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JONATHAN MICHELS https://jonathanmichels.com Videographer. Writer. Reporter. Mon, 06 May 2019 17:59:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.3 Is this the year the AMA finally joins the single-payer movement? https://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1246 Tue, 11 Sep 2018 15:14:21 +0000 http://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1246
This article was originally published on STAT News. You can read the article here.

By Jonathan Michels, Robertha Barnes, and Sydney Russell Leed

Fifty years ago this month, at the 1968 meeting of the American Medical Association, a fourth-year medical student named Peter Schnall seized the microphone and scolded several hundred of the most prestigious, highly educated white men in America.

“Organized medicine has never felt responsible and accountable to the American people for its actions and continues to deny them any significant voice in determining the nature of services offered to them,” Schnall chastised the group.

“Shut up!” yelled the doctors, who were accustomed to being treated with respect and deference, not with outrage and indignation.

Schnall’s outburst, coordinated by members of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and the Medical Committee for Human Rights, aimed to be a wake-up call to an institution that was highly successful at protecting physicians’ “interests against encroachment” but failed to meet the public health and human needs of patients by opposing both civil rights and the expansion of safety-net health programs.

At a time when Jim Crow racism harmed the health of millions of African-Americans in the South, the AMA repeatedly rebuffed requests from the National Medical Association, an organization that represents African-American physicians, to work together to end racial health disparities.

Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the AMA allowed local medical societies to discriminate against physicians and patients of color. The AMA also mobilized attacks against major social programs intended to benefit all Americans, from Social Security to Medicare and Medicaid. In 1948, the AMA leadership spent millions on a campaign to characterize President Truman’s popular universal health care plan as “socialized medicine.”

Today, in the midst of a revived Poor People’s Campaign, physicians and medical students are again pressuring the AMA to be more responsive to the needs of the nation’s uninsured and underinsured. At the AMA’s House of Delegates annual meeting in Chicago this weekend, its Medical Student Section will ask the AMA to end its decades-long opposition to a single-payer health insurance program, a system better known as Medicare for All that would be publicly financed but privately delivered. Why bother? For better or for worse, the AMA sets the agenda for American health policy.

It is clear to medical students that no matter how well they are trained, far too many Americans will remain sick and poor under market-based medicine.

Our wildly inefficient system is currently dominated by private insurance companies, a health care model spearheaded by the AMA. It produces some of the worst health outcomes in the industrialized world — the U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate and the highest number of avoidable deaths — and devours an ever-increasing share of our economy, with health spending accounting for a whopping 17.9 percent of our gross domestic product. Despite the improvements of the Affordable Care Act, 28 million Americans remain uninsured, without access to primary care that could prevent costly and life-threatening diseases. Those fortunate enough to have insurance face prohibitively expensive co-pays, premiums, and deductibles that limit access to care, and medical expenses are a leading cause of bankruptcy.

Contrary to the AMA’s assertions, a single-payer system would give health care providers more autonomy because their clinical decisions wouldn’t be second-guessed by insurance companies. Patients would have free choice of any doctor, allowing providers to compete based on quality of care. Physicians would spend less time on administrative responsibilities like paperwork and billing, and more time seeing patients, which boosts both their work satisfaction and income. In fact, when Canada implemented its single-payer program, physicians enjoyed long-term salary increases.

The AMA’s opposition to Medicare for All puts the organization at odds with the public and with America’s doctors. Sixty percent of Americans believe the federal government has a responsibility to provide health coverage for all; 51 percent specifically support the creation of a single-payer health system, as does the majority (56 percent) of practicing physicians. The single-payer bill in the House of Representatives, H.R. 676, now has a record 122 co-sponsors; in the Senate, Bernie Sanders introduced his updated Medicare for All Act in 2017 with a record 16 Senate co-sponsors, including most of the leading Democratic contenders for president in 2020.

n the AMA’s evaluation of these and other health system reform proposals, it asserts that a national health program could lead to a concentration of market power in the hands of the government, limiting patient choice and physician autonomy: “Reform proposals should balance fairly the market power between payers and physicians or be opposed.”

Although the AMA’s membership has steadily declined since the 1950s, it remains the most powerful doctors group in the country. The growing Medicare for All campaign is unlikely to be won without its support.

Will the AMA choose to move toward guaranteeing health care as a human right or continue down the wrong side of history by linking patients’ health to the vagaries of the private insurance market?

The activists who staged the protest at the AMA meeting in 1968 hoped that the organization would finally recognize health as a human right. It didn’t. A lot has changed in the ensuing 50 years. It’s time the AMA does, too.

Jonathan Michels is a premedical student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Robertha Barnes is an MS/MD student at SUNY Upstate Medical University. Sydney Russell Leed is an MD/MPH student at SUNY Upstate Medical University. All are board members of Physicians for a National Health Program, an organization that advocates for an improved and expanded Medicare for All health system.

The Biggest Moments of 2017 in the Fight for Universal Healthcare https://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1236 Tue, 11 Sep 2018 15:09:42 +0000 http://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1236
This article was originally published on Common Dreams. You can read the article here.
by ,
In the face of a fiercely conservative administration, 2017 has seen an upsurge in popular resistance against measures that threatened to chip away at important–if imperfect–social welfare initiatives, chief among them the ability for Americans to receive quality healthcare.
Activists pushed back against a series of attempts by Republican lawmakers to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with bills that the Congressional Budget Office estimated would have led to the loss of health coverage for 22 to 23 million Americans.


While it is tempting to remain on the defensive in the face of an agenda that would rob us of our healthcare, citizen activists across the country recognize that merely protecting the ACA would continue to leave the most marginalized populations in this country behind. While many Americans continue to receive health coverage under the ACA, an estimated 28 million remain uninsured and medical bills continue to be the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States.

According to a national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of the population believe that the federal government has a responsibility to provide health coverage for all Americans. Despite continued assertions that universal healthcare in the United States is merely a liberal “pipe dream,” a Medicare-for-All health program–a healthcare insurance system that is government-run–remains the best option for ensuring that all Americans have access to quality healthcare.

“Overall,” the report stated, “33 percent of the public now favors such a ‘single payer’ approach to health insurance, up 5 percentage points since January and 12 points since 2014.”

Speaking to a crowd at his church in Plains, Georgia, former President Jimmy Carter prophesied that the U.S. would one day adopt a single-payer health system. And while there are millions of stories of individuals and families who struggle daily for adequate healthcare, and though these stories indicate a health system that remains in the service of profits over patients, 2017 should nonetheless give hope to patients and advocates in the fight for universal healthcare.

Here are some of the highlights.

1.    Legislative support surges for Medicare-for-All bill in the House.

House Bill 676 currently has 120 co-sponsors–up from just 49 legislators in 2015. During a spate of attempts by Republican lawmakers to scrap Obama’s signature health law, Democrats needed an alternative plan that would offer a way forward. Enter H.B. 676. Single-payer supporters such as Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) and National Nurses United (NNU) have long heralded the bill as being the most comprehensive single-payer legislation to date. Representative John Conyers of Michigan has introduced the single-payer legislation in every congress since 2003. Recently, Conyers agreed to resign his seat due to multiple charges of sexual harassment.  His behavior is abhorrent and demands investigation and prosecution. It also serves as a harsh reminder to the movement that universal healthcare will not be won by the stroke of a lawmaker’s pen. Indeed, the movement is, at its core, a call for redistribution of the power and wealth that serves to protect men like this. The people’s vision of Medicare for All is much greater than a single man in power, it is the collective vision of a grassroots, broad-based coalition of activists and advocates.

2.    The Women’s March brings millions into the streets in defense of human rights.

The day following President Trump’s inauguration became the largest single-day demonstration in American history. The Women’s March was championed by women committed to an intersectional platform of justice and on January 21st, 2017, demonstrators across the globe called for a dismantling of systems of oppression. While single-payer healthcare was not in the guiding principles put forth by the march’s organizers, the emphasis on the importance of intersectionality in the fight justice should embolden healthcare advocates to re-envision universal healthcare through the lens of social and racial justice. Healthcare for all is a basic assertion of every person’s human right to health and wellness.

3.    Senator Bernie Sanders unveils the Medicare-for-All Act of 2017.

Amidst a seemingly endless stream of bills promising to repeal and replace Obamacare, Sanders put forth an alternative plan to improve and expand Medicare for all Americans. Sixteen other senators stood alongside Sanders when he introduced Senate Bill 1804, which represented a central and popular platform of his 2016 campaign. Despite garnering the support of several potential Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election, others on the left extolled the plan as being unrealistic or inopportune. The gains in popularity among Democrats prompted pundit Bill Scher to proclaim, “The Democratic Party now is, for all intents and purposes, the party of single-payer health insurance.” And it is a big mistake, he said. In this way, the latest attempt to pass universal health coverage mirrors its 100-year history with advocates besieged from members of the media as well as elected officials on both the right and the left. Sanders readily admitted that the bill was doomed to fail in the Republican-controlled legislature, but it represents an important marker in changing attitudes in the U.S. towards universal healthcare.

4.    The opioid epidemic continues to rage with the National Center for Health Statistics reporting that 64,000 Americans died from opioids in 2016.

Although Trump declared the opioid epidemic a “public health emergency,” he refused to allocate funds to fight the onslaught of overdoses occurring around the country, despite a one-year death toll that exceeds the number of total American deaths in the Vietnam War. We already know that rampant profiteering by the pharmaceutical industry and over-prescribing by some physicians were key factors in fueling this epidemic. Thanks to a report released this year by The New York Times and ProPublica, we now know that insurance companies played a role, too, by limiting access to safer, and costlier, pain management options. Chronic pain treatment is a relatively new area of medicine and often requires long-term treatment and coordination between physicians, physical therapists, social workers, and other members of the healthcare team, something our current health system is ill-equipped to carry out. Eradicating such a devastating and widespread epidemic will only happen by implementing a healthcare system that is not hamstrung by the whims of party politics or health insurance companies but instead one that provides people with substance abuse disorders rehabilitative treatment that is scientifically proven, and allows physicians the freedom to provide their patients with this effective care.

5.    While continuing to wage war on Obamacare, Trump lauds Australia for having “better” healthcare–which happens to be a single-payer system.

Speaking to the press alongside the president of Australia, Trump admitted, “We have a failing health care — I shouldn’t say this to our great gentleman and my friend from Australia, because you have better healthcare than we do.” This isn’t the first time that Trump endorsed single payer. Unfortunately, his actions paint a different picture. In the wake of the legislature’s failure to drive a stake in the ACA, Trump made good on his campaign promise to thwart the healthcare program by cutting funding for enrollment groups to enroll individuals into the program and slashing money allocated for enrollment advertising. A recent Gallup poll showed an uptick in the number of people without insurance, reinforcing the need for an improved Medicare-for-All system that can provide us with real, long-lasting health reform.

6.    “Tom, you’re fired.” Health and Human Secretary Tom Price resigns amidst public outrage about his use of at least $400,000 in taxpayer money for travel expenses on privately chartered flights.

Although the first-class joyrides were the death knell for the former orthopedic surgeon and U.S. Representative, Price began his short tenure in the sights of activists who questioned his commitment towards advocating for the healthcare of all Americans. A member of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons which is devoted to maintaining a free-market healthcare system, Price pushed to replace the ACA with a $1,200 per year tax-credit system that people could use to pay for a small percentage of their health insurance. This is in addition to Price’s stance against stem cell research, his belief that life begins at conception, and his lack of support for equal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. The Stop Price campaign was just one of many ways that healthcare advocates, including physicians and medical students, pointed a spotlight on the Trump administration’s close ties to powerful health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Another successful campaign pressured the Cleveland Clinic to cancel its annual fundraising gala at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club. Opposition is already being mobilized against Alex Azar, Trump’s pick to replace Price, who was a former president at the pharmaceutical giant, Eli Lilly.

7.    The student section of the American Medical Association (AMA) passes a resolution in support of single-payer healthcare and calls on the AMA to rescind its 170-year opposition towards single-payer healthcare.

This powerful resolution was no easy sell, given the clout and history of the AMA. Although membership has steadily declined since the 1950s, the AMA remains the most powerful physicians’ organization in the country, ranking number four among the top 50 lobbying organizations of 2016. The association’s weekly publication, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), also holds great influence within the medical community. Historically, the AMA opposed expansive social programs during the 20th Century, from Social Security to President Truman’s national health insurance plan to Medicare and Medicaid. The Medical Student Section isn’t the first student arm of the AMA. Members of the AMA’s first student organization, the Student American Medical Association (SAMA), fled the organization in 1967 because of their opposition to the Vietnam War and because they supported issues that the AMA refused to embrace or actively thwarted like civil rights and universal healthcare. The group later changed their name to the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) and its members continue to promote universal healthcare. Meanwhile, members of the Medical Student Section, formed in 1979, continue to work under the auspices of the AMA to change the organization from the inside. “We hope that the passage of this resolution can show that with enough time, teamwork, effort, and organizing, even the most powerful healthcare organizations can come around to single payer,” said Brad Zehr, a member of the AMA-MSS. The resolution will be debated at the AMA’s annual meeting next year in Chicago.

8.    In the face of a conservative administration that will undoubtedly quash federal universal healthcare legislation during the next three years, campaigns for state-based single payer healthcare gain steam.

These movements are invariably met with the question: If it didn’t work in Vermont and Colorado, why will it work here? Indeed, the failures in these states are a considerable setback in the movement for state single payer healthcare. While there are certainly barriers to implementing universal healthcare for states, there are no reasons to believe that it couldn’t happen once organizers have built the political will. Further, once a state can implement such a system, organizers hope it will serve as evidence for why a federal single payer system could thrive.

In New York, The New York Health Act (A. 4738 / S. 4840) passed the Assembly 92 to 52. A study shows that the bill would save 98% of New Yorkers money on the healthcare when compared to a policy through their employer or the marketplace. The bill now only needs one state senator to pass in the senate.

In California, grassroots education campaigns have shifted the popular opinion on universal healthcare, with now 70% of Californians supporting state single payer legislation. SB 562 or the Healthy California Act passed the state senate in July.

In Massachusetts, an amendment was adopted by the state Senate as part of a larger healthcare reform bill. The amendment charges the state to measure the impact that a single payer system would have on the cost and delivery of healthcare in Massachusetts. Should it prove to save costs when compared to current state spending, the legislature would be required to state the process of enacting a single payer plan.

In Vermont, organizers refocused after a devastating 2014 political abandonment by Governor Shumlin of Act 48 after its passage. Now organizers are looking at a more political feasible option: primary care for all; bills S53 and H248 have been introduced with tri-partisan support. The hope is that a plan like this would slowly be expanded to cover all sectors of healthcare.

If you’ve never shot drugs, you ain’t got a clue: Steve’s story https://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1230 Tue, 27 Jun 2017 16:59:53 +0000 http://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1230 This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of Scalawag Magazine. You can read the original article that was published online here.

Photo by Callaghan O’Hare

Editor’s note: In our Spring 2017 issue, we published the remarkable, first-person stories of two advocates who’ve spent years fighting for the humane treatment of drug users in North Carolina and elsewhere: Steve Daniels and Louise Vincent. Last week, we published Louise’s story, along with an introductory note. Here’s Steve’s story.

Sadly, between the time of his interview and the issue’s print deadline, Steve passed away. Scalawag is grateful for the time and insight he shared with us, giving freely of himself and speaking honestly about the challenges that the South faces when it comes to combating widespread drug addiction. But Steve was optimistic about the progress that he and others were making, both in terms of saving lives in North Carolina neighborhoods and changing minds in the state legislature. He had even planned to volunteer at Winston-Salem’s first legal syringe exchange once he was well enough to leave the hospital. As fellow harm reduction activist, Erika Mishoe, put it to Jonathan Michels, “I can’t help but think he finally let his physical body go because harm reduction has finally made progress in this area.” Thank you, Steve.

[I got the name “Gator”] from school. When you’re young and you do stupid stuff, that’s what I did. They said, “You’re tough like a gator.” It just stuck with me over the years.

I’m 67 years old. I shot drugs and did all that stupid stuff we did back in the day. This all started when I was up in college in Richmond. I didn’t last long up there and moved back home. Then I went to UNCG [the University of North Carolina at Greensboro] and stayed there for a little while. But that didn’t last long. I started making these trips to the State Department of Corrections. That was for awhile.

It never dawned on me that drugs were the problem. I went into drug treatment 14 times before it clicked that I might need to stop shooting drugs. The last time I went, I just put all of my efforts into stopping. I stopped on June 4, 1996. I just celebrated 20 years of no drugs or alcohol.

My life really took a change for the better. I watched all my friends die from some form of virus…Hepatitis…HIV…and I’m still around here.

I’ve had HIV for 32 years. Never been sick a day in my life from HIV complications. But I’ve had a series of cancers; I had pancreatic cancer first, then I had throat cancer. These cancers have really taken a toll on me. Throat cancer came from smoking cigarettes and from smoking crack.

I’ve dealt with a lot of shame and guilt over the years, especially dealing with my first wife. I infected her and she died from HIV complications. That bothered me until I got clean. And it still bothers me. All she ever did was take care of me and the children while I ran around on the street doing what dope fiends and drug addicts do: try and find ways to get more dope.

