A vigil for a teenage boy who died mysteriously in police custody erupted on Thursday night in Durham, NC. Police in riot gear fired tear gas into a crowd filled with friends and family of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta, who was killed by a gunshot wound to the head while handcuffed from behind in the back of a Durham police patrol car on November 19.
According to a statement last week by Jose Lopez Sr., Durham’s police chief, the gunshot wound that killed Huerta was self-inflicted. Huerta is the third young man of color to die in a shooting that involved Durham police in the past four months.
“Both the family and community members are very confused and incredulous about this story,” said Erica Scott Pacheco, Operations & Development Manager of Presente.org, a group that advocates for Latino rights, told msnbc. Huerta’s family called the police after the high school student ran away from home, and police took him into custody a few blocks from his home. But “instead of being brought home, he ended up dead in the back of a police cruiser,” Pacheco said.
Thursday’s vigil and march was intended to commemorate the one-month anniversary of Huerta’s death, but the massive police response to the 150 mourners and demonstrators that ended with six arrests has galvanized the Durham Latino community. In a statement Friday, Evelin Huerta, Jesus’ sister, called for Lopez’ resignation and for the Justice Department to step in.
“The actions of the Durham Police Department last night, led by Chief Lopez, were a tried and true tactic to intimidate and spread fear in our community. The Durham Police cannot be trusted to investigate my brother’s death, and we need a federal investigation,” she said.
The Durham Police Department released a statement late Thursday night blamed the vigil attendees for the violence that broke out. “Some arrests were made and officers were forced to deploy tear gas to disperse the crowd after rocks and bottles were thrown at the police,” Chief Lopez said in the release. Lopez also thanked his officers, who fired tear gas into a crowd that included families and children, for displaying “restraint and professionalism.”
Four of the six people arrested Thursday night were teenagers.
The family and representatives from Presente.org delivered a petition with 18,000 signatures to the FBI’s office in Raleigh, requesting an investigation.