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Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., speaks Nov. 8, 2022, in Winston-Salem, N.C. (AP) Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., speaks Nov. 8, 2022, in Winston-Salem, N.C. (AP)

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., speaks Nov. 8, 2022, in Winston-Salem, N.C. (AP)

Paul Specht
By Paul Specht January 19, 2024

Tillis falsely says police made ‘no arrests’ of protesters who blocked Durham Freeway

If Your Time is short

  • U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., cited a protest on the Durham Freeway when promoting his new bill.
  • Police didn’t arrest anyone during the protest.
  • Instead, they charged four of the protesters a couple of days later.

A senator from North Carolina is citing a protest in his home state as an example of why he thinks new laws are needed to stop people from blocking public roads.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., recently filed the "Safe and Open Streets Act," which would make it a federal crime to purposely obstruct a public road or highway. If enacted, lawbreakers would face fines or up to five years of imprisonment.

In a Jan. 8 press release, Tillis’s office highlighted the police response to a Nov. 2 protest in Durham during which pro-Palestinian protesters called for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. 

Tillis said protesters "completely blocked the Durham Freeway in Durham, North Carolina, during rush hour, stranding drivers and compromising the free flow of commerce. No arrests were made."

He added that protesting on a public road "needs to be a crime throughout the country." 

Is it true that no arrests were made? No. 

No protesters were arrested on the day the Durham Freeway was blocked. But two days later, the Durham Police Department announced that it had obtained warrants for four Durham residents charged with impeding traffic: Olivia Linn, 27, Fatima Nur, 36, Jenae Taylor, 36, Leah Whitehead, 28.

The four protesters later turned themselves into police, as reported by multiple news outlets.

Using the word ‘arrest’

PolitiFact North Carolina asked Tillis’s office about its claim that "no arrests were made." Daniel Keylin, a Tillis spokesperson, pointed out that PolitiFact NC partner WRAL-TV didn’t use the word "arrested" in a Nov. 4 article about the incident.

"You’re clearly trying to ding Tillis on a minor point, and ironically, WRAL reported that the four turned themselves in days later, not that they were ‘arrested,’" Keylin said in an email.

It’s true that criminal charges can be filed against someone without them being handcuffed. Someone can also be handcuffed but not charged, criminal law experts told PolitiFact NC.

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People can also be arrested when they turn themselves in — and the Durham Police Department said that’s exactly what happened with the four protesters who were charged.

"All four women turned themselves in at the Durham County Jail and were placed under arrest," the department told PolitiFact NC in an email. "They were all released on a written promise to appear in court."

Questioning the response

Keylin questioned the Durham Police Department’s decision not to detain protesters at the time they were blocking the street. "I’m sure any North Carolinian who was stranded in traffic that day for hours wanted the activists to be arrested on the scene to stop the traffic blockage," he said.

We asked the Durham Police Department why it didn’t arrest protesters on the day of the protest. The department referred us to a Nov. 3 statement issued by Police Chief Patrice Andrews. She suggested that arresting protesters on-the-spot could have prolonged the traffic jam.

"Our first priority was to reroute the affected traffic and manage commuters still traveling to Durham on the Durham Freeway," Andrews said. "As this was happening, staff began mobilizing a plan to reopen the highway. We were prepared to arrest any individuals that did not comply with our lawful orders."

She added: "We did not and will not prioritize haste over safety, and will always avoid taking haphazard or reckless action that would have placed officers, motorists, bystanders, and protestors in danger."

Holding protesters accountable

Keylin also suggested the protesters may not be fully held accountable by the local district attorney.

The four protesters were due in court on Jan. 16 to face their charge of impeding traffic, a Class 2 misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to 60 days in jail, according to Sarah Willets, a spokesperson for the Durham County district attorney's office.

They each entered deferral agreements with the same terms: "Comply with three months of unsupervised probation, complete an in-person driving course, and complete 36.5 hours of community service," Williets said in an email.

"Under a deferral, the person admits responsibility to the charges, and if they successfully complete the terms of the agreement, the charges are dismissed," she added.

Our ruling

Tillis said police made "no arrests" of protestors who blocked Durham Freeway on Nov. 2.

That’s inaccurate. Durham police didn’t lead anyone away in handcuffs the day of the protest, but two days later — months before Tillis’s Jan. 8 statement — police arrested and charged four protesters for impeding traffic. 

We rate his claim False.

Our Sources

Press release issued by U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis on Jan. 8, 2024.

Email exchange with Daniel Keylin, spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis.

Email exchange with the Durham Police Department on Jan. 10, 2024.

Email exchange with Sarah Willets, a spokesperson for the Durham County District Attorney's Office.

Email exchange with Irving L. Joyner, professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law.

Email exchange with Ron Wright, professor at Wake Forest Law.

Email exchange with Carissa Byrne Hessick, University of North Carolina School of Law professor

Email exchange with James E. Coleman Jr., Duke University School of Law professor

WRAL, "Durham DA: Highway protesters agree to probation, community service," Jan. 19, 2024; "4 women charged in Durham protest that blocked NC 147 turn themselves in," Nov. 4, 2023; "Anti-war protesters almost arrested after blocking Durham Freeway for hours during rush hour," Nov. 2, 2023

News & Observer, "Durham police chief, city defend response to freeway protest over Israel-Hamas war," Nov. 4, 2023

WTVD, "3 protesters turn themselves in days after demonstration on Durham Freeway," Nov. 6, 2023

WNCN, "All 4 Durham women booked in protest that closed part of NC 147, police say," Nov. 4, 2023

Durham Police Department, statement, issued Nov. 3, 2023

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Tillis falsely says police made ‘no arrests’ of protesters who blocked Durham Freeway

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