Once I got drug-free, it was my responsibility to help the people who were still out there on the street struggling with the same things I was dealing with.

There was no needle exchange or nothing like that around. Hell, no. Wasn’t anyone doing that, man. No.

I got involved because nobody else was doing it. There was a lot of drug use still going on. There was this lady named Thelma Wright who basically started the Wright Focus Group. She had the resources. I had the expertise, the knowledge. It was more than just giving out syringes.

This is a dangerous undertaking. You have to go to where the people are. I had to go into dope houses to bring stuff to people who needed it the most. Because they couldn’t go to me, I had to go to them.

I started working at Piedmont Health Services and Sickle Cell Agency in Greensboro. I started walking the streets of Greensboro, drawing blood on-site because the health department wouldn’t come do that. When the health department stopped, I picked it up.

It’s harder shooting dope than it is drawing blood. Drawing blood is easier because the equipment does the work. That was simple for me.

A lot of people told me I was crazy for going back into the community. It was time for me to give something back to the community that I had took so much from.

In 2016, Daniels celebrated 20 years without drugs or alcohol. Since getting clean, he has dedicated himself to helping others.

Photo by Callaghan O’Hare

I really believe that that’s why my life was spared: to help the people who couldn’t help themselves. You have no idea what it takes to come up with money everyday to shoot dope. It takes a lot of stealing. A lot of stuff to continue this process because you are physically sick. It’s a feeling that I wouldn’t wish on somebody I didn’t even like. Even if I didn’t like you, I wouldn’t wish that on your life. It’s an awful feeling.

You gotta realize where you’re at. This is the South. They kinda slow. For people down here to warm up to the idea [of a syringe program for drug users]…it takes time. I know the mindset of some of these people.

A lot of people think that when you give out syringes, what you’re doing is helping people to continue to use drugs. I’m going to tell you what changed their mindset: money.

We started addressing how much it takes to treat a person with HIV for one year versus what it takes giving out one of these kits for a year. That’s how we addressed the issue and then they started warming up to the idea. When you start talking about money, these rednecks…they get real crazy. So they started listening then. When it costs $20,000 to treat a person with HIV for a year compared to $1,500 to give out one of these supplies and syringes for a year…you see what I’m saying?(1)

Something else: the face of HIV and injection drug use has changed. No longer are Black people the only ones shooting drugs. Young, White females. It hurts me to see so many young people strung out on opiates. They start out with pills that they get from their mother’s and father’s medicine cabinet. When that supply runs out, they end up coming to the spot where they sell heroin. They buy heroin because the opiates or the pills they were taking had dried up and run out. It just hurts me to my heart to see so many young people.

White people. Go to any methadone clinic, go to the treatment centers.

People look out for their own. Now that Black people aren’t the face of the HIV epidemic, well as far as opiate addiction is concerned. When you hear all this rhetoric about opiate addiction, it’s on the news everyday somewhere, because it’s devastating the community, it is.

When we were the ones that were overdosing because of opiate addiction, it didn’t matter. It’s just like all these police shooting these Black people. We didn’t matter then. We didn’t matter when we were the ones being devastated by the opiate addiction. But now that things have changed, that has not stopped my commitment to help the people in the community.

In fact, I give out more equipment to White people than I do Black people. For every one Black person, I see four White people addicted to opiates.(2)

[It] was not helping me to continue to be angry about something that I couldn’t change. I’m 67 years old. The stuff I have seen, the injustices I have witnessed over the years, it would do nothing but continue to…it wasn’t helping my situation none. It didn’t add to anything I was trying to do. Me being angry wasn’t going to help.

If you have never shot drugs… if you have never experienced what it takes to go through all the stuff you have to go through to shoot drugs everyday, you ain’t got a clue. The academic part of learning the do’s and don’ts when you’re doing street outreach is one thing. If you haven’t witnessed what it takes to be addicted, you could leave home in the morning and not make it home at night. I have practical application. I know when to pack up and when to step off. I’ve been with people who didn’t have the practical knowledge of being an injection drug user get themselves into trouble, running their mouths and saying something that was inappropriate.

Once a week I used to go out with people from the health department in Winston-Salem. Some of the people that I would go out with said the most outrageous stuff. The people they were talking to put them in check and had to straighten them out because they said something inappropriate.

Something they had read in a book that they thought was the right thing to say but it wasn’t.

I hope none of them get killed or get hurt because they’ve never been trained in what it takes to be a good outreach worker. This is not an easy job to do. It’s dangerous. Are you going to have the right people in these positions to help the community? I doubt it, but I hope so.

  1. According to the North Carolina Harm Reduction syringe exchange fact sheet: “The lifetime cost of treating an HIV-positive person is estimated to be between $385,200 and $618,900, while Hepatitis C costs $100,000-$500,000 to treat.”
  2. Of the 246 North Carolinians who died from heroin overdose in 2014, 218 were White and 24 were Black, according to data collected by the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics.
Harm reduction is compassion, harm reduction is love: Louise’s story https://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1225 Tue, 27 Jun 2017 16:53:09 +0000 http://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1225 This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of Scalawag Magazine. You can read the original article that was published online here.

Beginning in the 1980s as a response to widespread drug abuse and to the AIDS epidemic, harm reduction tactics promoted public health by preventing diseases from spreading through shared needles. Harm reduction advocates drew inspiration from civil and human rights movements and the tactics of AIDS activist groups such as ACT UP. Many AIDS activists worked in the streets of cities like New York to promote syringe exchange access—trading dirty needles for clean ones—and agitating against the abstinence-only mindset that dominated drug treatment at that time.

These ideas and tactics, which focused on mitigating the damaging effects of drug abuse, soon spread throughout the country. Like their northern counterparts, Southern harm reduction advocates refused to wait for official policies to be passed before they acted to save lives and prevent the spread of disease. During the next 20 years, lawmakers in numerous states embraced harm reduction tactics, either out of necessity or because studies showed that syringe exchange programs slowed the spread of diseases like AIDS and Hepatitis C and did not increase drug use. New York deemed its syringe exchange program to be the “gold standard” of HIV prevention.

But despite evidence that it worked, harm reduction had its detractors. Leading the crusade were hardliners like North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, whose ultra-conservative rhetoric against needle exchange was imbued with moral condemnation. Already known for vitriolic remarks against homosexuals and for lobbying for legislation that shut down AIDS funding, Helms championed a bill in 1988 prohibiting the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs. He implied that handing out clean needles was the moral equivalent to the dealer on the corner selling smack.

The result was almost no official support for harm reduction in the South, particularly in North Carolina, until the federal prohibition was lifted for the first time in 2009. In a region that is consistently ranked as one of the poorest in the country, Southern states continue to lag behind the rest of the country in public-health emergency preparedness, even as disease rates remain high. “Eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of new cases of HIV are in the South,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet today, the number of syringe exchange programs is growing and Naloxone—a drug used to reverse heroin overdose—is becoming more and more available. This shift towards a harm reduction program reflects the desperation of communities across the country that are being ravaged by escalating opioid abuse.

In North Carolina alone, heroin deaths increased 554 percent between 2010 and 2014, and the mortality figures are expected to have risen again in 2015. Prescription opioids—synthetic medications such as Oxycontin that mimic the pain-relieving properties of opiates—are believed to be a risk factor for heroin use, according to the National Institutes of Health. Of the top 25 worst cities for opioid abuse, four are in North Carolina. The number one city is Wilmington.

Last summer, North Carolina became the latest state to legalize syringe exchange and made it easier to get Naloxone. Since the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition began distributing Naloxone kits in 2013, more than 5,500 overdoses have been reversed. These steps represent a symbolic victory for harm reduction advocates who envision a South unshackled from a culture that dismisses and shames drug users.

In particular, advocates of harm reduction have strategically targeted law enforcement and elected officials, many of them Republican, in recent years to talk to them about the public health benefits of harm reduction. As more and more police departments realize that they can’t arrest their way out of the War on Drugs, law enforcement officials have come on board to distribute Naloxone and to participate in the syringe exchange, leading some to wonder if the War on Drugs has turned a corner. Harm reduction advocates remain dubious about this optimistic perspective and believe the collateral damage of the Drug War may take decades to overcome, but they view the recent wave of laws legalizing syringe exchange as a step in the right direction.

This recent legislation is a welcome respite for these harm reduction advocates who have fought for the humane treatment of drug addicts over and against the hysteria of the 40-year War on Drugs. Risking arrest and possible relapse into drug use themselves, volunteers like Steve “Gator” Daniels and Louise Vincent worked outside of the law and with few resources to organize and run underground syringe exchanges and Naloxone distribution programs in North Carolina.

Louise and Steve represent the “medics” of the drug crisis, those who saw the carnage upfront, and they continue to focus on the humanity of those they serve. Their stories speak to the difficulties of overcoming addiction and the heartache caused by chaotic drug use. But they also give us hope that many users can make significant strides towards normalizing and reclaiming their lives, even if they don’t stick to full abstinence. In this way, Louise and Steve embody the harm reduction principle of meeting people “where they’re at.”

Louise’s story

Photo by Andrew Dye

Whatever causes people to use drugs in the face of negative consequences, I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s disease, connection…I don’t have the brain for that. I don’t know what makes people do it. But I know that it’s more than just “I want to use drugs.” I know that I didn’t set out when I was seven, “You know, I think I want to disappoint everybody in my life and destroy my family and fucking get sick and lose my daughter.” I can look around in my life and every negative thing has come from either drugs or drug policy. Whatever it is, it’s not something that people choose.

I didn’t set out for this, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. The fact that we harm people even more when they’re in these vulnerable places and in these places where they desperately need love and they desperately need human compassion and empathy is unforgivable.

My world was drug-centered when I was young. If you’d said, “Do you have any hobbies?” I’d have said, “Yeah, I get high. That’s my hobby. Fuck you. I use drugs. I don’t have hobbies.” When I got older and I got involved in stuff and went to college and fell in love with the things I fell in love with and had passion about life, drugs took a backseat. It really did. My world wasn’t just drug-centered. I found some other things that I liked. When drugs started pushing up against those things, when my drug use started to wreck those things, I made decisions about my drug use. Then I was like, I don’t want to ruin these things for drugs and I could make decisions around it.

I went back to college and finished college and worked in traditional treatment and hated it. I admitted people into detox. Watched as people cycled through, listened to the other side of it. I had always been the person going to rehab. I only knew that side of it.

We have one acceptable narrative about recovery that doesn’t fit everyone. This idea of getting clean, staying clean, being 100 percent abstinent. You’re either all the way sick or all the way well. There’s no middle ground.

This is the message we have right now: “Half measures avail us nothing.” Which basically says if you don’t do it all the way, don’t even try. That’s a shitty message. That’s the message that says, “If you use, you’re going to jail and death and you might as well just go all out there and tear it up. People do it. I watch people do it everyday. They are in the program and they’re doing fine and then they use and they destroy their life in a week. That’s more than just drugs. That’s drugs and an attitude that there’s no point in even trying if you’re using.

You either learn to cope or you don’t. But that doesn’t mean that everybody that does will become abstinent. It just means that people learn how to deal with their drug problems in different ways.

Watching this in traditional treatment, I got more and more frustrated with my own life, and I relapsed at some point and I thought I had lost everything.

In order for me to get well, in order for me to get up off of that relapse where I wasn’t just killing myself, I had to find a different way to look at recovery or drug use and recovery. I could no longer use the 12-step version. I don’t have a problem with it. I think 12-step philosophy and harm reduction need to come together and find a way to work together. But for me, it didn’t work anymore. I had done everything they asked me to do. I had followed the rules in the book.

And I still relapsed.

I couldn’t buy it anymore. It didn’t make any scientific sense anyway, but it had worked for a while. But when it didn’t work and I was blamed, “Well, you didn’t do what the program asked of you.” But I did! I did do this, and I still used. Am I defective? What is wrong with me that I can’t do this?

There’s all these religious implications. If the problem is lack of God, then the solution must be God. Am I praying right? Am I not doing something right? No other issue in the world do we say…if I had cancer, you wouldn’t say, “The solution is you’re going to turn your will and care to God.” But that’s our solution for addiction. None of that was working for me anymore.

We had to have another place for people that weren’t ready to chew that up. For people that just weren’t there. If I don’t want to be 100 percent abstinent or if I need to be on medication-assisted treatment, if I need to take Methadone or Suboxone, there’s nothing wrong with that.(1) Being on Methadone maintenance or Suboxone isn’t the same as being drug-involved, in chaotic use with your life spiraling out of control.

I felt very strongly that if I had had the kind of support that would have been available had there been harm reduction programs, I wouldn’t have been in such a mess all by myself trying to figure it out.

Photo by Andrew Dye

I began searching for some answers that were different than what existed. I was trying to help myself. I wanted to figure out what was going on with me and with other people. I was watching everybody I loved and cared about die.

I was going to graduate school for public health. I was learning about syringe exchange programs. I got involved with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.(2)

When I first heard about harm reduction, I had an internal battle in my own heart because I grew up in the South and I was conditioned with all the same junk.

It was a real battle. Am I doing the right thing? Is giving syringes to people…is this okay?

I try to really talk to people about their concerns. This same question of “aren’t we enabling?” I try to remember that I struggled, too.

It’s harm reduction. We meet people where they are. I have to remember to meet people where they are as far as coming to accept harm reduction as well. It doesn’t just work one way. I have to remember that it took an experience, being in Atlanta in The Bluff, working in the most devastated community and it came to me all at once: this is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing. This is compassion. This is love.

There was no harm reduction in Greensboro. That sucked because I really thought it would work. [The] Harm Reduction Coalition was me and one other woman. I set out at that point to make harm reduction support real…in North Carolina and especially Greensboro. I’ve been working slowly to do that since then.

We operated underground for a long time here. I got arrested a couple of times for it. That sucked. All that a syringe exchange was when it was not legal was calling my phone number, me meeting you, me giving you syringes. Or through word of mouth, satellite exchanges and me giving people syringes to give to people who need them. This was just about loading up syringes and getting syringes to people and sharing health information and Naloxone.

We were giving out Naloxone before it was legal. This was saving people’s lives. We were watching it save people’s lives. We knew people needed Naloxone. I didn’t need a study to tell me that. I saw it right up close.

People would call us. We would run to where they were and give them Naloxone sometimes. That was crazy. We did lots of that. Me and my friend, he had this bright yellow car and we’d get a phone call. They would give them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until we got there. Then we’d give them the Naloxone. If they were too far away, we would tell them to call 911. You’ve just got to.

Syringe exchange is one of the most well-studied public health programs there is. We know it works. We know it reduces disease and these motherfuckers, excuse me, dammit they’ve been letting these disease rates go sky high in the South.

Mike Pence, his state [Indiana], they just had an HIV outbreak and crisis. He didn’t want to have a syringe exchange, but he has a syringe exchange now. They had an outbreak of HIV, 136 people in a place that usually has two cases. What happened is that HIV got into the [intravenous]IV drug community. Boy, if that happens, it’s like Hepatitis C. We know that 75 percent of injection drug users have Hepatitis C.

Let that happen with HIV. We can’t have that. They opened up a syringe exchange with the most conservative people in government. They have to. They’re doing it because if they don’t, they’re responsible.

To be fiscally responsible, you have to do it. The cost of a syringe versus treating Hepatitis C and HIV: $600,000 last I checked. People with HIV are living full lives. Now we’re talking probably more than $600,000 per person. Then $100,000 for Hepatitis C. Huge cost for treatment. If we’re going to live in tertiary care where we just treat illness, we’ve got to do some prevention. They’re just at a place that they’re forced to. This isn’t because anybody wants to.

Human Rights Watch came and did a…human rights advocacy brief, and it talks about North Carolina’s failure to implement harm reduction policies and where our disease rates are and if you look at the South in terms of the rest of the United States, it’s just red.(3) You know how they have the red dots showing disease.

[The Human Rights Watch brief] was the beginning of North Carolina and the South getting attention about their failure to act. That’s where we are in the South, where our moralistic ways fly in the face of protecting our citizens from disease.

Selena was my daughter, born to a mother who was struggling with addiction and when I say that I mean struggling with everything. Selena was biracial, so here in the South I discovered racism for the first time. I had never seen it for what it truly was until I had and raised her.

Selena had a long history of mental illness. She suffered from depression, bipolar illness, anxiety, and addiction issues. I feel very strongly that she was using to deal with and “treat” her symptoms of anxiety, depression, and mania.

The maddening truth about what happened to Selena is that it was avoidable. Selena was trained in overdose prevention…I used to take her to my talks all the time. She wanted to work with me one day doing harm reduction.

I sent her to rehab, or rather we agreed she should go. We tried to find a nice place we could afford. I just wanted her to sober up…. Take a time out if you will. Like most parents, even though I knew better deep inside, I took a breathe of air. Finally, I could relax for a minute. She was safe.

The rehab she went to did not have Naloxone on-site. They obviously did not take dual diagnosis serious, even though I talked to them for hours about the importance of a treatment center that actually took her mental illness serious.(4)

No Naloxone…no real understanding of mental illness. Now my daughter who was safer at home with me is no longer here. She was my reason for living.

