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These fact checks of North Carolina politics are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.

Fact Check: Tillis says no arrests were made during Durham protest that blocked freeway

It's time now for a fact-check of North Carolina politics. Republican U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee sent out a press release earlier this month in support of legislation they introduced called the Safe and Open Streets Act. The press release referred to an incident in Durham in November in which protesters blocked a freeway during rush hour “stranding drivers and compromising the free flow of commerce. No arrests were made.” For more, I'm joined now by Paul Specht of WRAL.

Sen. Thom Tillis.
North Carolina General Assembly
Sen. Thom Tillis.

Marshall Terry: OK, Paul. Let's start with that demonstration. What was going on?

Paul Specht: Well, there's a group called Jewish Voice for Peace, and they had organized a protest in Durham on Nov. 2 to call for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. And after a while, some members of the group marched onto North Carolina Highway 147, which is also known as the Durham Freeway. And they blocked traffic during rush hour, it was a big deal. WRAL sent a helicopter and camera crews, and there were lots of people stranded on that highway.

Terry: Now, tell me more about the bill mentioned in this press release, The Safe and Open Streets Act. What would it do?

Specht: It would introduce new federal penalties for people who block a road or highway. You know, often people are charged under local or state laws. Tillis and Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee senator, want to introduce federal penalties that could carry fines or even jail time of up to five years. They want to crack down and really discourage this type of protesting.

Terry: So let's get back to the claim now. The key to this Fact Check is that part of the press release that said no arrests were made. And you really focused on the word 'arrest' and the timing of law enforcement actions, right?

Specht: That's right. We focused on the word 'arrest' because WRAL actually covered when four protesters turned themselves in to Durham police a few days after the protest. And so, you know, I sent that back to Tillis' office and said, Hey, did you see this? And Tillis's office said, 'Ah! But even your own story at WRAL doesn't mention the word arrest.' I'm paraphrasing, of course.

And so it got me thinking, if someone turns themselves in, does that mean they're arrested? So I reach out to Durham police. Durham police refer me to their press release on Nov. 4, two days after the protest on the freeway, and it says Durham police have obtained warrants for these four people, and it mentions their names. I see that, and I think, OK, they've obtained warrants. It doesn't say arrest warrants. And I emailed the Durham police back and say, 'Does that mean these four people were arrested? Were these arrest warrants? I want to be 100% clear.' And the Durham police said yes — all four turned themselves in and were placed under arrest.

And so we went back to Tillis' office and said, 'Hey, here's what the Durham police say: They used the word arrest. Do you have any response to this?' And Tillis's office said, Well, you know, it's still possible that those protesters aren't held accountable. That is up to the Durham district attorney — again, I'm paraphrasing here. And in every case, it's possible that the Durham district attorney — or any district attorney — decides to dismiss charges or not pursue them.

So I emailed the Durham district attorney and said, 'Do you plan on pursuing these charges against these four people?' And I put their names in an email. And a spokesperson for the district attorney's office said they each came to a deal where they can do probation and community service and a driving test — again, I'm paraphrasing here — and if they meet the terms of this agreement, they can avoid jail time. The spokesperson, even for the DA said, you know, there are multiple ways to hold someone accountable. We look at each person's background and criminal record in deciding whether or not to pursue the harshest penalties possible, which in this case could have been 60 days in jail. And they provided that context and said this was not dropped. This is the deal. We came up with. And we can pursue charges or penalties again if they don't meet the terms of this deal.

Terry: So how did you rate this claim then?

Specht: We rated this false. And that's because Tillis said that there were no arrests of protesters who blocked the Durham Freeway — and there were arrests. According to the Durham Police Department, they placed four protesters under arrest. That happened days after the protest, but Tillis' press release didn't mention anything about timing. It didn't say there were no arrests on that day. It didn't say there were no arrests ever. He sort of left it open to interpretation. And then the rest of the language he used in this press release alluded to people needing to be held accountable. All in all, it was pretty misleading, so we rated it false.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.