Commentary

Wilson: Council to protesters: riot at your own risk

CorrespondentFebruary 14, 2014 

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Now that the Durham City Council has gone on record as opposing riots in the streets, one might profitably ask, what took so long?

The council’s declaration that it won’t countenance civil disorder, even on behalf of Durham’s constantly evolving vision of social justice, came after three destructive episodes spawned by the Nov. 19 death of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta in police custody.

That it took three outbreaks of violence directed against the Durham Police Department to bring the council out of the shadows speaks much about the city’s progressive politics. But even the most permissive philosophy has limits.

From now on, says Mayor Bill Bell, stick-it-to-the-Man hotbloods are on notice that the police will respond with “appropriate” methods, which I read to include strong-arm tactics.

I’m sure just about everybody else in Durham joins me in hoping that it doesn’t come to that, violence on violence. Nobody wins when that occurs.

For that reason, I wish the council had issued its declaration after the first affray. It’s unlikely that $11,000 in damage to police cruisers and other city property would be on the tab now, along with $17,000 in police overtime.

Any reasonable person understands the hostility against the Police Department among some in the Latino community, but understanding and condoning are two very different things.

In the darkness of a city asleep, Huerta died of a gunshot while alone in the back seat of a police cruiser. He was handcuffed behind his back, having been arrested an hour earlier after storming out of the family dwelling. He was carrying a backpack laden with stolen electronics and other bling.

But far more serious than that, Huerta had on his person – somewhere – a .45 Colt Cobra pistol. The arresting officer failed to find the weapon in a cursory search.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history: The officer, Samuel Duncan, heard a gunshot as he pulled into the Police Department parking lot on West Chapel Hill Street. Huerta was dead of a head wound, the pistol on the floor of the cruiser.

One could hardly conjure a more toxic mix for everyone immediately sucked into this tragedy, especially in the wake of two earlier deaths by police gunfire – and both victims were minorities.

As weeks went by while an internal police investigation determined that Huerta had shot himself (a separate SBI probe was still being awaited last week), tremendous mistrust was building in the Latino community. Correspondingly, the third episode of violence last month was the most serious and costly yet.

Thus, a welcome sanction in the city’s new, improved policy on street demonstrations gone wrong is the ban on face masks. This favorite of robbers and other miscreants was popular garb in the third violent outbreak.

Few of the participants in the disorders likely knew that they were already violating the law – General Statute 14-12.7 – by wearing masks on public property. The first offense is a misdemeanor, the second a felony.

This is an anti-Klan law dating from 1953, when America’s homegrown Taliban was in full flower in North Carolina.

Like other provisions in the city’s no-nonsense approach to street demonstrations, the anti-mask sanction treads an oft-disputed line between an individual’s right to redress of grievances and the necessity of public order.

It can be done, but it’s a lot better for the common good when faces accompany the redress. Just in case, you might say.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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