I am sad. So very sad. I feel I have lost so much. She meant everything to me. I just work now. I have just thrown everything into the work for right now until I can figure out how to cope. I don’t want go down that dark road I have so many times….but the pain is unbearable.

I honestly believe that pain doesn’t create change. I’ve had lots of pain, and it’s never motivated me to change a lot. It’s made me want to die a lot. It’s made me want to give up.

But it’s been passion that has been what’s moved me to move out of situations that were dangerous or damaging. It’s been that that’s driven me forward and allowed me to not destroy myself with drugs. With the death of my daughter, it wouldn’t surprise me if I just gave up. I don’t really know how I’m okay. I don’t question it a lot. I’m glad that I’m okay right now. But I know that it’s only this work. It’s only feeling like I’m a part of something that matters.


  1. Suboxone and methadone are medications that are prescribed by physicians to treat narcotic drug addiction.
  2. As the state’s most comprehensive harm reduction organization, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition educates the public about harm reduction tactics such as syringe exchange and Naloxone and lobbies elected officials and law enforcement officers about the advantages of harm reduction policies. The organization lobbied successfully for the passage of H.B. 972, which legalized syringe exchange programs in North Carolina.
  3. The advocacy brief, released in 2011 and titled “We Know What to Do: Harm Reduction and Human Rights in North Carolina,” features Louise’s struggle with drug addiction and underground syringe exchange work. Her story was related under “Linda”, a pseudonym.
  4. Dual diagnosis is a condition in which a person is diagnosed with both a mental health disorder and addiction to drugs or alcohol.
First do no harm: The uneasy formation of a legal syringe exchange https://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1211 Thu, 09 Mar 2017 16:01:56 +0000 http://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1211 This article first appeared in print in Triad City Beat on March 1, 2017. You can read the original article here.

Colin Miller doesn’t want to add to the list of names tattooed on his arm.

Nathan” committed suicide in downtown Minneapolis after a five-year struggle with heroin.

Jason” died of an overdose in a hotel room in Montana.

They found “Denver” in a ditch down in Archdale.

There are 12 names in all, and more that could be added. They are the inky memorials for Miller’s friends who died of overdoses or another type of drug-related death. Most of them involved opioids.

Colin Miller shows a tattoo of friends he’s lost to addiction — Nathan, Jason and Denver. A recovering addict, he helps run the Twin City Harm Reduction Collective, a needle exchange for addicts, at Green Street Church in Winston-Salem, NC. Photo by Justin Cook.

Nearly 30,000 Americans die from opioid overdoses each year as a nationwide drug epidemic continues to spread throughout the country, not only in areas traditionally associated with poverty like the inner city and the Appalachian holler but in upscale suburbia as well.

In North Carolina alone, heroin deaths increased 554 percent between 2010 and 2014 and the mortality figures are expected to have risen again in 2015. Prescription opioids — synthetic medications such as Oxycontin that mimic the pain-relieving properties of opiates — are believed to be a risk factor for heroin use, according to the National Institutes of Health. Of the top 25 worst cities for opioid abuse, four of them are in North Carolina, with Wilmington ranked at No. 1.

Not content with merely adding to the list, Miller recently co-founded a syringe exchange with Erika Mishoe near downtown Winston-Salem. A syringe exchange — trading dirty or used needles that have been used to inject heroin for clean ones — is part of a set of ideas and principles called “harm reduction,” designed to mitigate the damaging effects of drug addiction.

A lot of drug users will never see the healthcare system,” Miller said. “They’re forgotten. Syringe exchange is a point of contact where we can at least start to give people some education and show them that there are people who care and to teach them ways to care for themselves.”

The Twin City Harm Reduction Collective began operating out of Green Street United Methodist Church in early December. The Winston-Salem site is one of 19 operations created since July, when then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed NC House Bill 972 legalizing syringe exchanges.

In addition to the usual coalition around humane substance-abuse policy, the campaign to legalize syringe exchange in North Carolina has found support among law enforcement officers who realize that they can’t simply arrest their way out of the drug war. In fact, these new policies were in part the result of a strategic campaign spearheaded by the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition to educate and lobby law enforcement and elected officials, many of them Republican, about the public health benefits of harm reduction. The campaign has become an organizing model for other proponents throughout the South.

The country has moved towards harm reduction in a really big way in the past few years because of the scope of the opioid epidemic,” said Tessie Castillo, the communications and advocacy coordinator at the NC Harm Reduction Coalition.

Legislators are just looking for answers,” she said. “We’ve had them all along but no one was listening.”

With a significant number of law enforcement officers now supporting syringe exchange and Naloxone distribution, many wonder if the drug war has turned a corner by becoming more just and humane. Harm-reduction advocates remain doubtful about this optimistic perspective and believe the collateral damage of the drug war will take decades to overcome, but they view the recent wave of laws legalizing syringe exchange as a step in the right direction.

The legalization of syringe exchange,” Miller said, “symbolizes the shift from, ‘We’re going to punish you’ to, ‘Let us help you.’”

The creation of Winston-Salem’s first legal syringe exchange is a story of pain and redemption and of a community, cautiously but optimistically, navigating the ruins of a public health epidemic.

The face of addiction

Though often regarded with the same grimy, deviant imagery stereotypically ascribed to the heroin epidemic of the 1960s which plagued mainly African Americans living in inner cities, young white men and women of all socioeconomic groups are the main abusers of heroin today, and the drug has thoroughly inundated bucolic, rural America.

A 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry titled “The Changing Face of Heroin Use in the United States” reported that 90 percent of respondents who began using opioids in the last decade were white.

Some see discrepancies in the harsh treatment of drug addicts who used crack cocaine –- commonly associated with African Americans — during the 1980s and today’s public health resources being unleashed for white communities suffering from opiate addiction.

Such public-health responses were not necessarily unthinkable during the crack-cocaine wave of the 1980s or the heroin epidemic of the 1960s.,” wrote Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic. “But the limited public-health measures adopted during those eras were overshadowed by more punitive responses to those crises.”

While Miller wears the scars of chaotic drug addiction on his body, Erika Mishoe’s personal experience with the drug epidemic is less apparent but still painful: Close family members died from drug overdoses only two years apart . She hesitated to give more details about drug abuse in her family because of the discomfort that it might cause among the rest of them due to the stigma of addiction.

Despite the tragedy of losing family and friends to drugs, it is a world largely unfamiliar to Mishoe and on the surface, miles away from the domestic bliss of her family life. And so her first reaction upon hearing about syringe exchange was a mixture of naivety, curiosity and shock.

Erika Mishoe of the Twin City Harm Reduction Collective, a needle exchange for addicts, at Green Street Church in Winston-Salem, NC. Mishoe has lost family to heroin overdose deaths. Photo by Justin Cook.

At the Really Really Free Market of Winston-Salem, an event where people give away free items for those in need,a drug user approached Mishoe and asked her why the city didn’t have a syringe exchange. “What’s a syringe exchange?” she asked him. The man’s answer confounded Mishoe.

Wait a second, she thought. We’re going to give them syringes so they can inject drugs? Don’t we want them to not do that?

Like other harm-reduction advocates interviewed for this story, including former addicts, it took time for Mishoe to process the concept of putting clean needles into the hands of drug users for the sole purpose of injecting a potentially fatal and illegal substance into their veins.

Would that make drug users want to use more drugs? What was the difference between a harm reduction advocate exchanging needles and the dealer on the street corner?

Mishoe scoured the internet for the answers to these and other questions. Her research unveiled an entire subculture that offered a radically different way of addressing drug abuse, a stark alternative to the tough-on-crime mindset that underpinned the War on Drugs and continues to permeate the South.

Suffering in her own town

Beginning in the 1980s as a response to widespread drug abuse and to the AIDS epidemic, harm-reduction tactics aim to promote public health by preventing the spread of disease through sharing needles. Putting an emphasis on treating drug users with respect, advocates meet addicts “where they are” by recognizing that abstinence can only occur if and when people are ready to stop using drugs. It doesn’t come through force, but with compassion and understanding.

Harm-reduction advocates drew inspiration from civil and human rights movements and the tactics of AIDS activist groups such as Act Up, working in the streets of cities like New York to promote syringe-exchange access and agitating against the abstinence-only mindset that dominated drug treatment at that time.

During the next 20 years, lawmakers in numerous states embraced harm-reducing tactics, including the distribution of the overdose-reversal drug called Naloxone, either out of necessity or because commonly held beliefs were disproved by studies showing that syringe exchange programs actually slowed the spread of diseases like AIDS and Hepatitis C and did not increase drug use. In fact, New York deemed its syringe exchange program to be the “gold standard” of HIV prevention.

Despite evidence that it worked, harm reduction had its detractors. Leading the crusade were hardliners like US Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, whose ultra-conservative rhetoric against needle exchange was imbued with moral condemnation. Already known for vitriolic remarks against homosexuals and for lobbying legislation that clamped down on AIDS funding, Helms championed a bill in 1988 prohibiting federal funding for syringe-exchange programs, implying that handing out clean needles was the moral equivalent to the state selling smack.

The result was almost no official support for harm reduction in the South, North Carolina in particular. States in the Deep South continue to lag behind the rest of the country in public health emergency preparedness while disease rates remain high.

Eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of new cases of HIV are in the South,” according to the CDC.

The growing number of legal syringe exchange programs in states that were traditionally “tough on crime” reflects the desperation of communities ravaged by escalating opiate abuse.

Last summer, North Carolina became the latest Southern state to legalize syringe exchange and make it easier to get Naloxone. Referencing lawmakers’ longtime refusal to legalize syringe exchange, Gov. McCrory conceded at the signing ceremony that, “It’s not the politically correct thing to do, at least on my side of the aisle, but it’s the right thing to do.”

These steps represent a symbolic victory for harm-reduction advocates who envision a South unshackled from a culture of hatred for drug users propagated by Helms and others.

I don’t work in the healthcare industry and I don’t really have a lot of friends who shoot up heroin, so I didn’t really know any of these things,” Mishoe said.

Given her firsthand experience, harm reduction provided a way for her to help others avoid the pain of losing loved ones.

It concerns me nonetheless that people are suffering in my own town,” she said. “If there are proven results that this is an effective way to deal with this public health epidemic, then why not? Why are we not doing this here?”

Although she didn’t know it at the time, Mishoe would soon play a large role in rectifying this oversight by bringing syringe exchange to Winston-Salem.

Hearts and minds… and needles

Like many other parents, Mishoe makes the early-morning commute across town to drop her kids off at school. It’s 6:48 a.m. when the text pops up on her phone.

Hi Ms. Erika. I know it’s early but I really need a few kits and an exchange as soon as possible. Thank you.”

The person at the other end of the message is a drug user. The “kits” are sealed packages of Naloxone and the “exchange” means they either need clean needles or they want to give her their dirty ones. It’s a good time for Mishoe to meet. Although she works from home and has a fairly flexible schedule, she prefers to meet people during the day before it gets dark.

Most of the people with whom Mishoe exchanges needles with are young and white. Some of them want to meet up quickly and leave, but it’s obvious to her that others are looking to connect with someone who won’t shame them for using drugs.

I’m not there to judge them or tell them they need to get treatment,” Mishoe said. “If they bring it up, I am happy to talk to them about it but I don’t try to give them advice. I am just there to give them supplies and resources.”

Before syringe exchanges were legalized last summer, Mishoe was one of many volunteers throughout the state who organized or ran underground syringe exchanges and Naloxone distribution programs. Many harm-reduction advocates are former or current drug users, or witnessed the traumatic effects of drug use, having lost loved ones to dope. Risking arrest and, in the case of recovering addicts, possible relapse, these volunteers worked outside of the law with few resources in sometimes dangerous environments.

Since the NC Harm Reduction Coalition began distributing Naloxone kits in 2013, more than 6,000 overdoses have been reversed statewide with 737 in Greensboro and 252 in Winston-SalemThese amazing figures do not include overdoses reversed by law enforcement officers or healthcare workers.

It is not unusual for volunteers like Mishoe to literally save the lives of drug users by delivering shots of Naloxone to reverse overdoses. But more often, lives are saved because the harm-reduction volunteers deliver syringes and Naloxone to drug users who then pass the supplies along to their peers in the drug community. These peer exchanges amount to a vast, amorphous public-health network of people who care for one another’s wellbeing.

Often the work is about more than a simple exchange of supplies. In this way, harm-reduction advocates are the “medics” of the drug war, the ones who see the carnage upfront, and continue to focus on the humanity of those they serve. In the film Bringing Out the Dead, Frank — a paramedic whose work is nothing but pain and suffering — put it best when he reflected that his job is sometimes, “less about saving lives than bearing witness.”

Take for instance the young couple that reached out to Mishoe nearly every week to swap needles. At some point during the meet-ups, an unlikely friendship arose — the couple even invited Mishoe and her family to their home for a get-together. Still, the genuinely warm encounters remain tinged with an underlying sadness since the clean needles, hermetically sealed in sterile packaging, will be plunged into their veins, each to deliver a bolus of heroin to the brain.

They always tell me that this is going to be the last time I hear from them,” Mishoe said wistfully. “I always hope that it is but so far, we’re still regularly in contact.”

Mishoe always makes sure to meet people in safe, well-lit locations and before taking the dirty syringes to be incinerated, she stored them on a high shelf in the basement where her kids rarely ventured.

What about arrest? Mishoe called it a “noble consequence.”

She brushed aside questions about personal risk. Her answer was simply the pain of a mother, a woman petrified at the prospect of finding her son dead from an overdose. The mother asked Mishoe for a Naloxone kit so she could reverse her son’s overdose.

I brought her one and she got very emotional,” Mishoe remembered. “It made her feel so much better knowing that she had it. She was going to keep it in her car. Wherever she was, she was going to keep it with her.”

At the end of the story, Mishoe reminded herself to deliver a new automatic Naloxone injector to the mother.

Maybe it will save her son’s life.


Colin Miller was homeless.

It was winter in Minneapolis, where the average temperature in January is just above 15 degrees; he escaped the cold days by hanging out at the local library, found respite from the frigid nights by sleeping in a homeless shelter.

Miller and 300 other unfortunates slept on the floor on thin mats about an inch thick. No pillows. His roommates screamed during the night or vomited from withdrawal. Others smoked crack in the bathroom.

By 6:30 a.m. each morning, Miller — sweaty and nauseous from dope withdrawal — stumbled back in the street to hustle for heroin. Off to the races again.

His heroin habit had reached a point where he couldn’t keep money in his pocket long enough to afford a place of his own. It hadn’t always been like that. Before living on the streets for five months, Miller worked a steady job and had a girlfriend. He used and sold drugs, yes, but like so many spinning plates, he was still able to keep up with his obligations.

When Miller’s drug use was at its worst, personal health and hygiene weren’t high on his list of concerns. His friends regularly shared needles to shoot up when clean ones weren’t available and after repeated use, the needles became dull or barbed like the end of a fish hook. On top of the pain and discomfort, sharing needles increases the propensity for blood infections like Hepatitis C.

Maybe I might rinse it out with some bleach but sometimes the drive to use the drug is just such that you don’t give a s***,” Miller said. “It’s not that I didn’t know about the risk, it was because it was too difficult for me to figure out how to get a clean needle at 3 in the morning.”

Colin Miller poses for a portrait at twilight at Green Street Church in Winston-Salem, NC. The church houses The Twin City Harm Reduction Collective, a needle exchange for addicts, which he helped found after years of struggling with addiction. Photo by Justin Cook.

While he was living on the streets, Miller regularly popped into Access Works, a local harm-reduction clinic, to pick up syringes. One of the volunteers at the clinic named Eric happily gave him whatever he needed to get through the day.

While they were handing me syringes,” Miller said, “they would be like, ‘Well, have we told you how Hepatitis C is transmitted?’”

“‘Did you know that you can get it from sharing water? Sharing cotton? It’s not just from syringe to syringe. A contaminated syringe could go in the water and then you draw from that water as well with your syringe and it could contaminate it.’”

Eric frequently shared these little nuggets of knowledge alongside the handfuls of plastic syringes and heroin cookers. That was the whole point of the harm reduction clinic. Miller could never have predicted it at the time, but Eric the volunteer would play an important role in jumpstarting Miller’s journey to becoming drug abstinent.

You thinking about getting clean yet?” Eric asked Miller one day.

No,” Miller countered. Just the syringes.

You thinking about getting clean yet?” inquired Eric the next time Miller stopped in for supplies.

No,” Miller shot back.

You thinking about getting clean yet?”

No, no, no.”

Worn down from living on the streets and suffering from perpetual dope sickness, Miller finally relented and with Eric’s help, checked himself into detox.

The day that he got out of detox, he used the last $20 in his pocket to buy heroin. He spent the latter half of his twenties in and out of treatment centers, swapped heroin for alcohol abuse and eventually relocated to Philadelphia to cop dope once more.

It took Miller five years to get sober.

Today, he is drug abstinent and miraculously disease-free. A combination of many factors enabled Miller to quit drugs completely, including 12-step treatment, but he credits syringe-exchange programs with saving his life and helping him seek recovery.

