Rise and Roar: From Inside the Jail and Into the Streets, We Say No More

from The Lion King Welcoming Committee of Inside-Outside Alliance:


The Lion King returns to DPAC for a month of shows beginning February 16 and running through March 20. A lot of money will flow through the city-owned performing arts center, and a lot of money will go to the Nederlander Organization, which runs the Broadway performances that come to DPAC. Meanwhile, just across Mangum Street, at the Durham County Jail, people continue to suffer and die from medical neglect. Less than a month ago, 29-year-old Matthew McCain died in his cell. Numerous accounts indicate that Matthew received poor medical care for his diabetes, and that he was not treated properly after an altercation he had with another inmate. He did not have to die. Nor did Dennis McMurray, a previously healthy 52-year-old man who died in the jail in January of 2015. Thirty-year-old Raphael Bennett died in the jail in August 2015 under unknown circumstances. The jail, and the sheriff’s department which runs it, has had little to say about these deaths and the repeated accounts of medical and nutritional neglect, as well as brutality and harassment by officers. They deflect questions and never take responsibility for anything. This needs to stop now.

The sheriff’s department has blood on its hands. Meanwhile, the city-owned DPAC puts on lavish shows in the shadow of this shameful, inhumane treatment. Which is why we are “welcoming” The Lion King back to town by saying: Leave Now. DPAC’s neighbor, the Durham County Detention Facility, is killing people and the community wants answers.

Showgoers will pay more than $150 per ticket to see The Lion King at DPAC. Not far away, a stay at the 21c Museum Hotel—one of DPAC’s corporate partners—starts at $240 per night. But the stay for the 450+ people at the jail, so many of whom are only there because they can’t make bail, is nothing like the lavish digs at 21c or any of the new hotels dotting the downtown landscape. The Lion King performances will take place a literal stone’s throw from where people are sleeping on filthy mats, layering up with marked-up thermals bought from the commissary just to try to get warm, and where inmates on pod 3D pressed their emergency buttons to try to get attention for Matthew McCain, only to be ignored and to have to listen to him die.

For a long time, Durham has cultivated a quirky, cool and “dirty” image and has not played down the fact that its performing arts showcase, a jewel of downtown, is directly across the street from the jail. This jail is where so many Durham cops nightly bring people who are increasingly marginalized by the “development” that supports DPAC. But the proximity of the two places has become less desirable for DPAC boss Bob Klaus and county commissioner chairman Michael Page. After months of weekly protests against the jail-wide lockback of inmates, Page said in a public meeting “…you know to me it’s quite embarrassing to go to an event down at the DPAC and you’ve got a group of people outside protesting the jail, and somebody asks you what’s going on.” After the recent in-custody death of Matthew McCain and the news surfacing that two other people died at the jail in the past year, the juxtaposition of the two buildings on opposite sides of Mangum Street has reached its breaking point. This contradiction of the wealth and entertainment on one side of the street and the desperation and pain on the other cuts to the heart of the contradiction in Durham itself: the wealth is produced largely by Black and Brown people, while the entertainment is enjoyed mostly by financially comfortable, majority white people. And the county jail, where people are punished for trying to get by in a miserable world, echoes the plantations of North Carolina’s past

When the sheriff’s department has given no answers and taken no responsibility for its role in the deaths of three people, and the slow deaths of thousands more, we are asking people to join us in disrupting the easy flow of capital made possible by a show that exoticizes Africa. Despite being in one of the most visible of all downtown buildings, the detainees at the jail and their struggles for life and dignity are rendered invisible, with theatergoers scarcely giving a thought to what happens behind the walls at the plantation on Mangum Street. For the next month, we will try to force people to consider what it means to frolic in the shadow of “the circle of death”, while forcing the City of Durham to wade into an issue that it tries to pass off to the County.

Protesters often chant: “no justice, no peace.” Those are simply empty words if not backed up by a concerted effort to slow down and stop business as usual. We who are outside owe it to those struggling inside the jail, we owe it to the memory of Matthew McCain, Dennis McMurray and Raphael Bennett, and we owe it to ourselves to disturb the veneer of social peace. For the next month, the ubiquitous phrase of The Lion King, “Hakuna Matata,” or, No Worries, should be drowned out by roars of No Justice, No Peace.


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