Extremely Gross and Dangerously Stupid: a Response to City Councilman Steve Schewel’s Defense of the Durham Police

durhamby the Prison Books Collective

We would propose that Steve Schewel is not worried about the violence of his police force, whose members he seems to regard as big blue angels, but rather the possibility of a visible, popular, and confrontational opposition to that violence. How else can one interpret his statement that police violence must be ‘proportional to the situation’? Steve Schewel does not desire a Durham without police violence; he wants a Durham where that violence is institutionalized and managed in such a way as to be omnipresent but entirely invisible. The function of that violence, in turn, is to invisibly preserve in a hundred ways the world many of us already inhabit: poverty, addiction, racism, sexism, alienation, and despair.”

On December 19th, a group of about 200 people assembled at CCB plaza to march on Durham Police Department headquarters, with the goal of family members and friends praying at the stated site of Chuy Huerta’s death, and for all to be able to voice their outrage at the DPD. As the march began, candles were lit and roses were carried; two large banners joined many small signs. A diverse crowd of hundreds, not a mere handful of “agitators,” screamed “Cops, Pigs, Murderers!” and “No Justice No Peace Fuck the Police!” at the top of their lungs.

The family led the march to the DPD parking lot, but were met by fifty police officers who threatened to arrest them. The crowd of angry youth and friends encircled the family, using a wall of black banners and their bodies as protection while the family prayed at a makeshift shrine of candles and flowers. The police eventually forced them off the property, calling out a countdown over a bullhorn and threatening to storm the gathering. The group that returned to CCB plaza was undoubtedly incensed at the provocation, but was beginning to disband after exchanging contacts. The police, outfitted in riot gear, then charged the crowd in the park, tearing apart banners and hurling smoke canisters. People linked arms to slow down the charge while parents and small children escaped the park. Cops repeatedly struck retreating people in the back of the head and began to launch tear gas in downtown Durham.

The crowd that remained was diverse and fluid but fairly unprepared; spontaneously, it did what it could to hold the street and defend itself. Tear gas canisters were kicked back, rocks and bottles were thrown to slow the charge of the police, youth linked arms with the middle aged, skateboards were raised in defiance, people masked up to avoid choking on tear gas. People looked out and helped each other escape arrest and a possible beating, or, if Chuy’s story means anything, potentially even worse.

All of this was reported quickly and honestly by several participants in their own first-hand accounts. The mainstream media, on the other hand, has by and large regurgitated the talking points of police and politicians without question, for instance conveniently erasing the actual chronology of events to present the police attack as a response to the self-defense of the crowd that happened later. We are led by these reports to believe the cops magically intuited that people would later defend themselves, thus retroactively justifying their attack that began an hour earlier. Some politicians and media outlets have gone so far as to imply that confrontational literature distributed at the beginning of the evening was justification for the police behavior later, even though the police force was assembled and equipped well before any literature or participants arrived. One is reminded of two years prior, when a massive raid of an occupied building in Chapel Hill, complete with automatic weapons, was justified months later by the miraculous discovery of “riot literature” that was never actually presented.

In the midst of the popular outcry against the Durham Police, who killed no less than three people in six months, enters Steve Schewel, liberal politician at arms. He assures us that the police are our friends, that at least “instead of swinging night sticks at people, the police used first smoke and subsequently tear gas to disperse the crowd. This meant that no one got badly hurt, which was a real achievement.” This is ironic, considering, a) cops did swing nightsticks, b) people were hurt, and c) it is possible that the only reason people were not hurt far worse is that many chose to resist, to hold the line against police orders so that others escaped, and to use projectiles and bodies to slow down a charge of cops that was gassing downtown Durham en masse. The slow quiet march of sheep to the slaughter may seem peaceful to the uninitiated, but its ending is anything but.

While Steve expresses “shock and dismay” at what happened on the 19th, he immediately blames the (supposed) few who “are filled with hatred towards police.” With a liberal polish, we are given the demonic image of the outside agitator, the scapegoat that can be blamed so that we might return to the social peace. Those who would dare think of confronting the police—the masked ones, the hoodlums, the skater-kids, the anarchists, the uncontrollables of every stripe—these are the guilty, along with, by implication, all those good protesters who refuse their “obligation” to condemn them, who hold hands and banners or break bread with them, who see a place for those who held the line while children and the unarrestable escaped on the night of the 19th.

Steve asks us to break these fundamental bonds of solidarity, “to isolate and repudiate anyone who advocates violence, who throws rocks, or who seeks to instigate a confrontation.” Mr. Schewel seems to think that those who detest the cops are just a few bad apples. But on the 19th virtually the entire crowd was yelling, “Fuck the Police!” What then is his suggested police protocol towards entire crowds or neighborhoods fed up with this army of bullies? His defense of the police action on the 19th gives us a hint.