After moving to Winston-Salem, Miller worked for various local non-profit organizations. Although he currently works at Positive Wellness Alliance, an AIDS service organization, Miller never lost hope that syringe exchange would one day become legal in North Carolina so he could bring the same principles of harm reduction that saved his own life to addicts in his hometown.

I see it as a big part of my recovery to help other people who are still suffering,” Miller said.

It’s one thing that keeps me sober. That keeps me clean.”

Use smart — Keep healthy — Stay alive”

Clockwise: Sterile syringes; A Narcan (Naloxone) injector which blocks and reverses the effects of heroin and other opioids; and a North Carolina syringe access card. The card exempts carriers from arrest and prosecution for possession of needles, other drug paraphernalia, and trace amounts of heroin. All are available at the Twin City Harm Reduction Collective, a needle exchange for addicts, at Green Street Church in Winston-Salem, NC. Photo by Justin Cook.

A printed sign points the way toward the Twin City Harm Reduction Collective at Green Street United Methodist Church.

The syringe exchange is little more than a room with a locked cabinet full of supplies: Naloxone, syringes, cookers, cotton and sterile water.

Mishoe unlocks the cabinet doors and the exchange is open for business.

Although she still travels regularly to distribute clean needles and Naloxone to drug users, Mishoe hopes that having a fixed location allows more people to access their services. As remarkable as it is that more than 5,500 overdoses have been reversed through small circles of people, Miller believes that only a small percentage of the state’s IV drug users are being reached using a mobile strategy.

Fixed syringe-exchange sites, like the one in Minneapolis that Miller credits with saving his life, fulfill the baseline health needs of drug users, but more importantly they connect them with recovery options like detox or methadone treatment. Research shows that heroin users who visit syringe exchanges are five times more likely to enter drug treatment.

We have to give resources for treatment per regulation which is something we were already doing,” Mishoe said.

Colin has a lot of connections there through his work where he can get people into treatment and detox in the same day. That’s not part of the rule, that’s just something we were able to offer.”

State regulations governing syringe exchange require sites to register with the state Department of Health and Human Services and to draft and submit a security plan to the Winston-Salem Police Department and the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office describing how it will keep the needles under lock and key.

Miller must also record basic demographic information about the people who visit the site, including their age and race, and the number of needles and Naloxone kits they distribute. Though still in its infancy, the exchange has served mainly white males between the ages of 20 and 50.

A stack of glossy business cards sit in the metal cabinet imprinted with a tagline that sums up the outfit’s raison d’être: “Use smart — Keep healthy — Stay alive.” Legalization allowed Mishoe and Miller to bring their work out of the shadows. They are now free to advertise the syringe exchange on social media, something that previously would have been unthinkable before but imperative to attract people to the site.

We’ve been pretty slow,” Miller admitted, “because the word is still getting out and a lot of people down here don’t understand that this is legal. They’re sketched out about showing up somewhere to exchange needles. They think the cops are going to be watching.”

To combat these fears, state law grants limited immunity to drug users who receive needles and supplies from certified syringe exchanges, even for used needles containing residual amounts of heroin. Participants leave the Twin City exchange armed with special cards identifying that the paraphernalia is legal just in case they get stopped by police.

Despite these gains, harm reduction in North Carolina remains a labor of love. All of the supplies at the Twin City Collective were donated by the NC Harm Reduction Coalition because state lawmakers refused to allocate public funds to pay for “needles, hypodermic syringes, or other injection supplies.” The action effectively ensures that individuals and organizations continue to carry the heavy load of trying to halt the spread of disease and simultaneously bring relief to addicts.

The Twin City syringe exchange opened its doors to little fanfare but sparked debate among some West Salem residents, revealing the deep-rooted fears that people continue to have about drug users.

Out in the open

Tegan Rae moved to the West Salem neighborhood when she was still an infant. At the time, the area suffered under the perception of being rundown and crime-ridden, and she recalled having difficulty organizing sleepovers at her house on Montgomery Street because the parents of some of her friends refused to let their kids stay overnight in the neighborhood.

Rae currently rents a house on Green Street where she and her fiancé are raising a child of their own. Although she complains that suspicious activity continues in the neighborhood, conditions overall in the area have improved since she was child.

When she first learned about the Twin City Collective on Facebook, her initial reaction was shock and concern. She shared the information on the West Salem Neighborhood Association Facebook page and asked if other residents had heard about the syringe exchange. Many had not.

It’s scary,” Rae said. “A lot of the neighbors were angry about not being told ahead of time and about what the exchange would mean for our neighborhood.”

As a new parent, her primary concern is that the syringe exchange will increase crime in the neighborhood. She is particularly worried that increased foot traffic puts children getting on and off the school bus or playing at nearby Granville Park at risk.

Negative encounters with drug addicts fuel Rae’s fears about the type of people the syringe exchange might attract to the neighborhood.

A junkie is a junkie,” she said.

I have known drug users in the past and they didn’t wait to start shooting up. I am afraid that they would just go in the park and start using. Going into people’s houses to rob.”

The Green Street Church in Winston-Salem, NC. The church houses The Twin City Harm Reduction Collective, a needle exchange for addicts. Photo by Justin Cook.

In order to address residents’ concerns about the exchange, Miller and Mishoe agreed to speak to a special meeting of the West Salem Neighborhood Association. The meeting was a heated discussion, according to various attendants, precipitated by concerns about the syringe exchange.

Kate McFarland, who lives directly next to Green Street Church, also worries about increased foot traffic in the neighborhood and the potential for more crime.

She, too, recalled souring experiences with drug users who stole items from her or roommates who used drugs and refused to pay their share of the rent.

I don’t want to have more users in my neighborhood,” McFarland said. “I think that was perceived by several people as me saying, ‘I don’t want poor users in my neighborhood or I don’t want those people in my neighborhood.’ That’s not the case. It’s a general level of comfort that I have with these experiences and I don’t want to have it again.”

Like other residents, McFarland was unfamiliar with the concept of harm reduction. She believes much of the pushback from residents occurred because they weren’t notified beforehand about the syringe exchange until it had already began operating.

Melissa Vickers, the former secretary of the neighborhood association, credits the group with decreasing crime in the area through the use of good communication among residents and with the police. In 2015, association members helped close the Royal Inn, a nearby hotel that they claimed was a breeding ground for drug dealing and prostitution. Discovering on Facebook that a syringe exchange had opened up down the street was an affront to the neighorhood association’s efforts being made for greater communication, Vickers said.

There have been great improvements to this area the last 10 years,” Vickers said. “We’re all about communication. When there was no communication given and we found out on Facebook, there was a lack of general respect shown to our community.”

While she is not active within the neighborhood association, Akwete McAlister is a member of Green Street church and she had not heard about the exchange in advance either. She supports the work of the exchange and sees how it complements the progressive social programs that the church is already known for, like its dinner service, food pantry and free health clinic.

She wants a clean, safe community like everyone else in West Salem, she said, but she worries that efforts to curb crime could also have the effect of driving people out of the neighborhood.

Of the 19 syringe exchanges founded in North Carolina since July, the Winston-Salem exchange is the only one that has encountered neighborhood resistance, said Tessie Castillo of the NC Harm Reduction Coalition.

In general, people are afraid that having people who use drugs gather around will lead to increases in crime and drug use,” Castillo said. “This is not actually true, but the perception is there. Most people prefer for the drug use in their neighborhoods to be hidden, but syringe exchanges bring the issues more out in the open and a lot of people feel uncomfortable about that.”

Syringes exchanges do not increase crime, whether they operate in residential or commercial areas, according to one research study conducted in Baltimore and published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Though stats assuaged McFarland’s fears, she wants to see for herself whether Winston-Salem will follow the same trend.

A part of the community

While some West Salem residents wonder why the exchange couldn’t have been located somewhere else in the city, the widespread opiate epidemic has blown holes in commonly held stereotypes that place drug abuse mainly among the poor and in communities of color.

We might be doing pretty good if we were over in Buena Vista,” Miller said. “We’re not talking about people who live on the east side. We’re talking about suburban kids and kids from ‘good’ families. This is the face of the modern opioid epidemic.”

To effectively combat the problem, syringe exchange needs to happen where there is addiction.

Locating the syringe exchange at Green Street Church was an obvious choice for Miller. The church is located minutes from downtown and it is located on a bus route. Miller also lives in the neighborhood and wanted to set up the syringe exchange for drug users who reside in the area.

Miller hoped that the symbolism of locating the exchange at a church could chip away at the persistent belief that drug use is a moral failing, one that is particularly prevalent within Southern Christian communities.

He recalled Matthew 25:40 when Jesus told his righteous followers, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

The way that we treat addicts, prostitutes, the least of these if you will, of which I count myself one, is horrible,” Miller said. “Things can get very nihilistic in drug culture. To then tell that person that they’re a bad person and they need to go to prison and be punished for their behavior, I feel like most addicts have been through enough punishment even without all of that.”

Rae hopes that the exchange is successful but she and her young family are looking to move out of West Salem not only because she fears the rise of crime in the neighborhood but also rising rent prices .

Vickers believes that the complicated issues that diverse neighborhoods like West Salem face will be overcome

I hope that there’s a success story of people going into rehab and saving lives,” Vickers said. “I hope that there are no negative consequences to our community at large.”

McFarland, who owns her home, says she will remain in the neighborhood for the long haul. She cites Miller’s commitment and the dearth of research about syringe exchange for giving her cautious optimism about the Twin City site, despite lingering fears about increasing crime and lowering property values.

Do I think that will be the situation with the needle clinic?” McFarland wondered. “I don’t think so. I hope not. Until people begin to fully understand the disease of addiction and the way that it harms people and the ways that we can still treat the addicts like humans, it’s going to be a hard sell for some people.”

After a rocky start, Miller believes that even the most vocal opponents of the Twin City Collective have come around to the idea of it remaining in the neighborhood.

They’re still weary but they’re willing to work with us and they see that we’re trying to put their concerns to rest and be a part of the community,” Miller said.

At the West Salem Neighborhood Association meeting, Mishoe and Miller apologized for not notifying residents about the syringe exchange sooner. Mishoe told the residents that they were so excited to open the Twin City Collective in the wake of syringe-exchange legalization that they went forward with their plans without thinking to tell their neighbors.

Mostly though, it came down to saving lives. In the midst of an opiate epidemic with no end in sight and deaths from overdoses rivaling those at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Mishoe and Miller are keenly aware that time is life.

I would rather ask for forgiveness and be available,” Miller said.

At the peak of the neighborhood debate when she feared that the purpose of the syringe exchange would be overcome by misunderstanding, Miller urged Mishoe not to take her “eyes off the prize.” invoking the Civil Rights-era folk song “Keep Your Eyes On the Prize.”

The prize is for everyone to get off of drugs because they felt valued as a human because of this program,” Mishoe said. “Even if it’s one person, that’s why we’re here.”

The Top Ten Moments of 2016 in the Fight for Universal Health Care https://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1206 Fri, 27 Jan 2017 20:34:54 +0000 http://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1206 This article was originally published on In-Training. You can read the article here.

by Jonathan Michels and Vanessa Van Doren

Debate about some of the most pressing issues facing our country were lost in the horse race of the 2016 presidential campaign and among those issues was the future of health care in America. While millions of Americans received health coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), an estimated 30 million remain uninsured and medical bills continue to be the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States. Despite assertions that universal health care in the United States is merely a liberal “pipe dream,” a Medicare-for-All health program remains the best option for ensuring that all Americans have access to quality health care. In addition, 58 percent of the population — regardless of political affiliation — support the idea of universal health coverage. Although you might not have heard about it, the campaign to expand health coverage for all Americans gained new momentum during 2016. Here are ten of the most significant highlights.

1. Bernie Sanders runs for president advocating Medicare-for-all health insurance.

Although he lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton, Sanders garnered more than 13 million popular votes during the primary campaign by running on a platform supporting health care coverage for all Americans. Believing that quality health care is a human right, not just a luxury afforded to the 1 percent, Sanders knew that the only way to combat growing health inequities was for the country to implement a health program that covers all Americans and cuts out insurance companies that often impede care. The Sanders campaign showed that the fight for universal coverage is bigger than one person and will require all of us to come together with a unified voice for change.

2. Congress grills Big Pharma CEOs over price hiking.

Heather Bresch, the CEO of Mylan Inc., directed the company to raise the price of EpiPen injectors from $109 to $608. Around the same time, Turing Pharmaceuticals’ CEO, Martin Shkreli, also known as the “most hated man in America,” increased the price of an antiparasitic drug by more than fifty-fold. Big Pharma trying to price gouge the public over life-saving drugs is nothing new, right? But hopefully 2016 will be known as the year people realized that instead of being outraged at the Breschs and Shkrelis of the world, we need to start regulating drug prices at the governmental level.

3. Donald Trump signals his intention to dismantle Obamacare and implement his own health care plan, which could decrease health access for millions of Americans.

Beyond repealing the ACA, it’s unclear what kind of health system Trump will put in its place. Health policy experts from Physicians for a National Health Program believe Trumpcare will be a “meaner (and rebranded) facsimile of the ACA that retains its main structural element — using tax dollars to subsidize private insurance — while imposing new burdens on the poor and sick.” Ironically, Trump frequently advocated for universal health care on and off the campaign trail. As early as 2000, he wrote, “We must have universal health care … I’m a conservative on most issues but a liberal on this one. We should not hear so many stories of families ruined by health care expenses.” A single-payer system would greatly reduce health care spending through administrative streamlining, something that both Democrats and Republicans can appreciate.

4. Physicians and medical students protest medical organizations’ endorsements of U.S. Rep. Tom Price’s nomination to become the next Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Despite Trump’s nearly 20-year history of verbal support for universal health care, his choice for HHS Secretary would take the country in a very different direction. Tom Price’s Empowering Patients First Act would dismantle the ACA, Medicare, and Medicaid and replace them with a regressive $1,200 per year tax-credit system that people could use to pay for a small percentage of their health insurance. His plan would also allow insurance companies to deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions if those people had a break in their insurance coverage. This is in addition to Price’s stance against stem cell research, belief that life begins at conception, and lack of support for equal protections for gay and transgender people. Sadly, the American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, and the Association of American Medical Colleges all released statements endorsing the Price nomination. The medical community quickly mobilized to oppose their organizations’ support for this nomination and continue to push for Price to withdraw before Trump’s inauguration.

5. The U.S. Surgeon General releases a report showing that more than 20 million Americans suffer from a substance abuse disorder.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy estimates that 90 percent of people with a substance abuse disorder are not receiving treatment. Current scientific research shows that addiction recovery requires treating both the mind and body. Still, reimbursement rates by insurance companies for social workers and long-term psychiatric treatment continue to pale in comparison to expensive medical procedures. Eradication of such an epidemic will only be achieved by implementing a health care system that is not hamstrung by the whims of health insurance companies but instead allows physicians to provide their patients with effective care.

6. Quentin Young, physician and champion for universal health care, dies at 92.

After training at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Young founded and served as Chairman of the Medical Community for Human Rights, a group that provided health care for civil rights workers, community activists, and other volunteers working in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. Young served as the personal physician for Martin Luther King, Jr. and later, Barack Obama. He went on to serve as the national coordinator for Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), where he continued to fight for single payer health care and justice in medicine. Even his autobiography is titled, “Everybody In, Nobody Out”, the mantra of the Medicare-for-All struggle. So large was the impact that Young had on the universal health care movement that even his passing inspired the fighters that he left behind. “During the 90s he readily convinced me that PNHP would give physicians a platform to survive in the 21st century, which it has done,” wrote Dr. Oliver W. Crawford Jr. in a personal condolence. “His loss truly represents the end of an era, but his message lives on.”

7. The Zika outbreak highlights how unprepared the American public health infrastructure is to respond to national health disasters.

Our lack of a unified, centralized health care system impacts more than federal health care dollars and access to care. A study conducted during the Zika outbreak scare this past summer gave the US a failing grade on preparedness to combat a potential epidemic, highlighting the importance of a streamlined health system that can quickly respond to a crisis and that all members of society can access.

8. Aetna pulls out of ACA marketplaces.

In response to the U.S. government’s concerns that Aetna’s merger with Humana would create a for-profit monopoly, Aetna retaliated by pulling out of the ACA marketplaces. Policy experts began to notice that these merging insurance giants are forming a de facto single payer system. Unlike a streamlined, low-overhead governmental system that will cover everyone, however, a for-profit, non-universal single insurance company will lead to higher costs and less coverage for everyone. Which one do you want?

9. Colorado voters reject Amendment 69, single-payer legislation also known as “ColoradoCare,” but advocates remain undeterred in the struggle to pass national universal health coverage.

