Durham, NC: The Strangest Prayer Vigil We’ve Ever Seen

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Thursday night, December 19th, marked the one-month anniversary of 17-year old Jesus “Chuy” Huerta’s death and the second demonstration in an ongoing and escalating battle with the Durham, NC police department. Catalyzed though certainly not contained by the mysterious death of Chuy while in police custody on November 19th, around 200 family members, friends, neighbors, and fed-up local residents converged at CCB plaza again to grieve and express their rage. Despite the fact that officers report they frisked Chuy before placing him in the vehicle and despite the fact that his hands were handcuffed behind his back, Chief of Police Lopez is still claiming that Chuy shot himself in the head while in the back of the squad car at Police Headquarters.

Three days after Chuy’s murder, on November 22nd, a mixed crowd of as many as 300 furious people—family members, children, youth wielding skateboards, local activists, anarchists, masked groups with improvised bandanas or full cover black block; black, white, brown, young and old—marched from CCB Plaza, made popular as a site of protest during the days of Occupy and later Trayvon Martin demos, to the police headquarters. The crowd was enraged; fireworks and smoke bombs were shot off, walls spray painted, a police cruiser window broken with a magical flying hammer, the front glass facade of the headquarters smashed to cheers and shouts of “Burn it down!” The crowd held its ground against the cops, who were taken totally unaware.

Perhaps most importantly, new friendships and affinities began to form in the streets, from bringing masks and banners to sharing chants and strategies for holding the street—and those affinities only deepened through the processes of jail support and conversations after the march. This first demo set a precedent in recent Durham history, a town with small and passive demos, often dominated by a conservative brand of identity politics and stale Leftism. Various socialist and leftist activists complained, in cliché style, after the first demo that the anarchists were putting teens at risk. The lived experience of a diverse crowd that protected each other and delighted in the collective opportunity to fight back told a totally different story.

Nonetheless it was unclear how much energy from the first march would survive into the second. As expected, the media regurgitated the Police’s line blaming “outside agitators” in their attempt to divide and conquer march-goers. On top of this the family explicitly called for the second march to be a peaceful candlelit vigil, asking the crowd of supporters to carve out the space to grieve and pray on the one-month anniversary at the site of Chuy’s murder. Furthermore, the cops had been severely embarrassed the first time, and were sure to be looking for blood tonight.

The numbers were small when we first showed up a little before 7pm, only fifty or sixty people gathered in a corner of the park. The plaza was surrounded by media van vultures of all kinds, and beyond them at least fifty bike and beat cops stood in lines surrounding the entire area. Helicopters were circling downtown and motorcycle brigades started to make their rounds. We could hear the idiotic banter on their walkie-talkies: “Two large black banners just put up, five people behind each one.” “They’re handing out masks and sharing soup.” “They’re passing out flowers.” The banners were indeed massive, 30 feet long and black, with slits cut at head level to see from. While some walked around with anti-cop propaganda, roses, and candles, others shared food and found old friends from the month prior.

Gradually the crowd swelled to an estimated 200 people. Kids with skateboards showed up en masse, high school kids and kids from Chuy’s neighborhood forming a large contingent, as well as family members and older parents with children. Some of the usual Durham activist-types seemed absent, but a large number of anarchists showed up, some in appropriately all-back memorial attire, others carrying flags.

The crowd soon left the park, snaking along the sidewalk and edge of the street in the direction of police headquarters. Some held candles, some held roses, some held skateboards, but everyone young and old was screaming “No Justice No Peace, Fuck the Police.” Cries of “Policia: Asesina” and “Chuy Huerta, Presente” echoed off the walls of downtown Durham. Family members helped start the chant of “Cops, Pigs, Murderers,” presumably already popularized at the last demo, as teenagers generally just screamed obscenities at the cops. For their part the cops, embarrassed by the last march  and eager to reassert control, formed a tight perimeter that pushed back on us every time we entered the street.

kids

We reached the headquarters relatively without incident, angry and rowdy, but slightly overwhelmed by the massive police presence. Led by the family and protected in part by 60 feet of black canvas and bamboo poles, we marched straight onto police property, this time not to attack the building but rather to offer a venue for those to grieve at the site of Chuy’s murder.

