Durham police use tear gas to disperse protesters

Dec. 19, 2013 @ 11:23 PM

Wearing gas masks, protective gear and some carrying sticks, police used tear gas to break up a march and vigil that was held downtown Thursday to mark the one-month anniversary of the death of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta.

Huerta, a Riverside High School student, died Nov. 19 while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car. Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez Sr. said in a press conference last week that Huerta died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and that it wasn’t known whether the wound was inflicted by accident or intentionally.

“Easily, they could have taken my brother home,” said Evelin Huerta, Jesus Huerta’s sister, at Thursday’s vigil and rally. She, her younger brother and mother were part of the group of about 150 people gathered at CCB Plaza downtown holding signs, flowers and candles to honor the teen and rally against his death.

Through tears and surrounded by TV cameras, she said family and others wanted to have a peaceful vigil to honor her brother since they couldn’t do so before. At a protest Nov. 22, some demonstrators broke windows, damaged a police car and threw flares and firecrackers.

“He should be with us right now; we shouldn’t be doing this,” she said. “It hurts us, and I don’t think we’re going to get over it.”

After she and an organizer spoke, the group marched, chanting slogans such as “cops, pigs, murderers,” to police headquarters. About 35 officers on bicycles and on foot stayed with the group and forced them to stay on the sidewalks.

When demonstrators reached a police parking lot, officers dressed in masks and what appeared to be bullet-proof vests and other gear stood behind police tape.

Police issued warnings for demonstrators to leave the property or face arrest. Demonstrators surrounded Evelin Huerta and her mother, Sylvia Fernandez, and others as they knelt on the ground to light candles, lay down crosses and flowers in his memory. Some chanted “shame” at police.

“If you do not leave now, you will be arrested,” officers warned. “You are ordered to leave the premises.”

The demonstrators returned to CCB Plaza. Some in the group shouted at police. While an organizer spoke to the group, saying “Are we powerful?” and other statements into a megaphone, others kept shouting at police.

Police in heavy gear lined up at the plaza. They issued a warning and then marched forward, tearing down the large black banners carried by some demonstrators and throwing gas.

Some demonstrators tried to hold on to each other as they were pushed back to Main Street. At least one man was forced to the ground and handcuffed.

According to a Durham Police Department press release issued late Thursday, several people were arrested as a result of the demonstration. Lopez commended police for the “restraint and professionalism” displayed by officers and noted that it could have been worse.

“Some arrests were made and officers were forced to deploy teargas to disperse the crowd after rocks and bottles were thrown at the police,” he said. “Although this was billed as a peaceful event, several participants donned masks, committed vandalism, assaulted officers and failed to heed commands to disperse.”

Sandro Mendoza, 20, said demonstrators were at the end of the march when police broke it up in riot gear. He said they were discussing their plans for future events. Children were in the group when they started throwing gas, he said.

Rufus Walker of Durham said police knocked him off a bench. He said they had been talking about exchanging emails and other information. He said the gas made his face feel like it was burning, and he was spitting and had difficulty breathing. Some people ran and others fell on the ground, he said.

Police appeared to chase protesters into a parking deck, and others returned to CCB Plaza. A group in the mobile task force chased about nine people away from the plaza. Further down the street in front of the bar Alley Twenty Six, police blocked off the street and stopped a car of seven young people that was coming from the direction of where the other group ran. Police removed all of the people in the car and handcuffed them. Police were still gathered at CCB Plaza and elsewhere downtown at 9:30 p.m.

Prior to Thursday’s event, police had called for a “safe, peaceful and orderly event” and instructed participants not to wear masks, hoods or devices to conceal their identities, not damage or to participate in disorderly conduct, among other rules.

Alex Charns, a lawyer representing the Huerta family, said in a statement that rather than responding to a public records request for communications that touch on what happened to Huerta and family inquiries, the police chief “spends his time issuing a press release warning Durham citizens about how we will allow them to exercise their First Amendment rights.”

“We have the right to dissent and disagree with official government positions; to reject city government silence and secrecy,” the statement said. “We have the right to peaceably protest, and peaceably march and light candles.”

The family has made a request seeking all communications that touch on what happened to Huerta, including text messages, emails, voicemails and video footage from the patrol car and headquarters on the morning of his death.

Also, representatives from a Latino-focused organization called Presente.org have joined Huerta's family in asking the federal government to lead an investigation into officer-related deaths and profiling concerns in Durham.

The Police Department has passed the investigation on to its professional standards division and to the State Bureau of Investigation.

Brandon Moreno, who said he was a friend of Jesus Huerta’s, said in an interview before the event that they had planned to have a peaceful demonstration.

“It’s kind of hard – it’s kind of hard to trust the police again,” he said.

Durham resident Fahim Knight said he and his wife Sylvia Knight joined because “we see this as a simple case of police brutality and a cover-up by Police Chief Lopez.”

He said they don’t accept that Huerta died of a self-inflicted wound while in handcuffs.

“This was somebody’s child – he was a human being, he was just a baby,” Sylvia Knight said.