ColoradoCare advocates — supported by progressive powerhouses like Bernie Sanders and Michael Moore — intended Amendment 69 to be the first state-sponsored universal health care system in United States history. Unfortunately, nearly 80 percent of Colorado voters rejected the proposal. It is still unknown exactly why the initiative failed to win over the public, but some suspect voters were turned off by the 10 percent tax increase that would have bankrolled the program. Research that compares universal health care systems throughout the world with the U.S. shows that Americans pay far less in taxes than these countries and far more in health care costs without the quality of care to show for it. Almost immediately after the election, health care advocates in the Rocky Mountain State began organizing to build on the momentum that they gained during the hard-fought campaign. “Win or lose,” said Irene Aguilar, a physician and Colorado state Senator, “the issue of guaranteed access to health care for everyone without financial barriers was finally brought before the voters.”

10. The fight for universal health care shows no signs of slowing in the Age of Trump.

Health professional students continue to lead the movement for single payer, universal health care in the United States. Students for a National Health Program (SNaHP) held its second annual Medicare-for-All Day of Action, #TreatNotTrick, on October 31st. More than 30 schools across the country participated in this event. Many of these student organizations recently formed the Protect Our Patients coalition to continue to fight for access to health care during the new Trump administration. The coalition will hold a rally in Washington D.C. on January 9th — RSVP here!

Who gets to be remembered in Chapel Hill? https://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1194 Fri, 04 Nov 2016 19:27:20 +0000 http://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1194 saunders-collage-re-photographed-142-2

Collage by Zoe Litaker.

This article was originally published in Scalawag Magazine. You can read the original article here.

It was just a sign in a window. A name. Hurston.

Last August, campus police officers saw the sign and came to enforce university policy: The sign must come down, they said.

The woman faced the three officers standing in her doorway and said no. “They can send five police, or 10 or 50 and I’m not taking down my sign,” said Altha Cravey, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Symbols and names matter in the South, especially here at Saunders Hall, an academic building named after the leader of the Ku Klux Klan. From the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the burning cross, they reflect who we are and what we believe. And though this was just a sign on a university office window, it signified something more.

For Cravey, the threats of a few campus officers could not compare to the indignation of educating students inside a building that memorialized a White supremacist.

When officials at UNC-Chapel Hill voted to rename Saunders Hall, an academic building named in honor of a former Confederate soldier and leader of the state Ku Klux Klan, it represented the culmination of 16 years of agitation and struggle. Although the building was never renamed after author Zora Neale Hurston like the activists hoped, Saunders Hall was no more. The movement at UNC, which has taken various forms since it began in the late 1990s, is comprised of multiple generations of students, professors and community members.

Activists exposing the South’s history knew that racist symbols, although ubiquitous and largely overlooked, continue to find new defenders who will raise them during modern-day clashes over race, power, and privilege if unchallenged.

The recent “Kick out the KKK” campaign was led by a diverse group, many of whom are students of color, their work informed by the research and activism of a historian named Yonni Chapman. Though Chapman was a White man, educated at an elite university, the atrocities of White supremacy had visited tragedy upon his own life.

News stories barely noted Chapman’s efforts in the renaming campaign, but that would have been fine with him. He viewed his historical writing and activism as just one small part of a collective struggle for freedom that continues today.

“The struggle for historical truth is blossoming…and it will become one of the great social justice movements of our time,” Chapman said in 2005, 10 years before Saunders Hall was renamed.

The decision to remove the Grand Dragon’s name from the building comes at a time when a great social justice movement for historical truth does indeed seem to be blossoming, as people throughout the country are reevaluating symbols of the “Old South.” The movement came to the forefront in Columbia, SC, when an African American woman removed the Confederate flag from the State House in the wake of the brutal murder of nine Black Americans at the Emanuel AME Church.

Similar racial protests, energized by the Black Lives Matter movement, swept across university campuses throughout the country and around the world, forcing the institutions to confront their roles in perpetuating White supremacy. In July, a Yale University dining services worker smashed a stained glass window which showed African American slaves carrying cotton bales on their heads. At Georgetown, officials recently made the historic decision to give admissions preference to the descendants of 272 slaves that were sold to benefit the university and apologized for its role in propagating slavery. And in response to a wave of student protests, the name of a former North Carolina governor and a chief architect of a bloody White supremacy campaign were scrubbed from multiple campus buildings across the state, including Duke University.

For many of the protesters at UNC, the campaign to rename Saunders Hall meant more than just a series of words on a building. It was not about erasing history but illuminating the systemic injustice of White supremacy that continues to overshadow the university, the state and the country. “Students aren’t just fighting to rename a building,” said Omololu Babatunde, one of the student activists. “They’re really fighting for themselves and their space in the world.”

‘Light and liberty’

As the oldest public university in the country, UNC prides itself as being the “university of the people” and a progressive oasis within the conservative South. But, like other prominent Southern universities built with the blood and sweat of Black slaves, UNC took an active role in oppressing African Americans. These competing realities once prompted Paul Green, a playwright and a UNC alumnus, to famously say, “The university [at Chapel Hill is] like a lighthouse which throws a beam out to the far horizons of the South, yet [remains] dark at its own base.”

A close examination of the university’s landscape, believed to be the most densely memorialized piece of real estate in North Carolina, reveals a dark underbelly that perfectly encapsulates the history of the South in all of its violent contradictions. The most prominent and hotly contested of these memorials is the statue of a young Confederate soldier, nicknamed “Silent Sam”, which greets visitors as they enter campus and who stands guard over the university’s quad armed with a rifle and an expression of earnest defiance. Less conspicuous are the numerous campus buildings whose names memorialize the legacy of slave owners and openly avowed White supremacists like William L. Saunders, a celebrated university trustee who also “unleashed a campaign of terror” as the leader of the North Carolina chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

But the University of North Carolina owes its existence in part to Black slaves.

During the summer of 1793, Black slaves cleared brush and trees and carved out Chapel Hill’s main thoroughfare. It was slaves who laid the foundation for Old East, the nation’s first public university building, then slaves dug up the earth and fashioned half a million bricks out of North Carolina red clay. As summer melted into autumn, slaves finished laying the brick walls of the two-story structure.

October 12, however, is the date that the first “public” university continues to celebrate as its founding, the anniversary of the day that the White slave-owner William R. Davie laid the symbolic cornerstone. Of course, the slaves who actually built UNC were neither acknowledged nor allowed to enroll. It was 150 years before African-Americans could attend the university.

As Chapman wrote in his doctoral dissertation, titled Black Freedom and the University of North Carolina, 1793-1960: “The university declared its creed to be lux et libertas, ‘light and liberty,’ but its foundations were built on human bondage.”

In 1789, the General Assembly passed the bill establishing UNC as a public university but in reality, it served mainly the sons of North Carolina’s White oligarchs. Not slaves, poor White farmers or women of any status or race.

“[The university] enabled [elites] to develop relationships with other members of their class, trained them to be masters in both the public and the private sphere, strengthened their sense of duty to class, and sent them back into society to assume positions of leadership,” Chapman wrote. UNC graduates became governors, university trustees, bankers, judges and lawmakers while also expanding slavery in North Carolina from an estimated 100,572 slaves in 1790 to 331,059 in 1860.

“Slaves were critical to the functioning of the same university which denied their humanity,” Chapman wrote, not only because many of its students came from slave-owning families who paid their tuition and fees but also because slave labor allowed students and professors to devote more time to their studies, work and social lives.

After emancipation, university graduates continued to enforce White supremacy by writing laws that restricted African American political participation and breathed life into Jim Crow segregation. Others, such as William L. Saunders, went further.

Before he held positions as secretary of state and university trustee, Saunders led the KKK at the height of its activity during Reconstruction. In 1871, he became the first person to invoke the 5th Amendment before the U.S. Senate, refusing to confirm or deny his participation in the White terrorist organization. Etched upon Saunders’ tombstone are the words: “I decline to answer.”

As African Americans exerted their newly gained political power, university leaders engaged in more paternalistic forms of White supremacy on the one hand, such as advocating for limited primary education for African Americans, while at the same time maintaining the tenets of segregation at the lily White university.

“This enforcement was not done through censoring of faculty or written policies,” Chapman wrote. “It was accomplished by creating a strong institutional culture that affirmed the values of Jim Crow and discouraged deviation from these norms.”

The unspoken curriculum of White supremacy was ensured by the erection of monuments and the naming of buildings to honor defenders of the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy.

In 1907, the UNC president’s new home was modeled after a plantation mansion, less than a decade after the bloody coup d’etat in Wilmington quashed an interracial political movement which allied poor White farmers and African Americans against the privileged elite. Later, in 1913, a crowd of about 250 people gathered for the unveiling of Silent Sam, which honored university graduates who died in the Civil War defending the Confederacy.

When the KKK rose again during the 1920s to combat African Americans’ growing demands for equality, the UNC Board of Trustees thought it fitting to honor Saunders by naming an academic building after him. Among the reasons that the Board of Trustees voted to honor Saunders was his role as the “Head of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina.”

“Saunders Hall and Silent Sam went up because White people were scared of losing their grip on power,” Sandra Osterkatz, Chapman’s daughter, said. “This White supremacist resurgence wanted to make public statements about who owned Chapel Hill. Who owned the university.”

Though no burning cross, the Confederate statue registers a deafening message to African American students and is a dog whistle for defenders of White supremacy.

“A century after the statue’s dedication, Silent Sam continues to send that message: if you don’t like White supremacy, this is not the place for you,” wrote Michael Muhammad Knight, a doctoral candidate at UNC.

In fact, in 2015, members of a group called Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, devoted to preserving Southern White heritage, converged at Silent Sam, armed with Confederate flags.

Chapman envisioned a black obelisk that would tower over Silent Sam as a reminder that the university was built by slave labor. He and many others wanted to see a monument erected in front of Davis Library to honor George Moses Horton, a poet and a slave who was locally noted for writing love poems on behalf of the university’s White male pupils—but less famous for his impassioned collection of poems about his longing for freedom, titled The Hope of Liberty, which earned the distinction of being the first book published in the South by a Black man. Chapman and others believed a plaque outside of Saunders Hall detailing the namesake’s associations with the KKK would go a long way in helping the university reckon with its racist past. Chapman knew that university buildings like Saunders Hall were more than just symbols, enshrined in brick and mortar, but he didn’t have to read about White supremacy in a book to understand its destructive nature. He faced a piece of similar terror in 1979 when White supremacists, some of them Klansmen, took the lives of several of his friends at a protest that he helped organize. Chapman and his wife, Jean, named his first daughter after Sandi Smith, who was killed in the massacre.

‘That’s not my university now’

It was just before dawn on Oct. 6, 1999 when students scaled ladders to tape a red banner above the entrance of Saunders Hall. Across the banner were letters scrawled in Black spray-paint: “KKK.” Then the students hung nooses on tree branches and erected 77 posters representing the 77 years since the university memorialized the Grand Dragon. Murphey Hall was renamed “Hitler Hall” and Steele Building was rechristened “David Duke KKK.”

Campus police quickly cordoned off the area with yellow tape and were poised to charge vandalism when they discovered that the students responsible for the redecorating were members of the Black Student Movement and Students Seeking Historical Truth. Their performance art was a message: buildings like Saunders Hall are a crime scene. White supremacy is the crime and the victims are people of color on campus.

“There are no public hoods or sheets, there are no cross burnings, or voices shrieking White power — these things are well hidden in the walls of the university,” said Kristi Booker in an interview with The Daily Tar Heel, who organized the demonstration along with other African American students.

The students knew that racist symbols are continuously salvaged and repurposed in order to justify current claims of White supremacy. Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on the racist fears of some of Donald Trump’s supporters, Duke recently launched his own campaign in July for the U.S. Senate.

University workers cleaned up the banners and the nooses before classes began and though ephemeral, the protest resonated throughout campus. “I remember coming to campus and there was still some of the crime tape up,” said Altha Cravey, a geography professor who works at Saunders Hall.

“It had this tremendous shock value,” she said.

Booker met Chapman by chance during her sophomore year, who casually mentioned that Saunders Hall was named after the leader of the KKK. Incredulous, Booker spent the summer in the archives at Wilson Library uncovering the history of why the university chose to honor the Grand Dragon. The dramatic nature of the unofficial renaming ceremony reflected the feelings that students like Booker felt upon hearing about the history of their university’s memorials.

“Shock,” recalled Booker. “A lot of disappointment. Anger. I was naive to think that that wasn’t the case at Carolina but that didn’t make it acceptable.”

Booker and other students, along with Chapman, created Students Seeking Historical Truth, which called attention to the university’s hidden history. By this time, Chapman had been a fixture in UNC’s Department of History for more than a decade, where his graduate work focused on Chapel Hill’s Black freedom struggle. More than just a history project, his academic work was just one piece of an “answer to a call and the fulfillment of a pledge” to fight for racial justice.

“[Chapman] rewrote how the Civil Rights Movement in Chapel Hill unfolded,” said James Leloudis, a UNC professor and Chapman’s graduate advisor. While previous historical accounts focused largely on White university students who took courageous stands for desegregation, Chapman’s research showed that it was African Americans, particularly Black high school students, who were at the center of the local freedom movement. Whites followed their lead.

“It’s a reminder that even very liberal Whites could look out across the landscape of the 1960s, both in that time and to some degree later and not see Black people,” remarked Leloudis. “Their story just wasn’t taken into account.”

The more he dug into UNC’s history, the more his interest grew about how the university named its buildings and the ways that it continued to affect the people who interacted within those spaces. In an interview with an African-American housekeeper who cleaned Saunders Hall, Chapman documented her visceral reaction upon learning that she had been maintaining a building dedicated to a figure of hate. From that point on, she said, the act of cleaning Saunders Hall became repugnant and made her physically ill. Chapman’s dissertation contrasted the experiences of African Americans like the housekeeper at Saunders Hall with those of Whites like the nameless “liberal professor” who taught in the same building.

“How do you feel about coming to work every day in a building named after the leader of the Ku Klux Klan?” Chapman asked the White professor. “I feel fine,” the professor responded. “That was then. That’s not my university now.”

‘Sweet revenge’

The university’s use of slave labor was common knowledge within Chapel Hill’s African-American community.

Michelle Laws’ family exemplified other working-class African Americans in the town whose members held positions as housekeepers or service workers at the university. Others worked as nannies and maids for professors and administrators. Stories about White oppression on the nearby campus were passed down from the community elders, for whom even the simple act of graduating from the university was viewed as a continuation of the long struggle for racial equality.

“Even knowing that, there was something extra sweet about going to Carolina and being able to graduate,” she said. “It was sweet revenge to have your child go to a university that you knew not too long ago didn’t accept them even as humans.”

In 2005, university administrators finally publicly acknowledged UNC’s close association with slavery. UNC commissioned an online exhibit that examined the history of African Americans at the university, from slavery to integration, and unveiled its “Unsung Founders Memorial.” Though controversial for its small size and awkward design, it was the university’s first monument to honor the free and enslaved African Americans who built the university. A year later, Chapman’s dream of honoring the slave poet, George Moses Horton, was realized when Hinton James North Residence Hall became Horton Hall.

At the same time the university began to acknowledge the contributions of African Americans, it also undertook a reassessment of some of its trappings of White supremacy like the Bell Award, honoring Cornelia Phillips Spencer, which celebrated the achievements of women.

Spencer may well have been ahead of her time by advocating for the education of White women, but Laws, Chapman and others directed a light on her defense of the status quo when it came to matters of race. Although Spencer was no Grand Dragon and she was reflecting the most common point of view of her White peers, her form of White supremacy was no less virulent even if it was more subtle. As an apologist for the Klan, she advocated for institutional limits in the wake of the Civil War to choke African American progress.

In order to receive the award from the public university, it is implied that the recipients must have embodied some of the ideals that Spencer represented. Still, the campaign to raise awareness about the award, like efforts to rename Saunders Hall, was not about one individual. Without knowing the full history, it was easy to give an award that honored a White supremacist. But once the history was made apparent, then it came down to choices: who the public university chooses to honor and who it represents. University officials retired the award in 2004, but Spencer Hall remained. Although few people would admit to being racist, the forceful opposition to rename or reevaluate these symbols highlights the difference in how history itself is perceived and by whom.

“When you look at who controls power in the UNC System, these are the descendants of the people who benefitted from slavery,” Laws said. “It’s not a shameful history to a lot of people, mostly Southern Whites. It’s something you’re proud of.”

Although he didn’t live to see Saunders Hall renamed — Chapman succumbed to cancer in 2009 — the student movement had already taken root, building upon his struggle for historical truth. While the energy behind the movement ebbed and flowed during the next six years, as awareness about UNC’s memorialization of White supremacy grew, student and faculty outcry eventually converged in a torrent of demands which administrators could no longer avoid.

‘Diversity without justice is not enough’

During her first year on campus, Professor Altha Cravey, like many other people on campus, was unaware of the historical significance of the name, the plaque or the man that marked the geography department and her office building. Cravey began digging and discovered the truth about her building’s namesake: William Saunders led the Ku Klux Klan.

“I was shocked,” Cravey remembered.

“I didn’t really know how to process it,” she said. “Given the nature of the Klan, it just didn’t seem right to me that the building should honor the leader of a terrorist organization that was about lynching and killing.”

Shortly after arriving at UNC, Cravey discovered Chapman’s research about the university’s memorials and their shared interests made them natural allies. In the years that followed, Chapman’s research and Cravey’s dedication to spreading the truth helped sustain and inspire waves of efforts to rename Saunders Hall.

