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‘What Do We Do Now?’

The uprisings have spread to practically every major American city. What's next?

RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA — Raleigh isn’t a radical city, at least not in the way nearby Durham or Greensboro or even Asheville are. But a switch has flipped on in this place, like most others around the country, in the wake of the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Tony McDade in Tallahassee.

It’s partially because Raleigh, like every other city in this country, has its own unfinished business with the police. The wounds go back decades. They were never attended to, just left to scab over until they reopen when another senseless death at the hands of the police occurs.

Akiel Denkins was 24 years old when he was shot and killed by Raleigh police officer D.C. Twiddy in February 2016. I had just been hired the Triangle-area alt-weekly Indy Week and was at the scene about an hour later, and spent the next week talking to his neighbors, activists, the cops, and whoever else I could to try to make some semblance of why he was dead. Twiddy said he saw Denkins reaching for a handgun; practically everyone I talked to told me Twiddy shot Denkins in the back.

Over the past several days, I’ve seen more than one sign in Raleigh honoring Akiel Denkins. As I write this, Raleigh just finished its fourth night of protest with hundreds of people proudly defying the mayor’s 8 p.m. curfew to peacefully march through downtown. Earlier, a protest organized by a local activist group, the Raleigh Police Accountability Community Taskforce (PACT) — Denkins’ mother, Rolanda Byrd, now serves as the group’s executive director — drew what looked to be at least a thousand people, if not more.

Some of this feels familiar, but the difference from past protest movements in Raleigh — those following Denkins’ death, over the anti-trans bill HB 2, the Moral Marches I’ve attended over the past few years — is palpable. It raises the question: What is happening, and why now? And what’s next?

Akiel Denkins is not the only person who’s been shot and/or killed by a Raleigh police officer over the past several years. In March, protests erupted in Raleigh after 26-year old Javier Torres was shot and wounded by a Raleigh police officer, with demonstrators going to police chief Cassandra Deck-Brown’s house. In April 2019, 30-year-old Soheil Mojarrad, a mentally ill man, was shot and killed by a Raleigh officer whose body camera wasn’t turned on.

Going back several years, I couldn’t find any instances of Raleigh police officers being charged for assaulting or shooting someone, and only one instance of a Wake County sheriff’s deputy being charged with assault (along with two state highway troopers.) The PACT has been a frequent presence at city council meetings over the past five years, pushing for more transparency and accountability from the police department. The only real response from the city has been to create a police advisory board, one that can only recommend departmental changes because it has no investigatory power under state law.

So it’s clear why Raleigh is furious. But why now, as opposed to when the police killed Soheil Mojarrad, or when Keith Scott was killed in Charlotte?

To start, the intensity of these protests is not something I’ve seen here before. Before Tuesday was over, activists were making plans for the next night of action. Hundreds have hit the streets every night since Saturday. After two nights of cops firing teargas at protesters, followed by rounds of property damage to some downtown businesses and a couple of malls in other parts of the city, the National Guard was called in and the mayor instituted a curfew.

But the obvious answer is that we have reached a boiling point. Shit is rolling downhill very fast. More than 40 million people have filed unemployment claims in the past two and a half months. COVID-19 cases are still rising as many states have reopened, forcing mostly working-class people back into unsafe workplace conditions. Trust in government was at historic lows well before all of this happened; one can only imagine how bad the floor might be now.

Donald Trump is playing a major role in this as well. Trump’s response to the uprisings, which has been to accuse popular protests of being home to terrorists and demand harsh military and police crackdowns, is the opposite of what a public that’s turned remarkably sympathetic toward the protests is demanding right now. Similar protests happened under Barack Obama, with a similarly militarized response; the difference now is that the president is actively taking glee in cracking down on free speech, and maybe that — along with the complicity from Democratic mayors — is all some people needed to see that the government does not give a fuck about you.

That does not mean these protests adhere to any kind of strict ideology. There’s been a sizable left-wing presence at the protests I’ve been to, but the protests themselves haven’t taken on a fixed political identity by any means. On Tuesday, outside of the city’s municipal building, several Raleigh police officers knelt down, a gesture that’s been common throughout the country. Some protesters cheered; many more began chanting, “We want more.”

Later, in front of the governor’s mansion, one woman trying to make the point that good people should assume positions of power encouraged people to apply to become Raleigh police officers. She was followed by a man who stressed the roots of white supremacy in America. The only ideological belief explicitly shared among the group seemed to be that the cops should not be allowed to kill people with impunity.

This presents a challenge for the next stage of the growing movement, especially for people on the left who want to nudge these uprisings into a direction that explicitly indicts racism and capitalism as cancers on America that need to be excised. All anyone can say with any degree of confidence is that all of this is decidedly not boosting the protesters’ faith in the American government, but where they go from here when the fatigue sets in — whether there is a major and sustained push for policing reform, or something more — is anyone’s guess.

At around 8:30 p.m. during Tuesday’s protests — a half-hour after the curfew had begun and 15 minutes before the police began announcing that they would arrest people who didn’t disperse — a young person who seemed to be leading the group held a megaphone, looking around for what was next.

“I’m not even the leader of this. I just came up here,” they admitted. “So what do we do now?”

Photo: Paul Blest