Seeking protest balance

Feb. 08, 2014 @ 03:19 PM

Protests in the aftermath of Jesus Huerta’s death have created something of a dilemma for many who cherish the right to speak out against perceived injustice and to protest government actions with which they find fault.
Most of those have civilly joined vigils or marches to grieve the young man’s self-inflicted fatal gunshot wound in the back of a police car, or to question or condemn the police actions or inactions that figured into the tragedy.
But some at each demonstration in the streets, out of anger, frustration or perhaps some form of political calculus about garnering attention to their cause – or causes – have added vandalism and violence to their tool kit.
And for the three marches that have ended in damage to property, organizers have failed, out of dereliction or defiance, to acquire city permits long required for such demonstrations on the public streets.
Those tactics have off put many who otherwise support the demonstrators, or who at least have serious reservations about the police performance and the department’s reaction.
On the other hand, police reaction to the protests -- especially to the December march that ended with tear gas wafting through historic downtown with Christmas lights as a backdrop -- has upset many and added another layer to citizen frustration.
Thursday afternoon, the City Council emphatically laid out its position – sympathetic to the concerns of the demonstrators, discomfort with some of the response but no tolerance for violence and vandalism.
“We embrace the open, constructive and sometimes difficult community discussion now taking place at the Human Relations Commission regarding police practices,” the council said in a statement to which its members unanimously agreed. “We recognize that there is confusion and mistrust among some people concerning the death of Jesus Huerta and others. We welcome all peaceful and lawful expressions regarding any of these matters.
“At the same time, we want to be absolutely clear that these issues do not provide any excuse or justification for engaging in violent or unlawful activities which represent the antithesis of the values which the people of Durham hold dear. We expect that such activities, if they occur, will be met by appropriate action by our police department. This City will neither condone nor tolerate any acts of violence or vandalism.”
(The statement appears in full on the next page).
The words are measured, firm but hardly combative.  It reflects a sympathy for the concerns of the demonstrators that probably reflects in part the past activism of some council members. At the same time it portrays an unyielding desire to protect civic order – a desire we expect most taxpayers in the city, even many with deep concern about the issues at hand – share.
As Councilman Steve Schewel said after Thursday’s meeting, “we have complete respect for people, support people who want to march peacefully. But we can’t have people vandalizing or committing acts of violence in our streets.”
To borrow a phrase from an earlier day, right on.