Protesters calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict blocked traffic for hours on the Durham Freeway Thursday night as police warned of arrests.
Several dozen people sat in the northbound lanes of Highway 147, near the South Mangum Street bridge while hundreds more stood alongside the highway and on the bridge above the road. The bridge is near the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Police repeatedly asked the protesters to disperse to allow traffic to go through, but the protesters did not comply until around 7:30 p.m.
Durham police stood near the protesters for much of the evening but did not take any action.
At around 5:50 p.m., they began giving warnings that arrests could be imminent, but no arrests were made even after protesters cleared the road and marched downtown afterwards.
As many as 200 people were still on or near the highway at 6:45 p.m., remaining near the freeway through the evening.
Protesters left the highway and met others on the bridge to march back toward CCB Plaza before 8 p.m. Police followed behind them, continuing to warn about potential arrests.
Calling for a ceasefire
The protest was organized by the Triangle chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, a national anti-Zionist activist organization that is opposed to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
Protesters wore shirts that said “ceasefire.” Cars passing by honked as protesters chanted “Ceasefire now!” Six cars faced the wrong direction to block the traffic.
Leah Whitehead, with Durham Beyond Policing, said three things could get the protesters to leave the highway: if police arrested them; if they felt the situation wasn’t safe; or if Rep. Valerie Foushee would answer their call. One of the banners that protesters held lists the congresswoman’s phone number. Foushee, of Chapel Hill, represents District 4 in Congress.
Eighteen Democrats in Congress have signed onto a resolution that asks the Biden administration to call for an immediate ceasefire in Israel and Palestine and to send humanitarian assistance into Gaza. Rep. Alma Adams from Charlotte, is the only North Carolina representative to sign onto the resolution.
RC Collman, who lives in Chapel Hill, said they came to the protest with a “really clear goal.” Taking the protest to the highway “is what the moment called for,” Collman said.
“We are telling Valerie Foushee to sign the resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza,” said Collman, who is Jewish and uses they/them pronouns. “Valerie, if you’re listening, we’re calling on you.”
Casey Kinsella, an activist with Jewish Voice for Peace, added that she hopes other local members of Congress sign on to the ceasefire resolution.
“I think that what will be success for me is, at the very least, that ceasefire resolution has been passed,” Kinsella said.
After the protest ended, a spokeswoman for Foushee emailed The News & Observer a statement: “While I was previously unaware of today’s unplanned protest that took place on the N.C. 147 highway, I understand and recognize that our entire world is hurting over the human tragedy and humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza, Israel and the surrounding region.
“Under international law, Israel has the right to defend itself in the aftermath of Hamas’s terrorist attacks. The current humanitarian crisis must be addressed urgently and I stand with the Biden Administration on ensuring that clean water, food, medicine and aid is delivered to any civilian affected by this conflict.”
As the protest went on and the sun went down, traffic was diverted and the protesters passed out hand warmers. They read names of children they say were killed in Palestine in the war and continued to chant “Ceasefire now.”
“In hope, we find ourselves here,” the protesters sang as police cruisers illuminated the darkened highway.
Foushee received money from AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group on Capitol Hill when she ran for Congress in 2022, The News & Observer reported. The amount of the campaign contributions drew criticism during the campaign.
Foushee’s campaign told The N&O in a statement at the time that she was one of several candidates “who has received support from AIPAC because of her unequivocal support for a two-state solution in the Middle East and her belief that Israel is a critically important strategic ally — and the only democracy — in the region.”
Jeremy Mendoza, who lives in Indiana but is in the Triangle for work, spoke to The News & Observer while he was stuck in traffic. He initially thought traffic wasn’t moving because of an accident.
“I’m all for protesting peacefully how you want to do it,” he said. “But impeding traffic and holding up people is not very considerate. I’m not going to comment on the conflict because I don’t know enough about it.”
Danielle Battaglia contributed to this report.