Council sets “rules” for future protests
Following up on earlier comments by Mayor Bill Bell, a unanimous City Council on Thursday said it won’t “tolerate any acts of violence or vandalism” at future protests about the Jesus Huerta case.
Members coupled that to an endorsement of “rules of conduct” for future marches that among other things said the grounds of the Durham Police Department’s headquarters and substations are off-limits to protestors.
Participants in two previous marches, one in November and other last month, smashed windows and vandalized parked patrol cars at headquarters and a substation on Rigsbee Avenue.
A third march, in December, also targeted headquarters but was turned aside by police. Officers clothed in riot gear controversially used tear gas to break up a later gathering downtown at CCB Plaza.
“It’s really important that we be clear as a council that we have complete respect for people, support people, who want to march peacefully,” Councilman Steve Schewel said after Thursday’s meeting. “But we can’t have people vandalizing or committing acts of violence in our streets. And people have done so recently.”
Thursday’s vote followed a closed-door consultation between council members, City Manager Tom Bonfield, City Attorney Patrick Baker and City Clerk Ann Gray, Bell said.
The mayor asked Bonfield to read a formal statement for the council.
It said members are “saddened by the tragic death” of Huerta, who died Nov. 19 of what authorities have said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound as he sat handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser.
The statements recounted the costs of the previous marches to the city -- about $11,000 in repair bills and $17,000 to $20,000 in overtime salary paid to police officers.
It acknowledged that “there is confusion and mistrust” over the circumstances of Huerta’s death, but said that does “not provide any excuse or justification” for violence.
The accompanying rules of conduct indicate that officials will insist that the organizers of future marches obtain a city parade permit and march only during daylight hours.
A city ordinance on the books since the 1960s requires a permit for any parade or procession on public streets that involves more than 100 people or 25 vehicles.
None of the previous Huerta-case-inspired marches occurred with a permit.
Internet postings indicate that was a deliberate choice by organizers from the local Occupy and anarchist movements, for lack of interest in cooperating with authorities they deem responsible for the 17-year-old’s death.
Officials also will insist that marchers forgo the wearing of masks, which has occurred at all three of the previous Huerta protests and made it difficult for police to identify vandals.
Mask-wearing is against a 1953-vintage state law that, ironically, at the time targeted the white-hooded practices of the Ku Klux Klan.
It covers both public and private property, with exceptions for “traditional holiday costumes in season,” theatrical productions and the safety requirements of an “occupation, trade or profession.”
Violations are a misdemeanor.
Similar laws are on the books in many other states. Legal scholars have questioned their compliance with the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantees.
The rules of conduct further said protestors mustn’t impede traffic or carry dangerous weapons, to include anything capable of causing a serious injury, such as a rock or a brick. Officials also mentioned pyrotechnics: Some participants in the January march carried and ignited flares.
Council members said they expect police to “proactively communicate” their expectations to the organizers of any future marches.
“We also expect that any police response to illegal activity at a march will be appropriate to the situation,” the council statement said, adding that Bonfield and his staff “will evaluate” the department’s actions and keep members informed.
The department’s use of tear gas at the December protest drew criticism from a number of residents and neighborhood leaders.
Schewel at the time said that while police had been provoked, “the resulting chaos [was] not something that we can repeat.” But on Thursday, he indicated he was satisfied with the way the department handled January’s follow-up protest.
Police commanders this week said they were preparing to break up the January march, after the Rigsbee Avenue vandalism, when the marchers elected to disperse.