Community ponders handling of next protest

Dec. 23, 2013 @ 08:44 PM

Expanding on comments made the day after police tear-gassed a demonstration against an officer-involved shooting, a city councilman says city leaders have to “plan and prepare” for the next one to avoid similar chaos.

That means an attempt by authorities to “listen and reassure people to that they respect the rights of speech and assembly and will protect them,” and parallel moves by demonstrators to “isolate and actively repudiate” those who might be interested in violent confrontation, Councilman Steve Schewel said in a public letter issued Monday.

But critics of the Police Department’s handling of the Jesus “Chuy” Huerta affair say it demands more hands-on management by the City Council.

Huerta died on Nov. 19 while handcuffed in a police car, of what Police Chief Jose Lopez has said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Thursday’s tear-gassing occurred on the one-month anniversary of his death; further demonstrations are considered likely in January.

Last week’s demonstration began as a vigil by Huerta family members and supporters at the scene of his death outside police headquarters. The tear-gassing occurred in CCB Plaza after many participants had returned downtown.

The next time there’s a vigil, “it would be appropriate for you and other Durham leaders to join it,” community activist Barry Ragin told Schewel after the councilman issued his letter.

Schewel’s missive can be viewed or downloaded at

Ragin said council participation in the next march could both “marginalize those who are seeking to attach themselves to this cause for their own advantage,” and show support “for a grieving family that is seeking answers.”

Other residents relayed similar sentiments to the council on Friday as news of the tear-gassing was making the rounds.

“Given the violence that occurred last time, I understand why police were at the ready,” West Cornwallis Road resident Cathy Clabby said, alluding to the vandalism that occurred during a protest shortly after Huerta’s death. “But I can’t understand why some civilian leadership wasn’t at the Police Department too, to engage these people and their concerns in a very different manner.”

Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood activist Natalie Spring added that she doubted police would have turned up in riot gear if the People’s Alliance or the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People had organized Thursday’s protest.

The PA and the Durham Committee are two of Durham’s big-three political groups.

Like several other people who wrote, Spring said the Police Department is responsible for Huerta’s death, no matter who pulled the trigger.

It “is culpable at least insofar as the gun was not removed from the young man or the back of the patrol car,” she said.

“To then gas protestors who are calling for accountability, even if they threw rocks, even if they threw firecrackers, is an incomprehensible overreaction and militarization,” she said.

Lopez last month said “persons involved in the anarchist movement” had contributed to the disorder at the first protest. His assessment was consistent with largely anonymous accounts that have circulated via social media and other Web outlets.

An account of Thursday’s protest surfaced in the “Anarchist News” and was republished by the Chapel Hill-based Prison Books Collective. It can be viewed in the original at

Its author claimed credit for having “helped protect the [Huerta] family when necessary.”

He or she also said that marchers, going forward, have to “make this not just about Chuy’s murder but about police in general, and in the process respect the family without routing every decision through them.”

Anarchist connections figured in two recent-years incidents in neighboring Orange County, the late 2011 “occupation” of the former Yates Motors dealership in Chapel Hill and a follow-up sit-in at the site of a proposed drug store in downtown Carrboro.

Chapel Hill police used a SWAT team to help break up the Yates Motors occupation, a move that drew numerous complaints from town residents.

By contrast, Carrboro’s elected leaders took a hands-on approach to the incident in their town, a majority of the Board of Aldermen gathering at the scene to keep an eye on things.

Then-Mayor Mark Chilton also engaged in some face-to-face diplomacy.

“I went in there and talked to [the protestors] for a little bit, went out and talked to the cops for a bit, and then went back in and said, ‘I’m not leaving until you guys leave,’” Chilton recalled.

Chilton said he’s heard accounts suggesting “some of the same folks” are involved in the Huerta protests.

From existing precedents, he believes “bottle-throwing and window-breaking is about it for this crowd” when it comes to their potential for violence.

Chilton also suspects “various police departments across the Triangle receive information about some of these folks” from the Department of Homeland Security and other federal sources that fuels command-level concern.

“The problem is the police tend to have a very conservative interpretation of what presents a hazard to the public,” Chilton said. “And that doesn’t always comport well with about how some of us feel about our civil liberties.”