“Yonni Chapman was one of those golden texts that you had to read,” said Omololu Babatunde, a recent graduate of UNC’s geography program. During Babatunde’s freshman year, Chapman’s name continuously popped up in conversations that she had with upperclassmen. She later joined the Real Silent Sam Coalition which took its name from the Confederate soldier, and was just one student group at the heart of a movement to rename Saunders Hall that spanned 16 years. When Babatunde finally read Chapman’s unpublished dissertation a few years later, it was like a “beacon” that helped her articulate the experiences of African-American students at UNC.

“[Trying to prove] how it feels to be on this campus where you have these glorified White supremacists all over the place — things that can’t be quantified,” Babatunde said. “Here was Yonni Chapman who was taking the same visceral feelings that I got being in these spaces and putting history to that.”

Just as Chapman hoped, Babatunde and her predecessors used his dissertation as an organizing tool to carry on the conversation about UNC’s history of honoring White supremacists.

Last year, members of UNC’s Board of Trustees watched dozens of student activists with the Real Silent Sam Coalition cram into their meeting room with posters and signs that read, “Racism Kills!”

“This might be a record for the most people we have ever had at a committee meeting,” remarked Alston Gardner, the former chair of the board’s University Affairs Committee.

The committee meeting represented a high point for the campaign to rename Saunders Hall and it was clear that everyone recognized the historical nature of the moment as conversations about “race and place” had become unavoidable.

“This is clearly a national phenomenon,” Gardner said. “It’s not just happening at Chapel Hill.”

As a person of Asian and Native American descent, Real Silent Sam member Dylan Mott said minorities like himself face a greater likelihood of getting into confrontations with other students on campus or feeling the increased pressure to perform academically. While he and many other members of Real Silent Sam felt privileged to be at a prestigious institution like UNC, the cost for attending the university can be more than just tuition.

“The cost to us to be at school can be your own health and well-being,” Mott said. “It can be your own own feelings of safety. It can be your own sense of self and the ability to learn your own history instead of someone else’s history.”

Today, as the South undergoes dramatic shifts in its demographics, shouldn’t the environment at Southern universities change along with its student body? Babatunde asked the Trustees.

“The late Yonni Chapman wrote in his dissertation that ‘diversity without justice is not enough,’” Babatunde said. “If you are asking us to be your diversity, then we are demanding justice.”

When Babatunde addressed the trustees, she was adding her own voice to the African American freedom struggle on campus that stretched back to the university’s founding. In Chapman’s writings, Babatunde found not only historical context that reinforced her feelings about being an African-American student on a campus that continued to honor White supremacists, but evidence about the antithesis of White dominance — a parallel history of struggle and agitation by African Americans and their White allies who carved a path for the young activist to follow and “challenged the university to become more honest, more inclusive, and more just.”

‘The light on the hill’

Just weeks before Dylan Roof shot nine people at an African-American church, the UNC Board of Trustees’ admitted at their May meeting that their predecessors were wrong to name an academic building after William Saunders. The renaming of Saunders Hall to Carolina Hall and the creation of a special task force which will curate campus monuments with historical markers are the result of a hard fought victory by the student activists who led the charge.

The concessions from the university officials, however, came with a caveat: There would be no more renaming buildings or changing memorials on campus for the next 16 years. Ironically, the length of the moratorium matched the length of time that activists spent trying to rename Saunders Hall. Labeled a “cooling off” period to allow passions to subside, the moratorium angered members of the Real Silent Sam Coalition who viewed the action as a way of extinguishing a growing movement to appraise the university’s memorials of White supremacy.

To date, although UNC administrators have acknowledged the university’s connections with slavery, a formal apology has never been issued. Upon discovering this oversight, a UNC spokesperson said he would forward the information to the chancellor’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill’s History. Nationally, efforts to remove Confederate or White supremacist symbols have slowed or been rebuffed. Princeton University officials announced that Woodrow Wilson’s name would remain attached to the school of public and international affairs, despite his racist views. Meanwhile, in an effort to preserve Southern “heritage”, elected officials in Alabama and Tennessee proposed legislation that would make it more difficult to change or remove Confederate monuments.

But it was actually North Carolina that led the charge in preserving these symbols. A month after the South Carolina killings, Governor McCrory and the General Assembly passed and signed SB 477, limiting the ability of city governments to remove or change historical monuments. While the bill’s proponents stressed that the measure passed the state Senate months before the South Carolina tragedy, it is largely viewed as a pushback against the Saunders Hall campaign and calls for the removal of Confederate monuments like UNC’s Silent Sam.

In many ways, UNC is a reflection of the “New South” which, despite recent setbacks, has removed many barriers that prevented African Americans from accessing some of their most basic rights, such as higher education and the vote. While UNC is regarded as one of the most esteemed and open-minded Southern universities, it took more than a decade and a half of hard struggle to remove the name of a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon from a campus building.

But rather than paint the future as a picture of despair, Chapman drew inspiration from the past, particularly from the African-American freedom struggle, to show the boundless potential that lies ahead. His work and those of other renaming activists to expose connections with White supremacy was a testament to their belief in the UNC’s capacity to confront its past and finally fulfill its motto of being the “university of the people.”

“Who gets to occupy these corridors of thought and thinking?” Babatunde wondered. “That’s what our predecessors struggled against and what allowed me to be in that space. To be a Black woman at UNC.”

Op-ed: Earline Parmon and the legacy of Local 22 https://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1181 Sun, 10 Apr 2016 13:42:48 +0000 http://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1181

This op-ed was originally published in Triad City Beat on March 23, 2016. You can read the original article here.

In 2013, I interviewed Earline Parmon about the legacy of a landmark interracial labor union in Winston-Salem called Local 22. Many of the union leaders were African American women who pushed for economic, gender and racial equality at the height of segregation.

“They were caring women, they strong women and they wanted to make a change,” Parmon told me.

What I assumed would be a standard interview between a journalist and a lawmaker about history actually revealed a lot about Parmon herself and her own journey of becoming a strong, caring woman who never stopped pushing for change.

Parmon’s sudden death last week at age 72 reminded me of our brief interviews together and the importance of documenting the history of our community.

The following is an excerpt from that interview.

What was life like growing up in Winston-Salem during both the height of the tobacco industry and Jim Crow segregation?

As a youngster growing up, RJ Reynolds was one of the basic industries in terms of the economy. It used to be referred to as “Papa Reynolds” because it was paternalistic in that the leaders of that company decided on what would happen in Winston, when it would happen and how it would happen.

I lived a couple of blocks on East Fourth Street from the [Reynolds] headquarters and many of the surrounding factories. I woke up in the mornings smelling menthol, went to sleep smelling menthol. All my life, growing up, that’s a memory I will never forget.

I remember the black signs and the white signs. One of my most vivid memories [was] when Eisenhower was running for president [and] he came to the train station. Even then when you went down on the platform, black people were herded this way and white people that way. [There] was a water fountain in there that said “colored” and “white.” I rebelled against that and many times would drink out of the white fountain just because they said I couldn’t. I would drink out of it and then run before the porter got us. He would know I was coming because I would sort of do it everyday and he would be at the door I came in last time. We played sort of hide and seek.

I do remember because of Jim Crow getting books at school that had no covers. Many of the pages were torn out. We always got the short stick of education. In spite of that, our parents and the leaders knew that education was the key to changing Jim Crow and segregation. I very much remember Jim Crow and the impact of segregation on this city and throughout the South.

During the 1940s, tobacco workers at RJ Reynolds organized to form Local 22, an interracial labor union, led mostly by African American women. What impact did Local 22 have on the African American community and how did its members shape your own perspectives?

The black women at RJ Reynolds, after having worked in horrible and devastating conditions for so long, just decided that they [not only] had a right to work but they also had a right to decent and clean, healthy working conditions. They knew about unions in the North and how they made a difference and you were able to negotiate for certain rights and certain benefits. Knowing they had to be providers for their families, don’t quit the job but try to make it better. They knew that trying to bring a union into Winston-Salem particularly at RJ Reynolds was like David taking on Goliath. They were fed up and they weren’t going to take it anymore. Together, they could make a difference.

Everything I am in terms of my community involvement, my political involvement is because of Velma Hopkins and Mazie Woodruff. They were caring women, they were strong women and wanted to make a change.

I started going to meetings with Miss Hopkins. She sort of embraced me and mentored me as a youngster. I had gone to Goler [Metropolitan AME Zion] Church on East Fourth Street when Dr. [Martin Luther] King was there and the church was crowded. Miss Hopkins saw me trying to get in and she pulled me in up front. All these things just endeared me to her. I just followed her. I learned from her. I sat under her tutelage and saw how strong of a black woman she was, in every aspect whether it was voting rights or jobs.

I remember Mazie Woodruff and Velma Hopkins going to the board of county commissioners. Can you imagine black women standing up and questioning them? One particular time it was about closing [Kate B. Reynolds Memorial Hospital], the only black hospital in Winston-Salem. We called it Katie B.

Some legislation had been changed without any input from the community that actually changed the focus of that hospital. I went with Miss Hopkins and Mazie Woodruff and a couple of other women. They [got] up talking and there were all white men sitting there. I would just be cowering. I would be so scared because they didn’t mince words. They would say, “You can’t continue to do black folk like this.”

Miss Hopkins had such an impact on my life. It’s who I am today in terms of my belief system, my value system and my moral system and standing up for what’s right without fear of being intimidated. I don’t know of any aspect of life making it better for the African-American community that she and Mazie didn’t touch. I had the honor and the pleasure of serving with Mazie Woodruff as a county commissioner. I can’t really say how awesome that was.

Are workers today facing some of the same issues that workers did at RJ Reynolds during the 1940s? How have the various social justice movements that followed Local 22, like the Black Panther Party and Occupy Winston-Salem, worked to continue their victories?

The struggle of working rights, human rights and civil rights sort of go hand in hand. One is no good without the other. If you have a right to vote and then they will provide a place and accessibility to it. The labor union was important for people to be able to have a decent wage so that they could provide for their families, economic rights are just as important as civil rights. One really is not very good without the other. You can vote but you can’t work. Once you work and make money and you can’t go where you want to, to eat where you want to, take your children to movies or art museums and expose them to different things… it was very key that once the labor movement really started here that the civil rights, voting rights, desegregation of the public places…[they] just had to be addressed.

I see as one movement or one group make improvements or make things better and they sort of dissipate, that other groups have come forward to pick up the mantle.

The Black Panther Party for instance, got the support of people like Dr. Oliver, Dr. Virginia Newell and Miss Lee Faye Mack, who was another person that emerged from that movement of desegregation and racism as a leader from the grassroots. When the Black Panthers [were active], I know that that was another scary time in this city because the police and the other people would say to black folk: “They’re going to get everybody killed because we’re going to come through here shooting. Children, everybody gonna get killed.” People were afraid to stand up. The Panthers had so many programs that benefited the community, it drew in your business people and your professional people. They started working together. As you saw those people working together with your ministers, it made such a big impact because it wasn’t as easy to divide people.

I remember Occupy early of last year, had a movement dealing with RJ Reynolds. I can’t remember whether it was wages or working conditions, but trying to still say a union is needed. RJ Reynolds doesn’t want to hire people anymore. They hire casual laborers. They have gotten rid of people that have worked many years and now, what they do is hire people through employment companies so they don’t have to pay benefits, health insurance and not as great a wages as they used to.

Now, you have what we call the working poor. We are fastly approaching poverty at the levels of Mississippi and Arkansas, the Deep Southern states where poverty is even worse than here. I can’t dare to even think about it. I shudder when I think about it. Some regions of the South there are people living in worse conditions in terms of economic and civil rights justice. Right here in Forsyth County, a report came out that one out of every five children under the age of 10 go to bed hungry. Right here in this county.

I attended that gathering right downtown on Fourth Street. We’re talking about Local 22 from the 1930s and 1940s when people were coming together for better wages and better working conditions. Contrast that to 2012 and people are still having to come together because everything that had been worked for and gained has been dismantled. As the song says, “The beat goes on.” You can never get relaxed and take your eyes off of the prize. If you do, all the gains you made will soon be gone and you won’t understand why.

Jonathan Michels is a freelance journalist based in Winston-Salem. He is working on a grant-funded documentary history of social justice activism in North Carolina.

Interview: Ajamu Dillahunt, Long-Time Civil Rights Organizer https://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1150 Sun, 02 Aug 2015 15:13:56 +0000 http://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1150 Article originally published in Scalawag Magazine on July 8, 2015. Original article can be found here.

Ajamu Dillahunt is a founding member of Black Workers for Justice, a grassroots organization focused on empowering African-American workers to become leaders in the Black Freedom and labor movements. The text below is taken from an oral history interview conducted on May 8, 2014. This interview was supported by the Southern Oral History Program and is a part of a larger oral history project focused on documenting the recent political upsurge in North Carolina and across the South.


Jonathan Michels: You are a part of the New Great Migration of African Americans from the North who moved back down to the South following the Civil Rights Movement. Why did you decide to move to North Carolina?

Ajamu Dillahunt: We moved to North Carolina in 1978. By some people’s standards, we still ain’t from here, as they say. I don’t know when you get to be from here, but we certainly feel like it.

We moved from New York. We decided to move south for both political and personal reasons. We wanted to be a little closer to our families. That was on the personal side. On the political side, North Carolina had that history of… the founding of SNCC, the sit-ins, Robert Williams in Monroe,[1] and, in the more recent period, through the 1970s, the Wilmington Ten case. The resistance to that was important. And then the community work that we knew that was going on. We were like, “Yeah, this is probably a good place to be.”

What were your perceptions of North Carolina and the South as a child growing up in New York?

I had visited in 1954, had come back to North Carolina with my grandmother. We went to New Bern, her home, and also Wilmington where we had cousins. We rode the bus. We get south of the Mason-Dixon line, and you’ve got to get in the back. Separate waiting rooms and all that stuff. I experienced that as a really young person. That’s in your mind as well. Those years in between, I’m reading and watching, so the South is a dangerous place, it’s a bad place. A place where we need to make some changes, a site of some important struggles.

There’s the Emmett Till murder in Mississippi. Mississippi has always had this place in Black discourse as being the worst place you could ever be for Black folks. Medgar Evers is murdered there. There’s Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner that are killed there.[2] The list of atrocities just goes on and on.

I’m from that generation that was forever impacted by the murder of Emmett Till. He’s murdered in 1955, right? He was 14 years old. I’m in the fifth grade. You’re a young man in the 1950s and 1960s, and this is part of your understanding of what life is like in this country and what you might encounter.

On the real side, I understood that it wasn’t quite as bad in 1978 as it was in 1958 or 1948—that there had been some changes and some resistance and people were standing up. North Carolina in particular had undergone some changes both on a political front and a legislative front. Some openings that were there.

We didn’t move here with that kind of fear, [with the] preparation for the kind of repression that people faced in an earlier period. Of course, we weren’t naive either. Glenn Miller, former Klansman… was out and on the prowl when we showed up. He was active prior to the Greensboro Massacre.[3] The Nazi party was here and all that. Some of that was still there but not the level of repression that existed two decades or three decades before.

During the 1960s, as thousands of African Americans engaged in civil disobedience in demonstrations across the country, what role did you play in resisting Jim Crow?

AD: I was at school at Bradley in Peoria, Ill., and ended up becoming part of a demonstration that the local NAACP chapter had organized for, in retrospect a silly cause, but nevertheless they did it. This was in May 1964.

It was a barbershop, a White barbershop near the campus, and the owner refused to cut any Black person’s hair. The campus was not in the Black community so local African Americans weren’t looking to get a haircut there but some of the Black students were. Somehow, they made this an issue, and there was a sit-in that I just happened upon. I was coming from work. I was a dishwasher at a local restaurant, and I came from work and there they were, picketing in front of the barbershop and singing and chanting. I was in!

I don’t think there was anybody recruiting for Freedom Summer at Bradley. I just didn’t know about it. We just knew about sit-ins and this was a part of it. What led to the arrest was not being on the property, but we sat in the intersection and blocked it off. I got arrested for that.

I remember the Peoria police had police dogs, and the dogs were breathing down your neck. I was like, “Whoa.” I hadn’t expected that. But no beatings or anything like that. They picked people up and we spent just one night in jail. The charges were later dropped. But it was my first engagement in something important to do at that time. I felt more of a kinship and relationship to what was going on around the country with what other people were doing. The sacrifices they were making.

You received a Master’s Degree in African Studies from the State University of New York at New Paltz, where you also worked for several years. Why did you decide not to stay in higher education?

AD: I was more interested in moving into some of manufacturing work and becoming involved in organizing at the workplace. That was a thrust that many in the movement at that time were looking at. Let’s go to the workplace. Let’s situate ourselves in manufacturing where we can organize. It’s an important part of the economy, and we can really make some change in this society. We need to be at those critical areas where you can make things happen. Where you can stop bad things from happening and you can put pressure on the state, on the government in that way.

Worked at a plant as a machinist for awhile. A plant that was organized by the International Union of Electrical Workers at Wake Forest. I actually got laid off after one of the shutdowns. Not too long after that, the postal job came up and I went into the post office.

