When Durham police unleashed teargas on protesters last week, I wondered if I had been transported to the streets of Oakland, Calif.; Cairo, Egypt; or Nusaybin, Turkey. Durham doesn’t gas its people, right? Well, yes it does.
The blame for this fiasco lies at the feet of both Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez and the violent protesters who vandalized police headquarters during a demonstration last monththus signaling peace is not on the tableand allegedly threw rocks and bottles at officers during this one.
Lopez’s major downfall is his department’s lack of transparency, especially regarding several officer-related shootings, such as that of Jose Ocampo. According to witnesses, although Ocampo was holding a knife, he nonetheless did not pose an imminent threat to officers when they shot and killed him last August.
There are reasons for the glacial pace of these investigationssome beyond the city’s controlbut Lopez has not adequately explained those factors. Without facts and information, the community is left to create its own narrative, which may or may not be true.
The mistrust between Durham residents and the police is ironic, considering that when Lopez was hired from Hartford, Conn., six and a half years ago, city leaders cited community policing as one of his strengths. Here, the chief’s anemic interactions with the community undermine his officers, who interact with the public far more than he does. It’s like the waitstaff getting stiffed on the tip when the chef screwed up the dish.
As the leader of the police department, Lopez should have been in CCB Plaza on Dec. 19 to set a peaceful tone and to address citizen concerns. Instead, police in riot gear assembled before the crowd did, sending a message: Bring it, punks. And they did. And then the police did. And now Durham is making national news for all the wrong reasons.
As for the violent protesters, they engender little, if any support, from peaceful people. While I feel angry, dismayed, even suspicious about the overzealous police response, I can’t sympathize with the anarchist agitators. Their tactics are self-defeating, and do nothing to expedite justice, mend the rifts within the community or assuage the grief of Huerta’s family. It’s a pointless act of defiance.
And as someone with an anti-authoritarian streak, I often embrace defiance. The Moral Monday protests succeeded, if not in changing state policy, in engendering public support. No one threw rocks and bottles at police or destroyed the Legislative Building. The disobedience was civil, and thus the mass arrests eroded the credibility of the cops, not of the demonstrators. Because the protests were peaceful, they got buy-in from thousands of progressives from all walks of life and attracted national attention to the state’s regressive politics.
I’ve lived in Durham seven years. I love my city for its grit and eccentricities, its foibles and failures. In the new year, let’s hope that Durham finds not only its inner cool but also its inner peace.