The cops had other ideas, forming massive lines protecting the police building—now including a large squad in full riot gear with shields—and trespassing everyone over a bullhorn. In an effort at multicultural conciliation that enraged members of the crowd, they had the politeness to issue the warning in Spanish as well as English. At this point, eleven poorly disguised undercover cops left the march. Most of the crowd refused to move, while the family grouped in a circle on the property. The crowd couldn’t stay quiet though—teenagers screamed at the cops, raising skateboards threateningly, while other friends screamed at the pigs to let the family pray.

Despite respect for the family, it was clear that the anger and unruliness of the crowd couldn’t be contained by the format of a vigil. As the family concluded its prayer and the march headed back to the plaza, the crowd was pissed. People picked up sticks lying on the cops’ lawn, many of the chants broke down into just screaming obscenities at the pigs, while the entire periphery of the march was one long line of raised middle fingers. At the same time, it was clear we were ill prepared to win a battle with over one hundred Durham cops in riot gear—especially considering we came to attend a vigil.

We arrived at the plaza by around 8:45 and began to discuss future plans and announce an upcoming jail demo. A short bilingual speech was given against police, contacts were shared and future plans discussed, and the crowd seemed to understand the night was ending.

The cops had other ideas, though, and after surrounding the plaza, announced the gathering to be illegal. Within 30 seconds riot cops with raised batons charged the banners surrounding the crowd, which had begun to dwindle. This left just enough time for parents with small kids to get out of the park, but soon we were all retreating. The riot cops, looking both excited and terrified to be in their rarely used gear, started setting off pepper bombs and pushing against the bewildered crowd. Some took the street to slow them down, linking arms and delaying the cops’ charge, while others began to throw bottles at the approaching line. Several people took multiple baton blows to the back of the head as we slowly backed up. To disqualify one police statement already being spewed by their media: there was no counter-attack until well after the police charged and attacked us at CCB Plaza. This is worth pointing out not to victimize the crowd or claim a moral high ground, but simply because the media and cops have obscured this truth to undermine solidarity between protesters.

teargas

At this point, the crowd consisted of a small but feisty group of about fifty anarchists, skateboarders, and other youth. We were losing ground, but it was obvious the cops were there to disperse rather than arrest us, so we slowly cat-and-moused backwards down the street. Then the cops started shooting tear gas at us. It was unbelievable, tear gas in downtown Durham, as people in bars and restaurants watched from their windows. One teenager bent down to pick up a canister, and was warned it was hot and so kicked it back instead. Others didn’t heed the warning and threw the canisters back at the line of pigs. People masked up as we continued to back down the downtown street, now looking for ways to fight back or slow down the police. The silent vigil had long ended.

We were pushed back to the railroad lines, and found ourselves in possession of a small arsenal of stones lining the tracks. The high cell windows of the downtown jail loomed over us. To my left I saw a new friend hurling a glass bottle over a cloud of gas at a line of cops. To my right I saw people, some in masks and some not, picking up rocks, others throwing them. They land with a heavy thud among the cops. Cop cars swerve visibly around the corner of a long side street, and our very short-lived street battle comes to a quick end as people disperse in small groups. Most everyone got away, though two were arrested earlier and four more youth were pulled out of a packed car well after dispersal.

We regrouped at a local, friendly bar, catching our breath, cleaning our eyes out, and wondering at the bizarre turn of events that saw small street battles breaking out in the streets of sleepy Durham. There’s no doubt that we lost on the streets by any kind of military judgment—reportedly a friend saw cops in the plaza later on giving chest and fist bumps to each other about how they beat us—but this misses the point. We helped protect the family when necessary, and found new friends in fighting back. DPD eventually won the streets, but they lost the image of social peace. Before midnight, the media was already teeming with images of cops gassing families and kids. Police immediately called for a press conference the following morning to explain and defend their actions. The family and others have remained courageous and for their part have refused to be divided, now publicly calling for an anti-police demo every month on the anniversary of Chuy’s death. The family has refused to make demands of the police department, citing a complete lack of trust in the institution. This morning Chuy’s sister Eveline Huerta told the media, “Windows can be fixed, but my brother can never be returned to us.”

