S1E13: Danielle Purifoy & AJ Williams on winning alternatives to policing in Durham NC
February 28, 2023
AJ Williams is Durham Beyond Policing’s Co-Director of People & Organizing. His political work has included bailing out Black women, femmes, and gender non-conforming caretakers, striving to end the cash bail system and pre-trial detention with Southerners on New Ground (SONG); and organizing with BYP100 to address gender-based violence and interpersonal harm. In 2021, he ran for Durham City Council, Ward 3, as the first trans candidate in the history of the city, on an abolitionist platform. He served two terms as an appointed member of The City of Durham’s Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee and is on the movement board of The Cypress Fund.
Danielle Purifoy is a Black queer lawyer and geographer at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on the racial politics and legal dimensions of development in Black towns and communities. She is an alum of Black Youth Project 100 and has been a member of Durham Beyond Policing since 2016. She is the former Race and Place editor of Scalawag, a media organization devoted to Southern storytelling, journalism, and the arts.
Winning Alternatives to Policing to Create Community Safety in North Carolina
By Andrew Willis Garcés
Nearly three years after calls to invest in alternatives to policing that create community safety rang out in marches and City Council protests across the South, only two Southern cities are now dispatching unarmed first responders to some emergency calls. Nashville launched its pilot program on February 1, 2023, joining Durham, NC, whose Community Safety Department has been fielding calls in two city neighborhoods since June 2022.
In its first eight months in operation, the city’s Community Safety Teams program – in which 9-1-1 dispatchers send EMTs and social workers instead of police – has responded to 1,400 calls, 25% of which would have normally required a police response.
But unlike other similar programs now in operation in cities like Albuquerque and Portland, Durham’s is entirely the product of advocacy campaigns by organizers, led primarily by Durham Beyond Policing. And those campaign wins were only made possible after years of investment by multiple organizations in the capacity to elect bold progressive champions to City Council.
Abolitionists in Durham have, since 2015, diverted more municipal funding to noncarceral approaches to community safety than any other Southern city. In addition to the response teams, three other city-funded pilot programs also send clinicians along with police on some calls for service, or provide mental health intervention over the phone, and offer follow-up visits to connect people who come into contact with first responders with community-based care. And the city now collaborates with the county government to fund a neighborhood violence interruption program, Bull City United, as well. These are new investments.
Durham organizers also defeated requests for additional police funding. In 2019, they blocked a proposal for 72 new police officers, working with champions they had elected to City Council over the previous four years to instead spend $1 million to raise part-time city staff to a $15/hr minimum wage and increase the budget for eviction diversion. And a year later, they won another $1 million for a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force that would go on to design programs that rely on community-based prevention, intervention, and re-entry services as alternatives to policing and the criminal legal system.
Today, many of those organizers are now leading the design of other neighborhood-based safety programs to complement the new city-staffed department.
But their effort to redirect resources away from policing and incarceration did not unfold in a straight line, and they’ve had significant setbacks in the last two years, even as campaign demands they won years ago are finally being implemented. Today, Durham Beyond Policing is attempting to engage hundreds of the city’s residents in a durable perspective shift away from traditional, carceral approaches to creating safety in advance of their next traditional campaign push – with policy demands, City Council targets, and a base to mobilize – to reinvest even more of the city’s budget into safety, not police.
Theirs is also a story of organizational flexibility, as the group transitioned from a one-off campaign structure, to a formal coalition, and most recently to a basebuilding organization with its own membership and separate organizational partners. And in the opening months of 2023, the group has added a third strategic approach to existing “inside” and “outside” strategies.
EARLY ORIGINS: MOVING BEYOND MARCHES
According to Durham Beyond Policing organizers, the early seeds of their campaigns began following national and local mobilizations galvanized by outrage over the murders of Black men and boys like Trayvon Martin, and the acquittal of the man who shot him, George Zimmerman, in 2012. In Durham, there were protests and vigils around the death of another boy, Chuy Huerta, a 17-year-old who police said had shot himself in the back of a patrol car in 2013, and following the killings of several other men by Durham police and sheriff’s deputies that year. And more protests erupted following the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice in 2014.
In 2015, some of the activists who had joined those marches, along with community organizers who had waged campaigns for tenant and worker protections, all frustrated with the lack of support for bold policy action at the City Council level, had decided to pool some of their resources into electing a progressive champion. This was a sharp turn into electoral strategy ahead of when many other Southern campaigners started learning that playbook, after the 2016 presidential election.
