A Tale of Three Marches and Two Durhams

jesusFrom Progresivo

The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous. 

On November 19th, 17-year-old Chuy Huerta died while in police custody under circumstances unbelievable and unacceptable. After his family called the police concerned for his safety, he ended up shot in the front of his head while his hands were handcuffed behind his back. The Durham Police Department used the press to ask for understanding and forgiveness while they extended none to this child or to his family that night or after. Hundreds of people in Durham took to the streets not once but three times to support the Huerta family and to protest against the Durham Police Department; some demonstrators opposed not just its conduct, but its very existence.

Some, who feel safe in their status and homes, marveled from behind their computer screens that anyone would challenge this militarized force that harasses and polices some neighborhoods and individuals, but not others.  When the police released tear gas on a march and vigil, these political voyeurs insisted there must be a less disruptive way for a family and community to mourn and protest and that the family’s grief was being exploited by outside agitators. Several organizations, employing the language of nonviolence, reconciliation and peace, sponsored a vigil at the family’s church as a safe space for people deterred by chanting and tear gas. Like the press, they now want to ignore the moment when Evelin Huerta and supporters walked out of the service because the chief of police violated the sanctity of the family’s grief by joining in lighting candles in memoriam. Having given the orders that interrupted their candlelight prayer vigil at the police station a month earlier, he did not even have the common decency to stay home and allow the family to pray in peace – this time in their own church, but rather claimed it as another public relations opportunity for himself.  Who in this case is exploiting and not listening to the Huerta family?  Who in their right mind thought a space that included the head of the Durham Police Department was a safe space for people mourning Chuy Huerta? And how can those who insist that the DPD must be included in a community’s grief, a grief caused by the DPD’s actions, proclaim that anyone else is an outside agitator?

Police in riot gear stand along the intersection of Morris Street and the downtown loop in reaction to a protest march in support of Jesus Huerta, on Sunday, Jan. 18, 2014. Photo by Christine T. Nguyen/The Durham Herald-Sun.

Police in riot gear stand along the intersection of Morris Street and the downtown loop in reaction to a protest march in support of Jesus Huerta, on Sunday, Jan. 18, 2014.

What is an outside agitator?  Doesn’t that require defining an outside and inside? Is the outside the black and brown Durham youth that the police are arresting during or after each march?  Is it the people who made banners that surrounded and shielded the embattled family when they wanted to pray in the Durham Police Department parking lot?  Who gets to define this outside and inside?  The Huerta family?  The Durham Police Department?  The Catholic Church?

As someone who has participated in all three marches I could write first person accounts of each, but this is the one image that sticks in my mind: a young person holding a sign that says “Am I Next?”  This applies not only to the criminalization and death of Chuy Huerta, but to the young person that The Inside-Outside Alliance reported was frisked on their own doorstep while waiting for their mother to come home. This applies to every Durham youth who fears that they may be the next Carlos Riley, Jr., a young man attacked by a police officer a year ago; all his options narrowed in a split second to possible death or certain imprisonment.

Many in Durham, like many everywhere, reserve the privilege for their children, and themselves, to break small laws like buying a little pot or driving a little drunk or characterizing their interpersonal violence and addiction challenges as mental health issues, not crimes. Then they claim they cannot conceive why other people might object to being policed and imprisoned and possibly killed for the same challenges or indulgences. This is a Durham that wants to consider the inexplicable death of a child an unfortunate mistake, but considers chanting and graffiti to be acts of violence and provocation meriting the threat and infliction of bodily harm by a small army.

ninjasWhen someone paints Chuy Huerta RIP on a wall or building, it is not simply a gesture of remembrance for a child, but a reminder to all of Durham of an intolerable status quo that they tolerate.  While the Huerta family may or may not continue to call for monthly events as they have stated in the press and while the officer responsible for Chuy Huerta’s death may disappear into his cubicles of paper pushing on public salary, these walls remain as reminders – until they are washed away by the city.