The Reverend - Part 2
Updated: May 22
As we approached the group, the Reverend explained to me that what I was witnessing was a vigil, not a protest. Each of the people in front of me had a loved one who had been taken into custody following the NAHS riot. Each photo was a child who had been “taken to safety” and never returned.
The gathering had begun organically. Unable to get any straight answers from the school or the city, parents started going directly to DSF Admin. They wanted answers. They wanted their kids back. All they got were polite smiles and instructions to go home and wait to be contacted when more information was available - but 2 full nights had passed and they had heard nothing. Their kids were still in custody and no one would say why.
When parents returned this morning to beg for their kids' release, they found the building blocked by a barricade of DSF riot police decked out in full body armor and carrying semi-automatic Colt M4 Carbine rifles. Claiming a “credible threat” had been identified, DSF Captain Burgess has placed the building on lockdown. That means no one except employees and city officials in or out until further notice. No journalists. No concerned citizens. And certainly no upset parents. The public is being stonewalled.
At first, the blockade worked. People saw the guns and turned away, angry and dejected but unwilling to risk a confrontation. But that changed when Camille Davenport arrived.
Exhausted from the forty-five minute commute from her home in North End, 86 year old Camille simply didn’t have it in her to start the journey home with no answers. “Two trains, a bus and I still have to walk six blocks. I’ve been down here three times in the last two days and I can’t do it again. I’m too old and I’m too tired. These people took my grand daughter and want me to go home and wait. Well, this is public land, and as long as I’m not disturbing nobody, I have every right to be here. So I’m not going home. I’m going to sit right here and wait. I’ll go home when they give me my grand baby.”
Camille was not alone for long. Fearing for her health, Tynesh and Soren Buechter offered her a ride, but Camille declined, telling them “Out of sight is out of mind.” That was all it took to convince the Buechters, who promptly sat down beside her and have remained there throughout the day. Soon they were joined by others. Parents. Grandparents. Siblings. Friends. All of them seeking answers, and all of them fearing their loved ones would never return.
“It’s not like when we were growing up,” says Dean Fitz, who’s son is unaccounted for and believed to be in DSF custody. “Before Resettlement, before the camps - people didn’t just disappear. There was a justice system, and it was far from perfect, but people didn’t just disappear. Now, people disappear all the time. Guys out there getting taken in for traffic violations and no one ever sees them again. It’s crazy. I know they’ve got military parole now, but how many of these people you think they’re arresting just to throw them on the front lines? What else would explain the number of people that get lost in the system and never return? *
Mr Fitz makes an important point. People DO disappear into the system. Nearly 60,000 a year, according to the last numbers we saw from Human Rights Watch before they were disbanded. Ironically, the prisoner privacy laws that were passed in the name of reform and dignity are the same laws that now prevent human rights groups from tracking what happens to people once they enter custody. Without somebody fighting for them on the outside, these people disappear and are simply forgotten.
The people at this vigil are here to make sure their loved ones are not forgotten. Mary and Esther Gordon were the first to bring photos. They live next door to the Buechters, who called and told them about the vigil.
“What DSF is doing is disgusting. We’re talking about kids! You can’t just round them up and throw away the key! Those assholes up there in their big glass tower should be forced to look at the faces of their victims, so we brought the biggest photo of our boy we could find. And we grabbed photos of Victor and Elena, our neighbors kids. It kinda caught on. We’re up to over 150 photos now. People just keep showing up with more. Even people who can’t stay. Some of them have other kids at home that need them. Some of them have jobs they can’t risk losing. But they’re just as afraid as we are. They want their kids back, too. So we tell them to leave their pictures with us, and we will make sure their kids are not alone and not forgotten.”
Protests are so often about anger that it is easy to forget the pain that drives them. This experience was completely different. The pain was everywhere, and it was raw.
I spoke with as many people as I could. Many would only talk off the record, justifiably fearing retribution against themselves or their loved ones for talking to the press. Others spoke only on the condition of anonymity. They know that this still puts them in danger, but several believed the story they had to tell was important enough to justify the risk.