By learning how to partner with a longtime progressive political action committee, the Durham People’s Alliance, an ad hoc coalition that also included members of the county’s teachers’ union elected longtime progressive activist Jillian Johnson on a platform that included support for bold policing reforms. But at the time she was one of the only councilmembers consistently “walking the talk”, as Danielle Purifoy, a founder of Durham Beyond Policing noted, “She was elected by some of the same folks who subsequently got involved in campaigns around policing, on a Council which was considerably more conservative.”
Jillian wasn’t able to stop the City Council from voting to spend $71 million on a new police headquarters, a vote that took place just a few months after she was sworn in. But in the months that followed local organizers who had been involved in previous responses to police violence or, had been part of Southerners on New Ground’s Black Mama’s Bail Out actions, decided to wage a campaign to push the City Council to strike the new headquarters from the city budget that would be approved in June.
Daniel says the group was spurred on partly by the Inside Outside Alliance, a local group which had a correspondence program that enabled community members to connect with people housed at the jail: “We were hearing about people dying at the jail from medical neglect from all sorts of different abuses, right? And not able to really have steady contact with their loved ones on the outside.”
Weekly rallies leading up to the final council vote culminated in a direct action blocking the street in front of the old police headquarters, in which organizers – who included members of Black Youth Project 100 and the city’s workers’ union, UE 150 – put out plastic buckets labeled with budget categories, like “Housing,” and fake money, and invited those present to decide how the city’s tax revenue should be spent on a “People’s Budget”.
Although unsuccessful, Danielle says the campaign spurred the group’s interest in learning about how to use the budget as a campaign tool, “and to start to pay attention to how our public dollars were being spent, particularly from the city’s general fund.”
The campaign’s work crews continued to meet, and zeroed in on supporting a nascent effort to bring participatory budgeting to Durham as a way to continue to build the group’s budget analysis skills. What started as a direct action stunt before a City Council vote became a motivating source of continued collaboration, as DBP’s research squad continued to learn about the budget – shocked by the realization that 60% of it was allocated towards carceral approaches to public safety – and how to use the city’s official planning process over time. “We have so many unmet needs, and 60% is a massive amount of money that could more purposefully contribute to our collective safety.”
Some members of the group turned their attention to a way to bring that action into reality, by advocating for the city to establish a participatory budgeting program, which would not only allow them to allocate $2.5 million to neighborhood projects as voted on by Durhamites, but would also give them an ongoing way to develop more shared alignment from people in the city who wanted police reform that the budget and the City Council were a key point of leverage. They worked with Jillian and other inside game allies to shepherd legislation through Council, to create what is now one of the country’s largest participatory budgeting programs.
Although the group wouldn’t launch another formal campaign for several more years, they channeled grassroots outrage against incidents of police brutality that emerged over the next two years, like the deaths of multiple people incarcerated at the city’s jail. “Those happenings really kept people’s attention and kept us together in a lot of ways in the sense that it made us think, we really do need to focus more and work harder, and think and strategize about how we’re gonna take down this system,” said Danielle.
DURHAM’S ECOSYSTEM ELECTS “INSIDE GAME” CHAMPIONS
At the same time as DBP continued to work in an ad hoc way, responding to moments of outrage, some within the wider Durham movement ecosystem were working to recruit and support other future elected champions to join Jillian at the City Council and, later, the County Commission, in advance of the 2017 municipal election. Seeing another opportunity to indirectly influence voters who might participate in the primary that fall, DBP held an open-air forum to press local candidates on policing-related policy issues in a downtown plaza. Said Danielle, “Even the liberal PACs in our city weren’t necessarily asking those sorts of questions. But we wanted to know, what is your stance on thinking about redistributing resources away from policing and towards something else?”
It was with that backdrop that many of the people who had worked to elect Jillian used the infrastructure they helped her build to form Durham for All, a new electoral basebuilding formation, and which turned both to developing year-round engagement with voters on issues like policing and recruiting others to run for office. Because it was a 501c4, the group could also engage their members in formally endorsing and signing up to help elect candidates – a first among the city’s progressive ecosystem. And crucially, some of those organizers started collaborating with a longtime progressive institution, the Durham People’s Alliance PAC, which had over several decades built a consistent following among the city’s Democratic primary voters who often followed the PAC’s endorsements, serving a role similar to that of the Working Families Party in many northeastern states.
With all of those pieces newly assembled, this broad alliance elected two more progressives to the Council in 2017, Vernetta Alston and Steve Schewel. A few months after the election an unexpected Council vacancy would result in the appointment of another progressive champion in 2018, Javiera Caballero, after she received the endorsement of the Durham People’s Alliance. Local organizers now had four reliable votes on the council for the first time, a governing majority, all of whom had been shaped by Durham Beyond Policing’s issue campaigns.