When you became a postal worker, did you automatically become a member of the union?

Not automatically. That’s one of the issues about right to work. The idea of the open shop [is] that even though an employer has a contract with the union that represents the workers there, because of the right to work laws, the employees are not obligated to join, although the union is obligated to represent them. The pay and benefits are the same. I joined. Of course I was going to join. I became active pretty quickly after I joined and did some things. Steward and research and education director and eventually… became president of the local.

The post office is a little different. The union is there for you to join, wherein the majority of the workplaces there is no union, so you starting from scratch. You’ve got to convince people why it’s to their advantage to join. What’s in it for them. Why should they take the risk of losing a job—or worse—in some cases. To convince them of that. Why is it important to build unity between Black and White workers? That’s a common tactic that’s used by the employers to split people along racial lines. For a number of historical reasons, Black workers are more prone to come forward and join faster because they know we need some kind of organization. We need something to protect us from these employers because we’re catching hell and maybe it’s the union that would do that. They feel it intuitively or they know something from history…. On the other hand, some White workers who are imbued with White supremacy and White privilege think, “That’s a Black union. I don’t want to be part of that.” In fact, it’s not a Black union. It’s the Black workers who gravitated to it and maybe constitute the larger percentage of people who are active in it.

You helped create Black Workers for Justice in 1981. The organization emerged from an effort led by African-American women against racial and gender discrimination at a Kmart store in Rocky Mount, N.C.

AD: These women at a Kmart in Rocky Mount had been fired… by a White boss. They felt like it was discrimination in the stores. Most of the Black workers felt this but also this particular incident. These women came to Saladin and Naeema Muhammad who lived in the community and had been activists there. They organized some pickets, some motorcades through the neighborhood, targeting Kmart. Asked people around the state to the extent that they could do some leafleting at Kmart stores to try to bring pressure on them around the state.

They formed a workplace committee called Kmart Workers for Justice. People said we need to have an organization that does this. The manager eventually was fired. I’m thinking that maybe one or two of the people got their jobs back. They didn’t win everything that they wanted. It was the action in Rocky Mount that got people to pay attention to workplace stuff. Three or four years before that, the sanitation workers in Rocky Mount had gone on strike. There’s a kind of tradition of a struggle like that, but this was on another level. People got interested in that work. People came together. We had folks here in Raleigh and a couple of other places around North Carolina interested in joining and forming Black Workers for Justice.

What objectives did you hope Black Workers for Justice would achieve?

AD: The anti-worker climate, the anti-union climate here is legendary. It’s epic. And all of the social forces that come together to make it such. Of course, the business community and in many cases, the religious community. The union busting that takes place and particularly now on a very sophisticated level with union-busting firms and attorneys and all that. Even before the advent of those more sophisticated specialists, turning to the church was always a tactic of the bosses. To win allies with the preacher who is going to convince the members to stay away from the union even if it got to the narrative of “If you join that thing, you’re going to hell.”

[The objective of Black Workers for Justice is] to give black workers a vehicle to participate in this broad, Black liberation struggle that is generally dominated by professionals, by lawyers and preachers. But understanding that, in the freedom movement historically, the troops have been working people. [That becomes] pretty clear during the Civil Rights Movement once you get below the layer of Dr. King and so-called “local leaders”. But even a lot of local leaders in places all over the South were actually workers from factories and agricultural workers and farmers. We wanted to formalize that, to give people that voice and the chance to participate in that way. Also, to organize at their jobs to get power and protection on the job and to eventually to have a union to defend them. To deal with working conditions and pay and safety. Also, as a workplace community organization, [we wanted] not only to deal with the issues at the workplace, but also in the community that affects people’s lives: education, police brutality, participation in the political process.

This past February, the Historic Thousands on Jones Street coalition [HKonJ] held its ninth annual rally and march, which has grown immeasurably through the Moral Monday Movement. How did you become involved in these actions?

Black Workers for Justice? Immediately. We were on right away. At the time, I was working at the North Carolina Justice Center. They were part of the movement from the very beginning. One of the groups that came on board very early on. In both ways I was put into it. Happily.

[Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, president of the NC NAACP and leader of the Moral Mondays Movement,] supported the Electrical Workers Union [UE 150] in its struggle early on. I think they had a campaign at Cherry Hospital right there in Goldsboro. It’s probably around 2004 or 2003. Just ahead of his election to the state leadership [of the NC NAACP]. Some of his members, particularly Larsene [Taylor], members of his church, Greenleaf [Christian Church], got him involved, and he spoke and supported the union and talked about how important labor was.

I tell people that I didn’t join the NAACP until I was in my sixties. Prior to that I just didn’t think it was the kind of organization that was effective and really fought in the way that I thought it should and could with some exceptions. The local leadership in North Carolina had been pretty ineffective, we thought. Compromised. Not militant and outspoken and energetic in a way that we thought it needed to be. Here, Reverend Barber brings all of that to his leadership.

It was clear there was going to be some kind of shift. Now, we couldn’t predict that it was going to be of the nature that it has turned out to be. Moral Monday. Forward Together. Could not think of that at all. That was even prior to the development of HKonJ. That coalition. That comes the second year into his presidency. You can’t paint on that, but you could see from the issues that he was tackling, the kind of vision that he was laying out that it would be some kind of change in the state.

What has the Moral Monday Movement come to signify for you?

We’re in a period where we’re really appreciating all of the work and the struggles that we’ve been involved in and that we’ve witnessed during that time, in some ways, coming to fruition. To see people out in this level. It’s just about unprecedented. Certainly since we’ve been here. I don’t know if there are any other points in history where we’ve seen these kinds of mobilizations. Some of the historians know some minor pieces, but in terms of movements, this is it.

On the last Moral Monday [on July 29, 2013]… we were at the rally and of course Reverend Barber was speaking. Maybe it was before he spoke when they were singing—the Forward Together Singers. Standing slightly behind, Reverend [John] Mendez and Reverend [Nelson]  Johnson and they’re like really into it. You could see they were captured by what was going on on the stage. Here are two activists who I’ve known for a long time, actually before I came here in 1978. The kind of struggles that they’ve been through, the kind of work they’ve put in in Winston and Greensboro, and the Darryl Hunt case and Kwame Cannon, and the Kmart workers being organized, the Greensboro Massacre, all of these kinds of things. Here they are still in it. Still participating. But also really feeling this moment. It was pretty emotional.

Those are little things, but it’s people coming out. You spend years and years of small actions and pickets and demonstrations, and maybe you win a concession here with this employer or the city concedes to do something that you demanded. But to see people come out at this level with this consistency and with this spirit and even anger. There’s Moral Monday and there’s the folks that come out and there’s the HKonJ coalition, but if you go in a little deeper, there’s these other movements that are part of it. Other activities. Other struggles that are either identifying with Moral Monday and the Forward Together movement or the movement has looked at their struggles and embraced them.

The year before we got a campaign to defeat Amendment One, the [anti-gay] marriage amendment. The progressive forces lost, but it was a hell of a fight that was waged. I think a lot of people’s opinions about it was turned around, particularly in the African-American community. All of these clergy came out and said this is about fairness. There were gains made in that. In the midst of the Moral Monday stuff, you get teachers with the 2020 movement really pushing the NCAE [North Carolina Association of Educators] forward. They’re fighting and battling. They’re taking stuff to all their school boards and county commissioners to resist the 25 percent rule that the General Assembly passed.[4] They’re organizing and running and winning.

Then [there is] the Raise Up movement. The environmental justice movement. The fight against the coal ash dumping. That’s part of the resistance against Duke [Energy] and the energy companies. It’s a wonderful time to do a critique of the system at this point. To continue the conversation of the one percent that the Occupy Movement brought forward.

Wow. What a wonderful time to be able to talk about the relationship between the economic structure and the destruction of the environment and who’s holding back on the necessary changes. This is a good time. They call it a perfect storm of events. You couldn’t have planned it this way. Things have just developed, and you’ve got the issues and the right people in place to push it forward. It’s just a good time. Hopefully we’ll come out with some victories and some power.


[1] Robert Williams was the president of the North Carolina NAACP and an ardent proponent of Black self-defense.

[2] Medgar Evers was the president of the Mississippi NAACP, killed in his own driveway by a white supremacist on June 12, 1963. Andrew Goodman, James Chancey, and Michael Schwerner were killed by members of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan after they began working to register Blacks to vote the summer of 1964.

[3] On November 3, 1979, five people were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party during a protest against white supremacist violence.

[4] A 2013 law passed by the North Carolina General Assembly eliminated public school teacher tenure and was replaced by a rule in which 25 percent of teachers could receive four year contracts instead of new, year-to-year contracts. [http://www.wral.com/senate-panel-oks-eliminating-teacher-tenure/12325214/

Occupy Winston-Salem: Three years later https://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1126 Fri, 06 Mar 2015 15:24:14 +0000 http://jonathanmichels.com/?p=1126 Article originally published in Triad City Beat on October 29, 2014. Original article can be found here.

by Jonathan Michels

“We are the 99 percent!”

“And so are you!”

For the men and women in suits and ties leaving the annual meeting of the Chamber of Commerce, the scene was anything but business as usual. Protesters with signs and banners chanted boisterously from across the street. Several passersby joined in the ruckus.

“Banks got bailed out!”

“We got sold out!”

This wasn’t Wall Street.

This was Fifth Street in Winston-Salem and it was just one of many actions that residents organized since they stood together as an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement three years ago in October 2011.

The movement was born when thousands of people occupied a small park in New York City with tents and sleeping bags and demanded a more just society. They wanted to remove corporate money in political elections and to close the growing economic gap between the richest Americans and the poorest. They called it “Occupy Wall Street.”

A recent graduate from journalism school, this was my first introduction to a demonstration. Like many journalists, I was fascinated by this new protest movement. I attended an Occupy Winston-Salem meeting to ask permission to film the group for a documentary about the movement’s incursion into North Carolina. Although I’m no longer filming, I have continued to cover the group as well as other growing protest movements around the state.

At various points, I flew to New York City to see firsthand the movement in Wall Street. I was looking forward to seeing Winston members who were in Zuccotti Park. A lot of the demonstrators seemed to focus on what the future held for Occupy and the experience of the movement itself. Winston-Salem members happily took part but I quickly saw the differences between the two groups.

In Winston-Salem, it wasn’t nearly as much about the experiences of Occupy but about utilizing the political space that Occupy opened up to bring about change in their community.

Today, millions of corporate dollars still flow into political elections and the economic gap between the poorest Americans, or the 99 percent and the richest 1 percent continues to widen. The Occupy encampment at Zuccotti Park, briefly renamed Liberty Square, has long since been shut down.
In North Carolina, the prevailing perception is that when the tents disappeared in cities like Charlotte, Greensboro and Chapel Hill, so did Occupy.

The reality in Winston-Salem is very different. In a shift from the tactics of many state and national chapters, Occupy Winston-Salem members decided not to occupy a physical space and instead focused on nonviolent direct action, enabling it to become one of the most tireless and strategic grassroots groups at the center of the state’s recent political upsurge.

Years after police tore down the tents in neighboring cities, Occupy Winston-Salem members continue to help organize local and statewide actions. Most recently, group members organized demonstrations against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and Duke Energy’s massive coal-ash spill in the Dan River, in addition to coordinating a meeting with community members to talk about the dangers of market-driven healthcare.

They might not be drawing the amount of people or the media attention that they did at the height of the national movement, but local Occupy members say their work continues to fill a void.

Longtime Occupy Winston-Salem member, Tony Ndege, put it this way: “In a lot of these smaller cities, Occupy is all there is.”


Only weeks after protesters in New York City occupied Zuccotti Park and renamed it Liberty Square, almost a hundred Occupy groups sprang up across the United States.

“We would be sitting there in Liberty Square and we’d be seeing the map just light up,” said Nathan Schneider, New York City-based journalist and one of the first to cover Occupy Wall Street.

“One occupation after another,” he said.

Winston-Salem was among the places to light up on the map.

In early October 2011, a group of people poured into an empty lot behind Krankies Coffee. This was Occupy Winston-Salem’s first mass meeting, or general assembly. For veteran activist Anne Paisley, it was a Who’s Who of the local political scene.

“Everybody I ever knew in my life,” Paisley said. “All the activists, of all ages were there. It was really exciting.”

The crowd in Occupy Winston-Salem’s early days were a microcosm of the one in Zuccotti Park: diverse. Some were older, some younger. There were small business owners, professors and students. Political persuasions ranged from socialism to libertarianism with all points in between. What united all of them was the feeling that the system was broken and it needed fixing.

“It was a spirited group, a diverse group,” recalled McGuire, a social worker at the Children’s Home of Winston-Salem, who found dozens of people with plenty of angst. “No idea what we were into or where we were going.”

Occupy was like a blank canvas. Within the boundaries of social and economic justice, anyone and everyone was free to project their own experiences and hopes onto the movement. It was what made the movement unique and challenging — part of what drew people toward Occupy and later, turned them away.

“We all had our own individual agenda going into it,” said Andrew Hobbes, a college student at Appalachian State University who’d recently moved back home.

One person warned the group against the meddling influence of labor unions and politicians. Another Occupy member urged people to withdraw their money from the banks responsible for the financial crisis. Addressing the encroachment on civil liberties seemed to be the answer for another speaker.

“We all had this idea of what we were going to do and this was going to change everything,” Hobbes said. “The start of something beautiful.”

Experienced activists like Tony Ndege, who had been involved in politics since he was a teenager, viewed the meetings as an opportunity. In 2003, the anti-war movement mobilized against the United States’ second Iraq war drew hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of cities and towns across the country, only to dissolve during the 2004 elections. For years afterwards, Ndege remained disillusioned with the American left and retreated from activism.

For him, Occupy represented a sea change, an opportunity to jump back into the fight. Now wasn’t the time to dampen the enthusiasm of potential activists, not if there was going to be a movement.

“Even though it came out of the far left, it was important that Occupy wasn’t trying to address one specific group because that’s not what we need right now,” Ndege said.

“We need to wake people up.”


Mike McGuire couldn’t sleep.

Since the movement began on Wall Street Sept. 17, McGuire spent hours on the Internet researching one of the group’s principal demands: narrowing the growing economic gap between the majority of Americans who controlled a small portion of the wealth and the fraction of the population who controlled the majority of the wealth.

Proof of the occupation (Photo by Mike McGuire)

Proof of the occupation (Mike McGuire)

Proof of the occupation (Mike McGuire)

At the time, McGuire was a social worker at the Children’s Home with at-risk teenagers. Economic hardships as a result of the 2008 financial crisis made it increasingly difficult for him to assure teenagers in his program that if they worked hard and followed the rules, everything would be okay.

“All around me, things were falling apart with people who were doing just that very thing,” McGuire recalled. “But their homes were being taken away. They had less and less of a political voice.”

“The kids started looking at me cross-eyed when I tried to talk about hope,” he said.

Dismayed but eager to put his anger into something constructive, McGuire attended a meeting organized by Occupy Winston-Salem. Over coffee and PBRs at Krankies, group members debated the big decisions before them, including whether they should camp out or not.

For people like McGuire who felt increasingly disengaged with the political system, these tentative first steps were the first in reclaiming their voices.

Later, as he lay restlessly in bed, McGuire tried to make sense of why Occupy’s simple arithmetic — 99 percent and 1 percent — resonated so powerfully within him. His mind chewed on the big questions facing the budding local movement and then he had an epiphany.

You know what? he asked himself. I’m just going to go throw a tent up and I’m going to see how the police react.

“That seems like a worthy endeavor,” McGuire decided. “A little bit of my own protest.”

That evening, on a sloping patch of grass on the lawn of the Winston-Salem City Hall, McGuire pitched a tent. It is little known, but McGuire’s one-man sleepover was the city’s only encampment during the course of the group’s three-year history. The only proof is a crude, grainy photograph that McGuire took on the morning after the occupation.

McGuire’s occupation, uneventful despite several passing police patrols, proved that camping out was a feasible option if that was the strategy the group wanted to pursue. The encampments were a powerful symbol for the movement’s goal of reclaiming political power from what it considered a corrupt and broken system. The occupation of public property was at the center of multiple Occupy protests from Wall Street to Oakland to Charlotte.

As far as Occupy Winston-Salem was concerned, with such a large task as confronting economic and social inequality, was pitching a tent the answer?


From the beginning, Occupy Winston-Salem jumped into action with major protests outside of Bank of America and Wells Fargo with hundreds of participants lining the sidewalk on Stratford Road.

At the annual meeting of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, local business and banking leaders leaving the meeting were met with boisterous chanting, the driving percussion of the radical drum corps Cakalak Thunder from Greensboro, and a giant banner that read, “We are the 99%.”

“Banks got bailed out!”

“We got sold out!”

Conversely, protesters faced police officers taking video of the demonstration from the rooftop of the convention center, indignant expressions from business leaders and demands such as, “Get a job!”

Occupy Winston-Salem organized the protest to call attention to the exorbitant salary of keynote speaker and Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf. It was the perfect opportunity for representatives of the local 99 percent to literally confront the city’s 1 percent.

