for in pulling down that statue, those of us my age, 74, we have been waiting for you. The time is now for us to stand up. No matter how old you are, you still have enough energy to fight against this system.”
After hearing all the testimony, Workers World Party member Qasima Wideman directed the audience to form groups to discuss the verdicts and plan actions to bring the guilty to justice: “We know these people in power are guilty for many heinous crimes. We don’t have the power they do, but we have people’s power, which is stronger; we can hold these people accountable.
Some ideas that were discussed included a community demonstration at the home of Sheriff Andrews in the form of a people’s arrest warrant or subpoena, as well as a demand that Andrews spend 10 to 12 days in his own jail so that he can experience the conditions there. One group suggested building up alternatives to the state to deal with the fact that the roles that state officials occupy are inherently oppressive. Another proposed a divestment campaign targeting the big corporations that provide services at the jails.
Finally, the jury, which had been given signs that read “guilty” on one side and “guilty as hell” on the other, were asked to cast their verdict by raising their signs. The crowd unanimously held up the “guilty as hell” signs, chanting, “The people have decided!”
(WW photo: LeiLani Dowell)