Bell: Protest vandalism “unacceptable”

Feb. 04, 2014 @ 08:26 PM

Mayor Bill Bell and a deputy police chief took to YouTube this week to say officials aren’t going to tolerate a continuation of the vandalism that’s come with the protest marches associated with the Jesus Huerta case.

Bell and Deputy Police Chief Larry Smith appeared in a special edition of the city’s “City Life” video series that officials posted on Monday. The 16-minute recording can be found at http://bit.ly/1fNoKmz.

The mayor made a point of defending the way police handled the three marches, including the one in December that officers controversially used tear gas to break up.

“We can sit back and Monday morning quarterback about what should have happened, but the fact of the matter is that the people were not conducting themselves in a proper fashion,” Bell said, adding that he expects the City Council to issue a public statement about the protests within a week.

Smith, the Durham Police Department’s deputy for operations, added that police don’t want to see protestors block streets, wear masks, use pyrotechnics, commit vandalism or spray graffiti.

If there’s another march later this month, “we’re going to demand peace,” Smith said.

“At the Police Department, we are 100-percent committed to protecting the Constitutional right of people to assemble and to air their grievances,” he continued. “But it also has to be done peacefully. At each one of these marches, they’ve said this is going to be a peaceful march. But it hasn’t been peaceful.”

The first of the marches occurred on Nov. 22, three days after a handcuffed Huerta died in the back of a police cruiser of what authorities say was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The initial protest culminated in the vandalism of police headquarters. Smith said police hadn’t anticipated such a move. “It happened very quickly, and we were unprepared for that,” he said.

The subsequent protests occurred on Dec. 19 and Jan. 19, the monthly anniversaries of Heurta’s death. The December march ended with the tear-gassing. The January march saw protestors smash windows of patrol cars and a police substation on Rigsbee Avenue.

Smith said the authorities consciously took “a bit more of a hands-off approach” to the January march because of the criticism they received over their handling of the one in December.

But they were still preparing to break up the January march when the protestors, under orders from march organizers, elected to disband rather than directly confront officers equipped in riot gear.

The aborted confrontation would have played out on the northern section of the downtown loop, on terrain favorable to police.

Officers blocked the march’s path at Morris Street, and the Police Department’s motorcycle squad circled in behind the marchers. The Carolina Theatre and the Durham Centre parking deck hemmed in the marchers from either side.

Police arrested six marchers who went into the parking deck. The move in essence defended the only high ground that gave marchers a second direction from which they might’ve have engaged the officers at Morris Street.

March organizers are said to have ties to the local Occupy and anarchist movements. As has become custom, a post-mortem of the January march appeared on the Web site of the Chapel Hill-based Prison Books Collective. It is at http://bit.ly/1bs6UVw.

The collective is an arm of Chapel Hill’s Internationalist Books & Community Center.

Like Smith, the collective’s post-mortem noted the discrepancy between calls for a peaceful march and what actually transpired.

It “was clear that large portions of those that showed up were angry and ready for whatever,” and the Rigsbee substation was an “opportunity not to be missed by the angry and the grieving,” the post-mortem said.

The document’s anonymous author lamented that marchers couldn’t do more.

“If a critique can be made of the march at this point, it would have to be that we lacked the numbers or the will to effectively hold ground against the riot cops after the attack at the police station,” it said. “Choosing to disperse a couple blocks after the attack rather than face a near-certain mass arrest was probably the correct decision, but had the social force existed to hold territory in downtown rather than cede it, a new barrier would have been broken.”

Had it, “the police would have been forced to tear gas their own downtown a second time, as they were already preparing to do, and this time it would have occurred with a crowd far more prepared to fight back than the month before,” it added.

In the city’s YouTube video, Smith said police “will be prepared” if there’s another march. Bell, meanwhile, drew an unfavorable comparison with the Durham marches and the “Moral Monday” protests the state NAACP orchestrated last year at the N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh.

Those have involved “mass numbers, but the message doesn’t get lost in the protests,” Bell said. “Here, the message got lost in the protest and people don’t know what they’re protesting about.”