One such person is a faculty member from North Acheron High School who was a first-hand witness to the riot. This person came to DSF this morning to provide character witness for students. “I’ve worked with these kids every day for years. They’re good kids. Even the ones that are a pain in the ass. These kids didn’t do ANYTHING that justifies their incarceration. What happened that day was an unfortunate situation that was poorly handled and grew wildly out of control.
“The idea that the kids planned it in advance is absurd. The walkout first period was the the juiciest bit of gossip to go around that school in months. You could see it spreading across the classroom in real time. They’re not supposed to have their phones on during class, but they all do. It got so bad I gave my third period 5 minutes to check their phones and be done with it. In retrospect, that might have been a bad idea, but at the time I had no idea what was happening.
It was the reaction to the walkout that turned everything ugly. It got political and kids started taking sides. There are so many immigrants here. So many different perspectives. Teenagers are all emotion anyway, but with so many of them facing graduation and enlistment in a few months...It’s no wonder things got out of hand.”
Things certainly did get out of hand. One father I spoke with said his daughter called him from inside the school during the lockdown. “I didn’t even know they were on lockdown until she called. We’re supposed to get a text alert, I think, but I didn’t. [My daughter] called and told me the hallways were full of smoke and the fire alarms were going off. I didn’t understand. I told her to get out of the building if the fire alarms were going off. She said ‘Daddy, we’re on lockdown. Someone’s been shooting.’ My whole world stopped. I didn’t know what to tell her. I was too scared for her to think straight.
“Then she told me the smoke smelled funny, like vinegar. And it was kinda green. That just didn’t sound right to me. Her friend was vomiting and they said it burned their eyes and throat. I could hear them coughing. I got on google real quick and everything [my daughter] described sounded just like tear gas. Tear Gas! What the hell are they doing releasing tear gas inside a goddamned school? I told her they needed to cover their faces and get the hell out of there, shooter or no shooter. Tear gas can kill you in a confined area like that.” That was the last time he heard from his daughter. He is hopeful that she made it out of the building and was taken into custody, but says he has no way to know for sure. **
Another person I talked to was there for her little brother. She saw him handcuffed and placed on a bus on the evening news so she knew he was alive, but she feared for his safety in custody. “He posted a photo about 2 o’clock. He was in a classroom and you could see a girls’ legs on the floor in the hallway through the door. There was blood all over. It looked like she was dead, and his message said ‘DSF did it.’ If they killed that girl and they find out my brother has that picture, who knows what they’ll do to him. Accidents seem to happen every day juvie. Especially to poor kids like us.”
As shocking as they are, these are not the worst stories coming out of the NAHS riot. And there will be more. We know that 2 students died, along with the principal and a DSF agent, but we have no official numbers on how many were injured or taken into custody. Unofficial estimates put the number in the hundreds. It’s almost incomprehensible. HUNDREDS of students never made it home from school that day - and officials are saying nothing.
As the sun began to set, the Reverend made his way back over to me to inquire if I had found a story to tell. I had, of course. Dozens of them. (Many of which I intend to tell here in the days to come, when I have time to do them justice.) But as I listened to all of their stories, there was one question that kept nagging me. As beautiful and powerful as this vigil is, would it do any good? Would their actions have any impact, or would they simply be ignored?
I was hesitant to pose this question to the Reverend, but my natural cynicism would not be ignored.
“Do you really think this will do any good?”
“That depends on how you define good,” he replied with a sigh. “Do I think these photos will convince DSF to release the children? No. I don’t. That would be naive. But it brings comfort and purpose to people who don’t know what else to do. It brings community to families who are desperately in need of it right now, and it helps ensure that these children are not forgotten. And that is very good.”
It was exactly the kind of response you would expect from a cleric, but then he continued.
