DeDreana Freeman describes Durham’s procedure for providing translation services at council meetings, plus a handful of contentious issues that turned out large numbers of emotional commenters: including alleged anti-Semitism and a planned railyard close to an elementary school in a wealthy neighborhood.
Q: Durham’s population is, I believe, about 15 percent Hispanic. Occasionally you do have Spanish speakers come in to comment to your council. I was a bit surprised at the March 4 meeting this year to hear a woman give her remarks in Spanish and no translation for her was present. One commenter even criticized the city for it. Why was that unavailable here?
A: If it’s not requested in advance, no one’s made available to do translation. Same thing for sign language or disability. The plan is to try and make it more visible how to make that request. I think it was a well-timed smack on the wrist. “You guys need to be paying attention to this.” I appreciated it.
Q: When Durham was firing on all cylinders, you had a robust method of handling translation. In January 2018, you had a vacancy on the council and the other council members had to fill that spot. It’s my understanding that there was English-to-Spanish translation in the room for people who picked up headsets from the city. How much effort did that take to coordinate the realtime translation?
A: There are service providers in the city who offer this service. All we do is make a phone call. It’s not difficult, it’s just a matter of being aware.
Q: In April 2018, there was a meeting that touched upon human rights, race, and institutionalized discrimination. If I gave the listeners ten guesses, they probably wouldn’t come close to knowing what you spent two hours of that meeting talking about. Why was Durham, North Carolina concerned about…Israel?
A: I don’t think the concern was around Israel. I think it was specific to the claims that our police were engaging in militarized training.
Q: Who was making those allegations?
A: There were a number of groups making those allegations. Apparently there was a pamphlet from the Israeli military police that presented that Durham was one of their clients.
Q: At this meeting, the council was voting on adopting a statement that Mayor Steve Schewel wrote whose message was: Durham will not adopt military-style training for its police force, mainly because that exacerbates the problem of racial profiling. However, there was this introductory paragraph of the letter:
It turns out that mentioning Israel and police training in the same thought was enough to cause some people–and by “some” I mean 50 public commenters–to put the gas pedal to the floor on accusations of anti-Semitism. Did you sense whether Mayor Schewel, who is Jewish himself, felt bad that he inadvertently dragged your council into an accusatory environment? Or did he appear, as I would have, that “I don’t understand what you’re mad about?”
A: I’m not sure. I know that we all stood firm behind the chief’s response to the accusation that we were doing militarized police training. Folks can be offended, but it doesn’t mean that the offense was intentional. It’s okay to hear back that you are offended.
Q: Almost a year later, have you studied up on anti-Semitism and now feel that “yes, I see where they are coming from”? Or are you still mind-boggled that the mere mention of Israel for some people is like using the N-word?
A: I think I understood it then, it was just more important to make clear that we were not engaged [in militarized training]. I’ve had plenty of conversations to hear perspectives that are different from mine. I can completely be empathetic to the feeling of the sentiment that was received.
Q: So if you truly felt you were being anti-Semitic with this statement, you would’ve owned that? You would’ve avoided it in the future?
A: Of course. If I thought it was the case, I would. I’ve encouraged everyone who’s had anything to say about this situation to say what you need to say. It is when you speak for yourself that you get what you need out of it.
Follow Council Member DeDreana Freeman on Twitter: @Freeman4Durham