It remains unclear what will come next or how our own crews of anarchists and ne’er-do-wells will best engage. How do we best connect with the many people we met earlier in the year in the large demos surrounding the Trayvon Martin verdict, an equally angry subset of Durham residents? How do we 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? What other tactics and formats can we use? How can we continue to spread new unrest without sustaining the probably unnecessary arrests of last night? How do we communicate with others in between these moments of conflict?

Somos malos, queremos ser peores. We are bad, we want to be worse.

-some Bull City insurgents

Report Back on November 22nd march: http://anarchistnews.org/content/reflections-march-chuey-huerta-november-2013

huerta_altar_for_blog

13 Comments

  1. Wombat

    Thanks a lot to the folks who put this report back together!

    “The crowd couldn’t stay quiet though—teenagers screamed at the cops, raising skateboards threateningly, while other friends screamed at the pigs to let the family pray.”

    However, at the prayer the crowd WAS being considerably quiet–so quiet that I felt the need to whisper to my other comrades about how to police were positioning themselves, etc. The family even played a song out of a cell phone that was clear and audible, that’s how quiet people were being. I’m not trying to play the victim here or anything, but I just remember being impressed at the amount of respect marchers were showing the family. There was a point where the person with the megaphone was calling for folks to be quiet, but that was directed at the pigs.

  2. One person who's capable of thinking critically

    What does “trespassing everyone over a bullhorn” mean?

    1. ncpiececorps

      To trespass someone means to tell them theyre on a property illegally and will be arrested. The cops did it over the bullhorn, i.e. en masse.

  3. prisonbookscollective

    Just heard from indy weekly photopgrapher observing the demo that at least one cop had a serious fail moment:

    “Saw a cop whose gas mask failed. He was yelling for EMS.”

  4. prisonbookscollective

    This was emailed to prison books by a participant earlier. It’s another reportback focusing more specifically on internal policing and issues of leadership and direction:

    On 22 November 2013 a group of protesters marched to the Durham
    Police Department headquarters in response to the death of Chuy Huerta,
    a 17 year old who, according to the police, “shot himself” while handcuffed
    in the back of a police car, at the station and after being searched. On the
    way to the headquarters, protesters threw road flares and firecrackers.
    Some protesters broke a police car window, and three of the
    headquarters’ windows.

    On 19 December the family called for another march. This time, the
    police department deployed most of its police force, with 6080
    riot police.

    Before the march, they issued a statement against protesters with masks,
    pyrotechnics, or marching in the streets. Around 1520
    officers with bikes followed the protesters and pushed them off the streets through the whole march. At the end of the march, as people were ready to disperse, riot
    police raided the public space people were gathered on, armored with
    masks, tear gas, and batons. After some opposition, like protesters linking
    arms to keep people from being grabbed by the police, most protesters
    dispersed.

    But around six teenagers, friends of Chuy, began cursing the cops
    again, and all 6080 riot police marched in unison toward the teenagers.
    Chuy’s friends were the last to fight the police that night.

    The dynamics of the second march were odd. While the first march
    had a moderate amount of people wearing masks, the second march had
    almost none. Furthermore, when some participants were handing out
    masks, one person walked up to them and argued that no one should hand
    out masks since the family wants the march to be peaceful, and they don’t
    want Chuy’s friends arrested. This same person later stood with their bike
    alongside the police officers to keep protesters off the streets. Another
    protester who chanted “Fuck the Police” was told to stop, because that
    would be the chant the media reports.

    A few things ought to be mentioned in response to these dynamics.
    One, fuck the person who pushed protesters off the streets with their
    bike. Their internal policing is problematic, and they should be shamed.
    Henceforth, they will be known to me as “officer.” I ask everyone else to
    join me in calling internal pigs by their earned title. All they do is weaken
    the power people who come together in solidarity have when the armed
    officers start their raids.