“It’s not DSF that need to remember those faces, you know. It’s the citizens. These people here today are grieving. They have too much to lose to put up a fight, and DSF hold all the leverage. But there are others out there who DO have it in them to fight. People who have suffered at the hands of DSF in the past. People who have moved past the sorrow to anger. People with nothing left to lose. You may not see them here now, but they are with us.”
The old man stopped and turned towards me, one eyebrow raised. A bit of a scowl crossed his lips as he passed judgment on me. “There’s one more person I think you should meet,” he said, as he gestured discreetly to a small group of teens gathered in the shadows of the alley. One of them walked towards us.
For this person’s safety, I will be intentionally withholding any information that could be used for identification. Moving forward, I will simply refer to this person by their nickname “Gopher” and default to male gender.
Gopher stared me down as he approached, even as he turned his head toward the Reverend for instructions. His eyes never left mine. The Reverend spoke to Gopher briefly in what I believe was Portuguese. I have no idea what he said, but Gopher seemed to approve. He was suddenly all smiles and he extended his hand enthusiastically. I shook it and quickly found myself pulled into a hug that felt entirely too familiar for a person I had just met. “Welcome aboard,” he said. “Let me see your phone.”
I have to admit that, at this point, I wasn’t really sure what was going on. But Gopher was all smiles and the Reverend seemed trustworthy enough. I unlocked my phone and handed it over.
“I’m not recording or anything,’ I said. “You can check if you like.”
Gopher grunted at me and started typing. “Who’s your favorite Pokémon?”
“Pokémon. Like the game. ‘Gotta catch’em all’ and all that.” Gopher handed my phone back to me. It was downloading Pokémon Go. I was justifiably dumbfounded. “It doesn’t matter. Just pick one. You’re going to get an invite for a meetup tonight. It’ll have a time and place. Don’t be late, and come ready for anything.” Gopher winked at me, flashed a grin at the Reverend, and trotted back into the shadows with the others.
“They use Pokémon meet ups to broadcast protest locations,” the Reverend explained. “Phone and internet communications are monitored. Dates and times attract a lot of attention. The meet ups are perfect camoflauge. It’s a rather creative solution, don’t you think?
It started in Hong Kong a few years back and had a lot of success. It’s more common now than you would think. Group leaders can send out mass invites notifying all their people of where and when to meet. Even if DSF catch on to what they are doing, by the time they make the connection it is too late to stop it. They just send out a new location and the group melts into the city and reappears somewhere else. DSF spend the night chasing them. It’s a remarkable waste of resources.”
I clearly have a lot to learn, and not a lot of time to do it in. It appears I’m going to a protest tonight, and despite his smiles, Gopher’s parting words sounded more than a little ominous. I thanked the Reverend for his help and introductions, and he assured me that we would be seeing each other again soon.
As I write this I am back in my hotel room. I should be resting for what will likely be a long night ahead, but I am too nervous. And too excited. I have no idea what’s going to come next.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
* “Military Parole” refers to a program instituted as part of the C.O.N.D. justice system reforms. In order to promote nationalism and service to country, non-violent offenders were given the option of voluntary military service instead of incarceration. Each day served on the front lines would count as 2 days towards their sentence. Enrollment in the program was virtually nonexistent in the first two years, despite lengthened sentences and mandatory minimums, but a sudden surge in the third year found the program fully populated. The sudden uptick has led many to question how much of a choice the prisoners really have, especially as it coincided with a dire need for new soldiers on the South American front.
** Use of tear gas (CS Gas) in warfare is strictly prohibited by international law, as is the use of all chemical weapons. Use of tear gas by police and private self-defense on our own citizens is NOT prohibited.
Tear gas is a non-lethal chemical when used appropriately. It is designed to spread quickly over a wide area, limiting the amount of exposure received by any one individual. Experts and tear gas manufacturers warn against using it indoors, where higher concentrations of the chemical can become trapped and people may not be able to escape. Inhaling tear gas in high concentrations has been known to cause permanent injury and even death.