As a group that has worked with prisoners and defendants for more years than Mr. Schewel has been a politician, we feel we know where Schewel’s kind of rhetoric is headed. This is the divide-and-conquer tactic that communities in rebellion have always faced; it is the gavel falling and the jail door closing upon the black youth who screamed fuck the police with a skateboard held high, upon the Spanish-speaking mom who refused to understand the cops’ orders to get back on the sidewalk, against the masked ones of all kinds, all so that the middle-class of Durham can go back to believing that no essential conflict or violence need exist between those who govern and those who are governed, between those who have and those who have not.

Nowhere could the anxiety induced by losing this image of social peace be more present than in the words of Lisa Sorg, writing for the Independent, a paper formerly owned by Schewel, who condemns the vast array of people who have stood up to DPD as a violent few. Sorg begs us to “mend the rifts within the community” and find our “inner peace” and “inner cool.” It is unclear how the “rifts” of Durham will be mended while racist murderers in blue walk the streets with total impunity, as they are sure to continue to do if we all just find our “inner cool.”

Schewel and Sorg tell us that fighting back cannot assuage the grief of the Huerta family—but how could they know? What gives them the right to even say such a thing? The youth who have refused the mandates of this police army know better how to assuage their grief than any journalist or politician could. Demagogues tell us that such activity is “self-defeating,” but it is clear the only reason this conversation and calls to release the results of the investigation are even happening is the spectacle of confrontation and a loss of control. The arrogance of these talking heads, in telling us how best to (not) rebel, is only equaled by their ignorance as to what is actually happening on the streets of Durham.

As we have witnessed the militarization of the police over the last several decades, so we have seen the prisons of this society fill up, to a degree that rivals the most totalitarian societies ever to exist on Earth. Our collective sees the results of this militarization every week in the work that we do with prisoners struggling on the inside, but it could also be seen on December 19th on the streets of Durham, as armor-clad stormtroopers gassed downtown. Politicians like Steve Schewel and writers like Lisa Sorg are the rearguard of this police army, using their rhetoric to criminalize poor teenagers and political troublemakers while at the same time polishing their liberal veneer with stories about participating in Moral Monday and loving cops who rescue kittens from trees. We live in a society that is beleaguered on all sides by stories –TV and movies, newspapers, politicians—designed to make us forget that the modern-day police arose from the slave-hunting bands and white supremacist vigilantes of the Old and New South. And Steve Schewel is perplexed as to why racial profiling is a problem.

We would propose that Steve Schewel is not worried about the violence of his police force, whose members he seems to regard as big blue angels, but rather the possibility of a visible, popular, and confrontational opposition to that violence. How else can one interpret his statement that police violence must be “proportional to the situation”? Steve Schewel does not desire a Durham without police violence; he wants a Durham where that violence is institutionalized and managed in such a way as to be omnipresent but entirely invisible. The function of that violence, in turn, is to invisibly preserve in a hundred ways the world many of us already inhabit: poverty, addiction, racism, sexism, alienation, and despair.

Toward this dystopian vision of the smoothly functioning liberal police state we have nothing but contempt. We express our solidarity and love for all those who have filled the streets of Durham with their grief, rage, hope, and anger over the last two months, especially the family and friends of Chuy, who have displayed incredible courage and fortitude in standing up for their loved one as well as solidarity with those they continue to struggle alongside. May the struggle for Chuy also be the struggle for all of us, may the streets overflow with righteous indignation, and may the weak find strength as the powerful take cover.

Love and Rage,

The Prison Books Collective

Steve Schewel’s Defense of the Police Action:

https://www.facebook.com/DURHAM.FADE/posts/1445455662349340

Reportbacks of December 19th:

http://prisonbooks.info/2013/12/21/durham-nc-the-strangest-prayer-vigil-weve-ever-seen/

http://www.indyweek.com/triangulator/archives/2013/12/21/a-first-person-account-of-the-clash-between-durham-police-and-protesters

Reportback of November 22nd:

http://prisonbooks.info/2013/11/30/reflections-on-durhams-march-for-chuey-huerta-november-2013/

To Donate To Chuy’s Memorial Fund:

http://prisonbooks.info/2013/12/27/justice-for-chuy-donate-to-the-jesus-huerta-memorial-fund/

To Donate Funds for those Arrested:

http://prisonbooks.info/2013/12/22/bail-fund-for-people-arrested-by-durhams-riot-police-during-the-dec-19th-march-and-vigil/