    Two, masks do not put people at risk when everyone is wearing
    them. Masks, when lots of people in a crowd are wearing them, protect
    participants from (1) being identified on video or in a photograph (2) being
    spotted by the police when they fight back. This is very important. When
    they wear masks, protestors, even if they do not intend to fight against the
    police, protect people who fulfill a vital role in a march or protest. When
    police do not want protesters in a certain area, they will not hesitate to use
    force. People who fight back against the police, like those who linked arms
    against the riot police, allow other protesters to flee, stay safe in the crowd,
    or do whatever they can while the police are distracted.

    Three, and this is the most important point, the family is not the only
    group affected by Chuy’s death. The narrative used to shoot down people
    donning masks or breaking windows is that the family wanted the protest to
    be peaceful. But what about Chuy’s friends who are just as saddened
    about Chuy’s death the friends who, through no external influence,
    decided to fight against the police, even when clearly outnumbered, is
    what it would take to get their message across? Clearly, a goal of the
    second march was to get the family to the police station and stay there
    long enough for them to light their candles and pray. But to say a goal of
    the march was for it to be peaceful in the way the internal pigs wanted no
    marching on the streets, no wearing masks, no fighting back is to empower the forces that killed Chuy. It disempowers many of the groups who were marching for him: those marching for other kids murdered by the police; those who feel the police are a threat to human freedom; those who face the oppression of the police daily, and know they are constantly at the risk of ending up just like Chuy. And it ignores the desires of a group
    present at the protest who matter at least just as much as the family’s
    desires do Chuy’s friends.

    In short, while I, by no means, want to see the family’s desires
    trampled on, I do not want the family’s desires being the only ones that
    matter I do not want to see other desires trampled on. So people
    present at marches have a right to fight back and no right to tell people
    they can’t. We don’t need more pigs; we need more people fighting them

  5. prisonbookscollective

    According to a communique on anarchist news, 3 cop cars were smashed in Olympia, Washington today in solidarity with 5 arrested for bombing a cathedral in Zaragoza, Catalunya, as well as to “send a heartfelt message of solidarity to all those who are suffering the loss of a loved one at the hands of the police, particularly those in Durham, NC. The only thing in the back of these cruisers tonight will be the shattered egos of the OPD…” More info at:
    http://www.anarchistnews.org/content/3-police-cars-smashed-outside-olympia-justice-center

  6. Tim

    “This first demo set a precedent in recent Durham history, a town with small and passive demos, often dominated by a conservative brand of identity politics and stale Leftism.”

    Really? I suppose every town has it’s share of small demos, but in recent Durham history I can remember being part of: a large anti-gentrification flash mob on May Day led by El Kilombo and People’s Durham, a raucous queer mob of SONG members taking the streets the night after the marriage amendment passed, a large and long march of high school students and teachers from Hillside to City Hall, New Year’s Eve jail solidarity demos, among others. And some small, passive, and boring demos too. But the only brand of stale leftism I’m seeing is the one that thinks throwing rocks at police is the *only* effective form of resistance.

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  8. Carly Simon

    Where does it say throwing rocks is the only thing that matters?? The reportback itself says that “most importantly” the first demo led to new affinities relationships etc….

  9. Someone who has been to a lot of Durham Leftist events

    Hey Tim,

    Maybe it’s not fair that the author(s) seemingly painted with a such a big brush. However, I’ve been to quite a few protests that were in fact dominated by pacifiers, capital C communist party builders, recuperators etc. etc. That’s just real. Just think about Durham Mayday 2012 as an example of conservative identity politics and stale leftism! Many of the events you’re listing exist on an anti-authoritarian spectrum that I had assumed the author(s) weren’t talking about. I didn’t get at all that this piece was calling for rock throwing as the only effective form of resistance. I thought the questions at the end were quite helpful and didn’t point at all to a one trick pony of rock throwing. In fact the author(s) made it quite clear that they had come with the intention of attending a vigil. For me I think there’s a lot to appreciate in an honest account of a chaotic event like this, and it came out rather quickly when there was a lot of bullshit being spread around, and for that I’m truly grateful to the author(s). If you’re the Tim I think you are, you do valuable interesting work, and I’m sorry you took it so personally.

    Your comrade,
    Anon

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