To Walk Out of the Church of Reconciliation: Reflections on Durham’s Third Anti-Police March, the Peculiar Alchemy of Skateboards and Flagpoles, and the Struggle as it Has Developed
From Anarchist News
by several anonymous participants
On the evening of Sunday, January 19th, the two-month anniversary of Chuy Huerta’s death, a crowd of around 150 gathered to express their grief, anger, and rage at the Durham Police Department. Like the previous two marches, the event was a kaleidoscope of faces, emotions, and desires. The sounds of skateboards on pavement mingled with the shouts of “Chuy Huerta, Presente!” Small paper signs were raised amongst massive black banners. The smell of road flares mixed with the sound of broken glass and hip hop blasting from a sound system built into an old shopping cart. After an hour or so of marching, the streets of Durham were littered with discarded black clothing as the crowd dispersed before a wall of riot police.
On November 19th, 2013, Jesus “Chuy” Huerta was picked up by officer Samuel Duncan of the Durham Police Department after his family called the department looking for him. Instead of taking Chuy home as requested, the officer took him to headquarters for a minor trespassing warrant. Less than an hour later, Chuy was shot dead in the back of the patrol car. Reports both by DPD and the State Bureau of Investigation have ruled it a suicide, stating that Chuy had a gun that was not found during a search, and subsequently shot himself in the mouth with his hands cuffed behind his back. In the dramatic months following both Chuy’s death and the resulting street conflicts, the DPD has sought to corroborate this story by smearing Chuy as suicidal, drug-addicted, and involved in petty crime. This media tactic of criminalizing Chuy’s memory aims at de-valuing his life and obscuring the fact that had he been brought home rather than held in police custody, he would still be alive today.
As the conflict has deepened, the DPD has handled it with increasing public ineptitude, for example destroying a homemade memorial built by family members at the site of Chuy’s death less than a week after teargassing children and family members in downtown. While some called for an independent investigation, others have called for the resignation of Police Chief Lopez. The Mayor stepped in to simultaneously scold and defend his police force. Progressive politician Steve Schewel questioned DPD behavior while calling for the “peaceful” protesters to separate themselves from and turn in the uncontrollables. The marches were diverse, but had no particular loyalty or personal connection to any of the institutionalized Progressive forces that both dominate city politics and act as “containment coordinators” who channel or silence the rage of those present.
In the midst of this drama, the Huerta family has been incredibly resilient and courageous, keeping up public pressure on the DPD, organizing marches alongside comrades in Durham, and generally refusing to condemn those who have attacked the DPD or fought back. Every single march and vigil has been initially organized with and in part called for by members of the Huerta family, while at the same time understanding that the struggle against the police extends far beyond their family. In the midst of an unbelievable pressure campaign by progressives, officials in the Catholic Church, politicians, and non profit aid groups like El Centro Hispano to reconcile with the police and condemn the third march, Chuy’s sister Evelin released a powerful statement in support of the protest. Communication, meetings, and assemblies with family members and friends have been constant and prioritized within the informal organizing of the marches.
The First Two Marches
In several key ways, what happened at the first march on November 22nd, just three days after Chuy’s death, set the tone for what has followed. That night an incredibly diverse crowd of 300 elders, toddlers, skaters, anarchists, moms, anarchist-skater-moms, and black, brown, and white youth gathered in a hastily organized march to the headquarters where Chuy was shot. On the way there, crowd members started spray painting walls and lighting off fireworks. People screamed obscenities at the police in rapid succession. Several masked folks attacked the headquarters and a patrol car, smashing window after window. Instead of fleeing in fear, the crowd largely erupted in cheers.
A second march was organized a month later as a march and vigil to provide a chance for relatives to pray at the sight of Chuy’s death at police headquarters. This march was fairly peaceful at first, but the rage of the crowd became palpable when a line of riot cops evicted the praying family from the headquarters parking lot. As the group started to disperse later on, a phalanx of cops charged those who remained. Banners temporarily protected some people with kids and allowed them to leave; others found themselves in a cat-and-mouse game with a DPD that was now liberally filling downtown Durham with tear gas. Projectiles sailed over clouds of gas in full view of the downtown jail. The remaining groups then fled, albeit with a handful of misdemeanor arrests later on.
