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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Durham Mayor Seeks Guidelines on Social Media Use Following KKK Rally Reports

Posted by on Tue, Aug 22, 2017 at 9:08 AM

Mayor Bill Bell says he'll be asking for a discussion on how city officials use social media after Friday's spontaneous protest in response to reports of a potential KKK rally.

"We, as elected officials, have got to be more responsible, in my opinion, in how we use social media when it comes to instances such as this," Bell said during the city council's Monday night meeting. " ... We have got to look at ourselves in terms of what we do on social media and how we spread things, whether they're rumors, facts, whatever."
Mayor Bill Bell
  • Mayor Bill Bell

The remarks were made after Chief C.J. Davis presented the department's quarterly crime report, as council members commended the department for how it handled the protest, which drew hundreds of people downtown Friday afternoon. There were no reported injuries. One person was charged with failing to disperse.

"If I were going to pass something along, I would have gotten in touch with the sheriff or the police chief ... and they probably would have said its unconfirmed," Bell said.

Council member Steve Schewel asked Davis about her concerns about hate groups coming to Durham and what was being done to prepare for that possibility. Davis said she recently met with Sheriff Mike Andrews about sharing information with "public safety in mind first.”

"As a community we're all concerned when a hate group comes to our town that could potentially incite a response. In law enforcement, we weigh heavily on intelligence. Typically, when something is planned, there is some chatter about it. So we paid very close attention to the intelligence not just from our area but intelligence that federal entities send our way," Davis said. "I believe the Durham Police Department is equipped and prepared for any type on unrest in the city. Our officers are well-trained to deal with it. It’s a complicated situation that you can't have an action plan for because you're action plan is constantly evolving based on the scenario and the situation that you're confronting."

click to enlarge Durham's police chief Cerelyn Davis
  • Durham's police chief Cerelyn Davis
Then, talk turned to the "rumors" that prompted the protest.

Schewel asked city staff to think about how to put out factual information faster, using as an example false reports on social media that a permit had been issued for the KKK to march in Durham.

City manager Tom Bonfield said staff answered "countless" media inquiries about whether the city had issued a permit to a hate group to march in Durham Friday, but that "people didn't want to believe" the response. He said he would hope "you would have had enough confidence in us that if we had issued a permit you would have known it, and you never would have had to doubt the call."

"There was no other information to send, only that this was sort of a rumor, or information got out a took a life of its own," Davis said. "The only thing we could do was send out something that said we had no information about any event occurring in the city and there were no permits by the KKK or any other groups that had been applied for with us or the county."

Silent during the nine-minute discussion were council members Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson, who had been vocal about the demonstration on social media. Friday morning, Johnson shared a tweet from Scott Holmes, an attorney representing people who have been charged with dismantling a Confederate monument last Monday, saying "white supremacists" were arriving in Durham at noon. Holmes says his information came directly from the Sheriff's Office and that he took it seriously because his clients have been receiving threats from white supremacists.

Throughout the day, city and county offices worked to counter misinformation about a permit being issued and cautioned residents to not spread unverified information. While there was no organized white supremacist rally in Durham Friday, there were people in opposition to the anti-racist protesters that took over portions of Main Street, including a man who was armed with a knife.

After Monday's meeting, Johnson told the INDY she shared Holmes's post because he got the information firsthand, while county buildings were being closed Friday morning as a safety precaution. 
Durham Council member Jillian Johnson
  • Durham Council member Jillian Johnson

"I think that the Klan poses an important safety risk to Durham especially black people in Durham. If I get credible information that the Klan is coming to town, I will share that with the community," she said. “Scott Holmes was at the courthouse, he was aware of what was happening at the courthouse, and then later he told us he'd heard that information directly from the sheriff. I believed that information was from a credible source and was accurate."

Had the information been more removed from the source (and not verifiable), Johnson says she wouldn't have shared it. She'd rather people be prepared for a threat that doesn't materialize than unprepared for one that does.

"I think a thousand people showing up downtown and the Klan not showing up is actually a great outcome. I'm happy with any way the Klan decides not to show up in Durham," she said. "If the thousand people downtown scared them away, that's great, and if they just changed their mind, that's great, too. And if they never planned to come, I'm glad they're staying away from my city."

She continued: "I want people to be able to choose whether they want to be in the area when that happens. Whether they want to leave the area or whether they want to come in to protest is a decision I think people should be able to make with as much information as possible."

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