RESPONDING TO A NEW THREAT WITH A BOLD VISION
The group would come out of its “quiet period” the following spring when Durham’s city manager and police chief unexpectedly asked City Council for 72 new police patrol positions, causing D’atra Jackson of Black Youth Project 100 to raise the alarm to her mostly-dormant Durham Beyond Policing coalition partners, as the group’s co-director, AJ Williams, explained: “Within a few days of her sending that email, we’re holding meetings, and are like, ‘alright, let’s do a proposal for a [community safety] task force.’” Rather than simply campaign against the request for additional police funding, the revitalized coalition decided to use their expertise in navigating the city’s budget process and years of quietly imagining alternatives to win investments in new safety programs. They settled on a demand for a city- and county-funded task force which would design and then request funding for permanent programs that diverted community members away from carceral approaches.
With four solid “no” votes against new police funding on the City Council, and confident that they would win their demands, DBP decided to use the budget vote that spring as an opportunity for a visionary action that would show the power they had created, what AJ described as a joyful contrast to the more serious tone of the group’s previous actions. Anchored by musician Toshi Reagon, who led supporters in singing “Going to Get My Baby Out of Jail”, the group mobilized nearly four hundred people to the final Council vote. “And it wasn’t all DBP folks,” said AJ, “we had folks fighting for the eviction diversion program to get funded, who were seeking liveable wages for city workers. But we were all there together with a common goal to get collective resources for our people.”
In addition to approving the task force, the City Council rejected the Police Department’s request for a compromise number, 18 additional patrol officers, on a four to three vote. And instead of the $1.2 million for new police funding advocated by the city manager, the council voted to allocate $650,000 to increase pay for the city’s part-time workers to $15.46/hr. It was a historic win for progressives, and immediately made national news.
Durham Beyond Policing, revitalized by the rapid response campaign and the proposal they had developed, began fleshing out their plan for the community safety and wellness task force, meeting with other organizations, with elected officials and city and county staff, to get feedback on and build support for making it a reality.
The group proposed to use an appointed, multi-governmental work group to generate policies and new programs that would be used by employees across the City of Durham, Durham County’s government agencies and Durham Public Schools. But that would require approval from the county’s elected leaders, and support from high-ranking staff to implement. According to Danielle, this forced the group into an even steeper learning curve, as they began to map out county officials and its parallel budget process: “It’s almost like a dual fight when you’re thinking about bail and the sheriff and parole and mental health services, all those things are in the county’s budget.”
They met with local teachers’ union leaders, with groups of formerly incarcerated people, with people who had survived violence. But the task force was still “on the drawing board” heading into 2020. And in a setback, Vernetta Alston departed her Council seat to join the North Carolina legislature, which left movement forces with only three solid votes as the uprising following George Floyd’s murder convulsed the city in the summer of 2020.
As in many other cities across the South, protests took place almost daily, during the height of what local organizers often refer to as “budget season,” when municipal budgets are marked up and approved by the end of June each year. Durham Beyond Policing knew this was a key opportunity, and they quickly channeled grassroots anger into their existing demand for the city to fund the safety task force. The City Council voted to approve the task force and allocate $1 million in funding to get it off the ground – five times more than DBP had requested. But once the summer of protests had cooled off, the group still didn’t have support from the County Commission heading into the fall.
And the uprising had exposed a weakness in the local progressive movement ecosystem: hundreds of people wanted to join DBP’s campaign, but there wasn’t a right-sized organizational container for them. So the the group’s leadership decided to convert its structure from a coalition to a basebuilding group with its own individual membership, as Danielle explained: “I think at that time, it was only, you know, maybe ten of us who were consistently meeting post-task force proposal approval. And it was a little overwhelming to have like 300, 400 folks who are like, ‘we want to be DBP members.’ And so we really had to start evaluating ourselves as like, we’re growing and we want to be able to absorb all this enthusiasm.”
That shift allowed them to put more consistent pressure on elected officials, and to help drive turnout during the fall primary and general elections, in loose alignment with partisan organizations that were interviewing and endorsing candidates.