As to be expected, a garden variety of Leftists and progressives of Durham attempted to blame “the outside anarchists” for the arrests at these marches. The claim had no weight, however, both due to the solidarity and unity that actually existed in the street and the subsequent legal support, as well as the fact that many of these activists were simply not there and thus had no real understanding of what happened. Public fallout against the DPD over the tear gassing incident was considerable, although mainstream as well as alternative media mentioned the distribution of anarchist literature at the march, the rocks thrown later on, and acts of “vandalism” that were in fact children writing on the sidewalk with chalk all as justified reasons to gas families with infants. Many progressives echoed this line, all of which merely functioned to further distance these elements of the Durham Left from the actual presence of anti-policing sentiment on the ground.
January 19th, 2014: The Third March
By mid-January, the recuperative engine of Durham politics that had been slow to start in the months prior finally kicked into gear. A group called the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham organized a vigil to remember Chuy at the Huerta’s church; the event was initially planned as a “reconciliation” with DPD, going so far as to invite Police Chief Lopez to the vigil. However, Evelin Huerta quickly asserted her opposition to any reconciliation whatsoever, articulating that the vigil was to remember her brother, not to make peace with the DPD. This statement was made in social media; in an increasingly desperate ploy to recuperate the narrative, the Durham Herald Sun actually went so far as to suggest her facebook site had been hacked. Vigil organizers made every effort to say there would be no march. When a march was announced, initially on Evelin Huerta’s page, they then made every effort to distance themselves from it, and saying they would refuse to attend.
Nevertheless, at 5:30 pm a crowd of around 150 people gathered on the front lawn of the church where the vigil would later occur. As people showed up, bilingual handouts** expressing a critique of reconciliation were distributed. A large mobile soundsystem rattled its way onto the property as giant black banners reading “Ni Olvido, Ni Perdón” and “Jovenes Rebeldes a la Calle | Rebellious Youth to the Streets” were unfurled. It’s worth observing that this crowd felt notably different; while still loud and angry, it was less intergenerational and Latino, and had an overall more “activist” feel. While this was initially billed as a peaceful march, it was clear that large portions of those that showed up were angry and ready for whatever.
A few brief words were said, and the march left the property, heading not toward the Police HQ as expected but north in the direction of the neighborhood where Chuy lived and was arrested. Within a block a group of youth at the front spilled into streets, as did the rest of the crowd soon after. Drums, chants, and beats from the sound system mixed chaotically as many began to change clothes and mask up. Before even reaching Main St. members of the crowd started spraypainting “RIP Chuy Huerta,” “RIP Keith Vidal***,” and “Fuck the Police” on nearby walls. To the surprise of many, there was no visible police presence during the march, although a police report has made it clear that the march was being “covertly watched.”
As the march gradually snaked into downtown, people in all black lit flares and raised them high over their heads. At this exact moment a crowd of skateboarders rode down the hill of a sidestreet to join the front of the march, to be greeted with loud cheers. From downtown the group turned left and went past a school and warehouse district to the skatepark where Chuy and his friends so often skated together.
Not surprisingly, the skatepark was built by the city across from DPD’s district 5 substation. This seemed an opportunity not to be missed by the angry and the grieving, and as the march passed by, in less than thirty seconds a number of unattended patrol cars were either smashed with sturdy flag poles or painted while others threw rocks through the station’s windows. A small number of bike cops looked on from the parking lot of the station, either unwilling or under orders not to engage with the march.
After several more blocks the march found itself back in downtown, now followed by a helicopter. Reports of police buses and riot vans assembling nearby trickled through the crowd, and many changed clothes. Much of the crowd began to disperse a block or two later, though a group ultimately ran up against a line of riot cops before finally disbanding. Plans to kettle the crowd failed, but six arrests were eventually made, all on minor charges of “unauthorized entry and assembly in a city-owned parking facility” and “resist, delay and obstruct.” The loyal and trusty sound system was unfortunately lost to the cops, who one can only imagine are now at HQ enjoying the hours-long playlist of anti-cop tunes. Remembering the sound of the rear windshield of a DPD cruiser shattering to pieces is music enough for the rest of us.