After the replica of the Wells Fargo stagecoach was carefully stowed into its trailer, group members convened to a meeting room at the central library for pizza and planning. Amidst a loose circle of occupiers taking notes and eating pizza, McGuire expressed his concerns about camping out.

A double exposure of scenes in downtown Winston-Salem , NC.“I’m worried that our energies are going to be sucked into justifying our existence at a campground,” McGuire said.

He pointed out that if the group even talked about camping out, they were “quickly and unfairly portrayed as a group of vagabonds.” Occupy members were already spending a good deal of time negotiating with the city council about where the occupation could pitch its tents. The city’s proposal for the group to camp out next to the police station was immediately dismissed.

The proposal was “laughable in its absurdity,” according to Scott Sexton, a columnist at the Winston-Salem Journal. In his article, “City too buttoned down for protests,” Sexton describes the political environment, wrapped up in Southern civility, that Occupy members navigated during the early months of their existence.

“In a town known for buttoned-down banking… the sometimes nasty business of public protest is just not proper,” Sexton wrote. “Unseemly, even.”

Highlighting this point, Sexton wrote that “the city would really just prefer that the Occupy movement take place elsewhere.”

Many of the experienced activists in the group feared that Occupy’s message about social and economic equality would be lost in the pushback that the group could expect to receive from city officials.

“I knew I wasn’t going to occupy,” said Debra Demske. “A lot of people agreed with [Occupy Winston-Salem] but they didn’t want the occupation.”

One younger activist reminded his cohorts that they could expect resistance from the authorities whether they camped out or not, something one only needed to look at history to understand.

These were the tough decisions facing Occupy members across the country, and they were a reflection of how protesters had to reshape the Occupy Wall Street model to fit their cities and towns. Winston-Salem’s Occupy, for example, would have to reckon with the city’s history of being a company town defined by its economic and racial inequality.

Eventually, group members decided against the occupation.

“This isn’t New York or Oakland. It’s not even Charlotte or Chapel Hill,” Sexton summarized in his article. “And like a kid having a tantrum, eventually the protesters will tire themselves out and drowsy old Winston-Salem will nod back off.”

Part of what Sexton wrote is true. Winston-Salem is not New York.

But in Winston-Salem’s Occupy, there was no time for sleep.


On a cold December evening, frozen in a cloudless sky, the Wells Fargo building shone brightly upon the occupiers gathered across the street on City Hall lawn. Occupy members settled into an evening of spoken word and protest songs, clustered together in thick coats and mittens beneath a sprawling magnolia tree. It could have been a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting if it weren’t for the sense of foreboding beneath the surface.

More than a month after police swept protesters out of Zuccotti Park, Winston-Salem occupiers wondered how they could continue to get their message out into the public, despite the uncertainty of the national movement.

“How do we really tap into what was a growing movement of frustration with the political system and what’s happening financially?” questioned Mike McGuire. “A 24-hour vigil or political protest made infinite sense.”

Winston occupiers had seen the stories of the police corralling protesters in orange netting and washing them down with pepper spray. They were well aware from the strife in New York City and Oakland that any fight for political and financial equality would begin with claiming the right to free speech and assembly. Having these rights, they knew, is one thing. Exercising them could elicit painful repercussions. The 24-hour People’s Assembly at City Hall was Occupy Winston-Salem’s way of publicly asking those in power, “Which side are you on?”

The group knew there’d be no sleeping. In everyone’s pocket was a copy of the city ordinance governing open-air meetings. Despite these precautions, protesters fended off multiple confrontations with police officers and city officials throughout the night.

At one point, early in the meeting, Thomas Leinbach, facing a handful of police officers, held up a crumpled copy of the city ordinance for scrutiny. Winston-Salem City Manager Lee Garrity listened intently.

“It is our right to be here, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to go back up there and stand,” Leinbach said. “If you do want to arrest me, that’s determinable to you guys.”

A double exposure of scenes in downtown Winston-Salem , NC.“Thomas, you’re wrong about the law,” Garrity said, putting his hand on Leinbach’s shoulder.

“What part of the law am I wrong about?” Leinbach asked.

“Camping is not allowed,” Garrity said.

“We’re not camping,” Leinbach replied.

“It’s trespassing,” Garrity shot back. “State law.”

Even after successful negotiations with the city attorney, the group continued to rebuff eviction attempts until the next morning when police finally threatened them with arrest. Despite the stress, group members considered the 24-hour meeting a success. They had gotten their message out to reporters at the Winston-Salem Journal and avoided arrest.

The next day, Occupy members were shocked to find city hall lawn roped off from the public.

“It kind of looked like a crime scene,” Cox said.

“At that point, it was like, this has now become a free-speech issue,” he said. “People decided, ‘Okay, we’ll do another 24-hour forum.’”


The group returned to City Hall the next evening with poster-sized copies of the city ordinance for open-air meetings. Amid sing-alongs and political speeches, confrontations with the police continued. Several shifts of officers invaded the group continuously throughout the night and made various demands without providing legal grounds for doing so. At one point during the night, police officers confiscated the “Occupy Winston-Salem” banner.

“Sir, we respect you,” Kim Porter told the officer who stuffed the folded banner beneath his arm.

“It’s a gift,” she said. “As long as ya’ll put it up at the police department, so you can look at it.”

After the sun came up, Chief Scott Cunningham directed officers to remove the sleepless protesters from City Hall lawn. The group’s only arrest occurred after the group had dispersed at the police’s insistence. As he walked away, Will Bridge shouted angry expletives at a police officer. Several officers tackled the young protester to the ground, pinned him against a wall and charged him with disorderly conduct and resisting a public officer. Images and video of the arrest were prevalent in the news, which group members say painted an inaccurate picture, especially since the same media outlets were absent throughout the entire 24-hour forum missing repeated attempts by the police to remove protesters.

“People who would say that Occupy Winston-Salem is being obstinate or trying to be negative, I believe that they don’t have the full picture,” said Carol Hermann. “People can have their opinions but the truth was that this was a peaceful assembly that was dismantled through force.”

Instead of causing Occupy members to retreat, the police response during the 24-hour people’s forums only emboldened the group. Holding a protest forum on City Hall lawn was an exercise in constitutional rights. The next fight, however, was an occupation of the city council itself, which attempted to pass an ordinance that would restrict unsanctioned speech and assembly at City Hall.

That Monday, the city council considered temporarily changing the 24-hour open-air meeting ordinance that specified how and when people could meet and speak on City Hall lawn and whether they should restrict people from meeting there at all. They did it without informing the public and without public input.

Occupy came out in force. This was the first of several instances when additional chambers had to be opened to accommodate the crowd. Although the ordinance wasn’t passed that Monday, in the following weeks, Occupy members presented their argument before city council meetings as well as various sub-committees. In addition to personally meeting with city council members, occupiers also initiated a community petition drive and with little encouragement, supporters, including local ministers, bombarded the council with phone calls and emails.

The result of this dogged campaign was that the proposed ordinance ended in defeat.

“Occupy Winston-Salem did one major thing for Winston-Salem and that was change the conversation about how and where people are allowed to protest their government,” said Laura Graff, a former Winston-Salem Journal reporter who wrote several stories about Occupy Winston-Salem.

As proof, Graff pointed to a sign that was subsequently erected at city hall that reads: “For open air public meeting restrictions go to www.cityofws.org.”

“People have the right and should question their government,” she said. “Occupy Winston-Salem made that a little bit easier.”

Many of the members agree that Occupy’s greatest accomplishment across the country was opening up political space for people in cities to exercise their freedom of speech and assembly.

“Before Occupy Wall Street started, there weren’t as many people who were coming out and speaking out and who felt comfortable doing that,” said Kim Porter. “What we saw through the Occupy movement is that hundreds and thousands of people became politicized and had a voice. It became acceptable to fight for our right to free speech and the right to assemble.”

Nowhere in Occupy Winston-Salem’s history is this better exemplified than the 24-hour people’s assembly. The long-term effects of this growing political space, however, extended well beyond a patch of grass at the Winston-Salem City Hall as thousands of North Carolinians would soon discover.


When the tents came down in occupations across the country and membership waned, much of the media disappeared, too. But as many Occupy groups wound down, Occupy Winston-Salem ramped up, springing into action around an array of issues.

A double exposure of scenes in downtown Winston-Salem , NC.In February 2012, despite posting $304 million in profits, Reynolds executives announced an undisclosed number of employees would be laid off from their Tobaccoville plant. Within days of the announcement, Occupy members organized a protest against the company they called the “personification of greed.” The Reynolds picket represented Occupy popping up where they felt they were needed most.

During the past three years, Occupy’s actions have included a picket against layoffs at Novant Health, a rally to save the Waughtown Post Office from closing, counter-protests against the Ku Klux Klan, Christmas caroling in Wal-Mart to raise awareness about the company’s labor practices and dozens of others.

“It was never about sitting around and trying to figure out something to do,” said Debra Demske. “In fact, when we were doing activities every week and every two weeks, it was more about how can we fit this in when we have this, this and this?”

Taking up the banner of so many different causes came with a price. From the very beginning, the Occupy movement faced criticism about taking on too many issues and not having a clear message.

“What are we?” asked an Occupy Winston-Salem member during a planning meeting.

“I craved a clear message,” McGuire remembered.

“Over time, if the goal was to continue a political process for change then the message needed to be condensed,” McGuire said. “Narrow down our focus and really push hard on maybe two or a half-dozen issues rather than literally hundreds of different issues.”

Other Occupy Winston-Salem members believe taking up the banner on such a diverse range of issues allowed them the opportunity to show people how problems like income inequality, lack of healthcare access and environmental pollution are connected by root causes like greed. Occupiers like Demske point to the success of the Moral Monday movement, which fused diverse groups of people around an array issues, as a validation of the tactic.

“If we focused on one thing then that defeats the purpose of everyone coming together,” Demske said. “[State NAACP leader] Reverend Barber picked right up on that. He knows you have to bring people together.”

In a tumultuous period in North Carolina’s history, occupiers said, there were too many injustices occurring in the city and around the state to ignore.

“I don’t think specialization would have been an asset,” said Anne Paisley.

“It was sort of like taking on whatever destructive thing was right in your face at the time,” she said. “Things were happening at the post office. The banks were foreclosing on a bunch of people. Occupy responded to those things.”


Throughout Occupy Winston-Salem’s tenure, much of their work has been forming alliances with others.

“Through our solidarity work with other organizations and other individuals and grassroots movements, not just the nonprofits, that’s where we make the most progress,” said Kim Porter.

One of the most tireless members of Occupy Winston-Salem, Porter took part in almost every major movement in North Carolina during the past three years from the campaign for marriage equality to Moral Mondays. Porter, a social worker, was there when protesters occupied Congress in Washington, DC, celebrated the first birthday of Occupy Wall Street in the streets of New York City, marched alongside more than a thousand people in downtown Charlotte against money in politics during the 2012 Democratic National Convention and exercised civil disobedience at the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh last year with the North Carolina NAACP as part of the Moral Monday movement.

Through these and many more actions, Winston members formed close ties with organizations as varied as Occupy Charlotte, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the NAACP, the Winston-Salem Ministers’ Conference and El Cambio, a Yadkinville-based organization devoted to strengthening immigrant and minorities’ rights. This is only a small sample of the individuals, groups and organizations that Occupy Winston-Salem has allied itself with.

These coalitions resulted in statewide actions like the energetic protest at the 2012 Bank of America shareholders meeting in Charlotte, where Ndege served as a proxy. Months later, Occupy Winston-Salem was out in force in Newton with more than 1,000 other North Carolinians in response to a local pastor’s suggestion that homosexuals should be rounded up and put behind an electrified fence until they eventually died. The protest was an example of the spirit of solidarity that Occupy Winston-Salem members showed for people around the state.

“I’m not really heavily invested in the LGBT movement,” said Debra Demske. “But doggone I’m right there if some preacher in some podunk town starts saying some crazy things about what should happen to homosexuals,” she said. “I will drive out there and stand with a sign.”

Locally, Occupy Winston-Salem’s influence extended beyond City Hall lawn and into the council’s chambers. The passage of a resolution against the Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United ruling, one of the group’s most significant accomplishments, was the result of building enduring working relationships with council members. The effort also highlighted the value of working with organizations like Democracy NC, which culminated in a petition drive gathering 1,400 in-person signatures for the resolution’s passage.


Nobody really knows how many people are still members of Occupy Winston-Salem. There’s no official roster. At last count, there are 2,688 likes on the Occupy Winston-Salem Facebook page, but these figures rarely translate into boots on the ground.

Overall, the numbers dwindled in Winston-Salem as they did on Wall Street as the “American Autumn” slipped into winter and encampments across the country were uprooted.

“As it dragged on and we kinda realized this is going to be a long process, we lost a lot of people,” said Andrew Hobbes.

Like most movements, there is a small group of committed people at the center of the action. Occupy’s core members sometimes organized or participated in four or five actions per week in addition to working full-time. That level of involvement can require tremendous sacrifice.

“It’s a volunteer army here,” said Debra Demske. “When progress isn’t made immediately, people lose interest and drop out.”

Early on, for a host of reasons, Mike McGuire scaled back his involvement in the Winston-Salem group. The Children’s Home, McGuire’s employer, faced increasing financial problems, ultimately cutting residential programs for kids and laying off 79 employees. As the number of people coming out to Occupy events began to drop, more work fell on the shoulders of the ones who were left. Compounding his stress from work, as membership in Occupy fell, so did McGuire’s endurance, he said. For the sake of his professional and personal lives, McGuire had to step back from activism.

A double exposure of scenes in downtown Winston-Salem , NC.Other Occupy group members routinely expressed concern about losing their jobs because of their extracurricular activities.

“This is a very un-Occupy thing to do but I asked permission [from my supervisor] before I really started going out and holding signs and stuff,” said Demske, a software developer. “Just to be sure.”

For Carol Hermann, participation in groups like Occupy comes with a price.

“Sometimes things get a little chaotic at home because I didn’t plan a meal well,” said Hermann, a wife, a mother and a social-justice activist of more than 30 years. Like many other activists, Hermann alternates between periods of political participation and recuperation.

“Social action takes a lot of energy, a lot of time and commitment,” Hermann said. “It involves a lot of balance.”

Occupy Winston-Salem members spent thousands of dollars for various actions during the past three years. Ndege exhausted the majority of his modest retirement savings for the movement.

“People might look at you and say, ‘Why would you spend money on traveling and posters and printing? Just for activism?’” Ndege said. “No one questions anyone if they spend $3,000 on a Super Bowl ticket. It’s a statement on how anti-political the system is and how that is infused into our culture.

“I’m not saying that everyone has to be like that,” he added. “I’m saying that there’s always a few people who have to be like that.”


Part of the reason why Occupy Winston-Salem is still able to organize long after the national movement was declared dead are the strategic decisions and victories that helped them make a name for themselves in the city and around the state. Where utilizing the Occupy name might be detrimental for other activists trying to influence change in their communities, in Winston-Salem, it can be a benefit, occupiers say.

“We have enough legitimacy in this community to keep using the name,” Ndege said. “In fact, I think it gives us legitimacy.”

Since even before the advent of the Moral Monday movement and the burgeoning environmental movement, members have increasingly organized actions outside of the Occupy banner. Simultaneously, with group members utilizing the network of activists and supporters that Occupy has garnered during the last three years on social media, it can be difficult to determine what’s an Occupy event and what’s not.

These days, the number of official Occupy Winston-Salem events are fewer than what they were in 2012 and 2013. Attendance also varies.

A recent action organized by Occupy Winston-Salem members brought 70 people out against the bombardment of Gaza. However, a demonstration against United States’ air strikes in Syria and Iraq saw turnout in the single digits.

“The protest at Wells Fargo shareholders meeting in Texas was maybe in the thirties,” said Tony Ndege. “We got about 20 people for Bank of America local protests. For Winston-Salem versus a huge city in Texas, I think we’re doing pretty good.”

In cities like Winston-Salem, Occupy continues to fill a vacuum by offering people an outlet to make change outside of the two-party political system.

“There are several small cities, even Raleigh, that still have Occupy groups because there’s nothing else that we can totally fit in with,” Ndege said.

“You’re talking semantics,” Porter said. “Occupy is just a name. Whether you call it Occupy or whether it comes under a different name, it’s important for us to all band together around all kinds of issues where we’re all oppressed.”

Rather than focusing on sustaining actions under the Occupy banner, Winston-Salem members have chosen to continue carrying out actions in solidarity with the working-class and fighting against social and economic injustice.

In June 2012, Occupy members picketed outside of Forsyth Medical Center after its parent corporation, Novant Health, announced 289 layoffs. It wasn’t until a year later that Will Cox, a healthcare worker and a member of Occupy, overheard a group of women that seemed tired from work and upset about their working conditions. As they waited to punch the time-clock, one of the women brightened up.

“I remember when those people were out in front of the hospital when we had the layoffs,” she recalled. “They had a demonstration. They were raising cain out there and they were doing that for us.”

“Occupy,” Cox said with emotion. “That was us. Occupy is what you do for each other.”