And the group’s newfound ability to channel grassroots energy for the fall elections helped unlock the final obstacle to the task force’s approval, the Durham County Commission. Nida Allam, a progressive candidate supported by Durham for All, the People’s Alliance and other local groups, was elected, giving the local ad hoc, pro-decriminalization alliance a three-vote majority on the commission. The next month the county formally joined the safety and wellness task force, which finally had its first meeting in April 2021, kicked off with an overview of the campaign that brought it into being by Durham Beyond Policing members themselves. Over the next year, members of the group worked inside and outside the task force to make recommendations through its different official work groups, including proposals involving the protocols, principles and personnel of the new Community Safety Department.
The group’s leaders were also determined to learn from other local organizers’ experiences with a previous city task force, the Workers Rights Task Force, which was designed to come up with ways the city’s agencies could protect workers in a state that had all but banned the workers’ rights policies commonly used in cities governed by progressive elected officials. The groups that won that task force hadn’t recruited their members to participate in it, which some believed had been an error.
Durham Beyond Policing’s outside game agitators were now on the inside, too, and true to their role as organizers, they used their positions to host listening conversations with communities across the city, bringing municipal employees with them, as they used public feedback to craft proposals for the new department. Danielle says the task force “played a really crucial role in gathering information and stories and data from residents about how they experience crisis response. And that flow of information was received by the Community Safety Department through the city and helped it to work in tandem, the task force and the department.”
But well into 2021, neither the city or the county had allocated permanent funding for the Community Safety Department the task force was designing, or for the task force itself. So DBP devised another budget campaign along with Durham for All, “Ten to Transform,” which proposed transferring 10% of Durham police funding to new positions at the safety department. Still lacking a clear council majority, the campaign succeeded only in reallocating five vacant police positions, but organizers did secure $2.8 million in new permanent funding. And that year, the local progressive ecosystem infrastructure that had been so critical in electing progressive champions, struggling to rise above internal challenges and a national wave of pro-police Democrats like New York’s Eric Adams, failed to elect a Council majority. None of Durham for All’s endorsed candidates succeeded, not even AJ Williams, who fell short by only 600 votes. But reflecting on the impact of his candidacy, he said, “I see it as a win.” He noted that his willingness to “take one for the team” in stepping up to run gave DBP’s partners in the progressive ecosystem an additional pathway for building new contacts across Durham neighborhoods and developing the skills of existing members.
LESSONS FOR ORGANIZERS: IMPLEMENTING DURABLE WINS & EVOLVING OUR STRATEGIES
Despite those electoral losses, and a clear pro-fully-funding-the-police Council majority that came into office at the end of 2021, the community safety task force has continued its work and the group’s campaign victories have reshaped the material conditions for many. Even though the new council increased the police budget by 10% in 2022, DBP also won funding for seven more staff positions at the new Community Safety Department, which launched its community response pilot programs that summer.
The four pilots designed by the task force with city staff are collectively referred to as HEART (Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams). One pilot embeds mental health clinicians in Durham’s 9-1-1 call center. Another, Community Response Teams, dispatches unarmed 3-person teams as first responders to non-violent behavioral health and quality of life calls for service which would have otherwise been routed to police. A third program supports “Care Navigators” to follow up with people after they meet with a first responder, to help connect to the community-based care they need and want. And a fourth pairs clinicians with Durham police officers to respond to certain 9-1-1 calls.
The Community Response Teams currently only have the funding to operate in two neighborhoods from 10am to 9pm. Over its first eight months staff responded to nearly three thousand 9-1-1 calls, either in conjunction with police or independently, diverting nearly 70 percent of the calls that they received away from police to trained social workers.
Durham Beyond Policing members have built collaborations with those new city staff In the opening months of 2023, Durham Beyond Policing is once again evolving its approach. The group is leaning more into its new role as an organizing or basebuilding hub, launching a community education program designed to build an energized base to advocate for 24/7 funding for the HEART program in the coming municipal budget process, and to expand it to neighborhoods across the city. And it continues to support the “inside game” work by allies within the Community Safety Department, the task force and other municipal agencies.
And they’re also experimenting with strategies that go beyond advocating from the outside or working on the inside of local government, following reflection on the need to help communities develop even more granular community safety programs held outside city agencies. To that end, they’re rolling out a series of workshops to help people in neighborhoods impacted by gun violence design interventions that could be carried out by neighbors themselves. This echoes many peer organizations’ emphasis on strategies “without the state” that complement organizing “within the state” and “against the state.”
That means in five short years, they’ve evolved not only their structure – from a one-off campaign, to a coalition, to a basebuilding group with its own membership, but also, they’ve grown their strategy toolkit, from being outside game agitators or rebels, to inside game advocates trying to support key city staff to implement their visions, and now, helping create alternative institutions that can function outside official channels.