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. 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. 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. Attacks on police and capitalist property can be symbolically important, but do not compare with the confidence gained by a large group effectively holding territory against an armored police force.
Walking Out of the Church of Reconciliation
It is still too soon to work out a broad analysis of what exactly happened on the night of January 19th, or for the last two months. The process of finding each other and exploring what links can be made within the mixed crowds of the street has continued and snowballed since the first demo. Ultimately, these events are a continuation of earlier waves of activity, including organizing with prisoners in the jail, small anti-prison demos, and the series of Trayvon Martin demonstrations. It is notable that these marches have continued throughout the holidays and over the coldest months of the year, both of which are obstacles that have railroaded similar struggles at other times.
Anarchist analysis all too often seems to leapfrog from one Big Event to the next, as the nitty gritty of the time between often makes banal copy. In Durham it is important that we have not simply seen a process of waiting for the next big thing, but rather a constant development of personal discussions, social events, meetings, workshops, and assemblies between different towns, groups, and social cliques. Propaganda, both in the form of wheatpasting and graffiti as well as the constant counter-narratives provided by anonymous reports and public statements of support, has also been crucial in both undermining the lies of the media and progressives as well as maintaining the morale of participants. Criticizing and countering the bullshit of politicians and their grassroots loyalists can be boring, tiresome, and incredibly frustrating—done right, it can also be extremely important. Publicly articulating our critique of these structures is not the same as being in dialogue with them.
It is absolutely impossible to understand why the DPD was so soft on policing the night of the third march without understanding how their public narrative was consistently attacked and undermined by anarchists, other radicals, and the Huerta family.**** Likewise, the initiative and will to proactively take advantage of DPD ineptitude has been equally important. The presence of these two qualities, both the consistent public and internal communication between sectors, as well as the preparation and carrying out of the conflict itself, has combined at certain moments in a kind of perfect alchemy. Even those critical of certain acts have found themselves few partners in isolating or repudiating this element of attack and anger.
Not just anarchists but a wide range of angry participants, in particular criminalized youth of color, what one group referred to as “the edge of precarious labor,” have approached this struggle as an opportunity to vent their own rage against the DPD, rather than simply act on behalf of a single family. For related reasons no specific set of demands, be it the resignation of Lopez, a federal investigation, or charges filed against the officer, appears to have found particular resonance among march participants.
While the police fan the flames of the “outside agitator” media hysteria, they continue to singularly target black and brown youth as they leave the marches. It is important to note that the majority of arrestees have been teenagers targeted and followed by the police after crowd dispersal. This calls on all of us to better share and digest the lessons of crowd dispersal, watch each other’s backs more effectively, improve our communication at the end of a march, and perhaps intentionally structuring these events to end in such a way as to make later targeting more difficult.
We are hesitant to predict what could or should happen next. We hope that these marches have set important precedents for future demonstrations in Durham—that we take the streets without a permit, that graffiti in such spaces is commonplace and defended, that people can mask up and take care of each other, that generationally and racially diverse crowds can learn to trust each other and act together in confrontational ways, that these connections can continue to be built upon after the march is over. Some of these lessons are hardly new for Durham, of course, but they have combined in a meaningful way. All of this should continue far into the future of struggle in our town.
It seems likely that for the foreseeable future these monthly street conflicts may die down. The second and third marches were progressively smaller, albeit by a small degree, suggesting a period of rest and recovery. Jail and legal support is a priority, and in that process the actions may slow down even as new-found social connections continue to grow. This prediction could also be completely wrong, if a new set of circumstances re-ignites the networks that remain solid. A skating competition/benefit is also being organized by various youth and other comrades for next month. Workshops, benefits, and parties will continue. The topography of resistance and anarchy as a whole, not just in Durham but in connected nearby towns, continues to grow and develop.
We learned while sitting around a friend’s dinner table on the evening of the 19th that Police Chief Lopez himself eventually showed up to the memorial at the church. As he walked up to light a candle for Chuy, the teen killed on his watch, whose friends and family members and comrades have been gassed and beaten by his department on his orders, Chuy’s sister walked out amongst a string of new friends and old loved ones. We understand that she stood on the steps tearful, angry, and frustrated. Symbolically, to walk out of the church of reconciliation is an act of courage, requiring a willingness to step out onto an unknown path, in conflict with the oppression and misery imposed upon us but with no clear resolution in sight. Above all it symbolizes to us a break with the democratic notion that we must reconcile with our own degradation and exploitation. To all who would make such a break, be it large or small, public and spectacular or simple and invisible, we express our gratitude and love.
No Reconciliation with DPD, or any other structures that manage and police us.
Ni olvido, ni perdon:
RIP Chuy Huerta
RIP Jose Ocampo
RIP Keith Vidal
RIP Tracy Bost
RIP Derek Walker
RIP Jonathan Ferrell
- a few anonymous participants from January 19th
Pictures of the Third March from the Capitalist Press:
* We use the term “Left” in this article mostly in a generic sense, as a reference to the general function of its institutions and politics in recuperating and coopting struggles in our town. The variety of groups and individuals in Durham that could fall under this banner, however, are not monolithic and can’t be properly understood by simply being collapsed together into one large recuperative machine. While none of them are unequivocally “anti-cop,” different Leftist groups have different positions on the police in Durham, as well different connections (or lack thereof) with the city’s political institutions. Some individuals who have showed up to these marches would probably call themselves leftists in some sense; the center of gravity is that the crowd as a whole has had an uninstitutionalized and thus more autonomous character, while including a significant number of participants who have no connection to any established activist subculture whatsoever.
** An english translation of the handout read:
“NO RECONCILIATION: AGAINST THE POLICE AND THE WORLD THEY DEFEND
On November 19th 2013, a Durham Police officer found 17 year old Chuy Huerta on the street; less than an hour later this youth was handcuffed, shot and dead in the back of the police car. No report from any agency will lessen the DPD’s responsibility for the death of this child. Four other men died at the hands of law enforcement in Durham this year and another faces prison time for escaping an assault. Throughout our country, the death toll of youth of color grows as the prisons overcrowd.
This is the third time that Chuy Huerta’s family and friends, supporters and others who oppose police violence have taken to the streets in protest. Previously, the DPD responded by attacking and arresting grieving youth and by tear gassing several blocks of downtown Durham. People have responded with courage, fighting back with rocks, bottles, and their bodies.
Politicians and pundits call for peace, implying the police reaction is just punishment for the family and supporters being angry and “uncool.” They will defend the police at any cost to maintain their image of a tranquil, business-friendly Durham. But there is no peace for those of us who live in fear of police harassment and violence. They speak of peace, but it is a false peace. We are not interested in forced reconciliations—we want freedom, and that means defending those we love from those who oppress us. Peace is meaningless without freedom.
We struggle for an end to the conditions that brought about Chuy Huerta’s death: the constant coercion, invasion and violation of people and communities by the police. They are the army of the rich and defenders of the status quo—there can be no reconcilitation between them and our communities.
RIP DEREK WALKER RIP JOSE OCAMPO RIP TRACY BOST
RIP JONATHAN FERRELL RIP KEITH VIDAL RIP CHUY HUERTA”
*** Keith Vidal was a white, 5’1” 100 pound teenager with schizophrenia, recently murdered by police in eastern North Carolina. While having an episode, two cops repeatedly tased him on the floor of his own home. A third cop, quoted by Keith’s father as saying, “We don’t have time for this,” then approached the teenager and shot him. Keith was holding a screwdriver.
**** Since the attack on the substation on January 19th, Mayor Bell has scolded the DPD and argued they must exert “more control.” The chaotic back and forth between a (disastrous) hands-off approach and the full on military-style attack of November 22nd has been a failing strategy for the DPD; having relied for so long on peace police to do their job for them, they seem to lack basic crowd control skills or strategies for containment. This may eventually change, but in the meantime their combination of ineptitude and heavy-handedness should be seized upon.