Justin Contreras fills many different roles in many different people’s lives. He is a father, a son, a best friend, a neighbor and a worker. But on June 26, to Nashua, NH, police officer James Ciulla, Contreras was a shooting target.
According to his mother, Pauline Contreras, the 29-year-old Nashua resident had been “stressed and depressed over his job situation, especially because he has children to take care of.”
Why should anyone in the United States, with our vast resources and evident amount of work to be done, be insecure in their employment? Why is there unemployment, underemployment and precarious employment in this society when other countries, such as Cuba, prove that full employment is achievable? It’s often said that “children are our future,” so why should working-class parents face obstacles in their endeavor to feed, clothe, shelter, educate and care for the health of their children?
On June 26, fearing that her son was suicidal, Pauline Contreras asked the Nashua Police Department to conduct a “welfare check.” Officers James Ciulla, Kyle Crosson, and Guido Marchionda arrived at Contreras’s residence around 10 p.m. Ciulla shot Contreras through the arm and in the chest. Contreras was the only person to be injured in the incident. He was taken to a local hospital and then brought by helicopter about 50 miles to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. By June 28, Crosson and Marchionda were already back on the job. Ciulla returned from paid administrative leave on July 2.
Once Contreras was released from the hospital, upon returning to town, he was arrested by the Nashua Police Department and charged with criminal threatening, a felony that could result in seven years’ incarceration, for allegedly holding an empty .45 caliber revolver while walking down the stairs out of his apartment saying things like “I don’t want to live anymore.” This charge is at best misguided and at worst vindictive.
On one hand, since 2011 New Hampshire has been a “stand-your-ground” state. So-called stand-your-ground legislation was first passed in Florida in 2005. Twenty-seven states in the U.S. have now passed such legislation. It means that when threatened, or even at the perception of a threat, an individual has “no duty to retreat.”
Pro stand-your-ground rhetoric centers around “self-defense” to make the issue presentable to a larger audience, but the law is mostly based in the petty-bourgeois fantasy of recklessly shooting trespassers. In New Hampshire, it is not uncommon to see signs on large expensive houses that read “nothing inside is worth dying for,” accompanied by a picture of a human silhouette with a bullseye on the chest. Stand-your-ground legislation has been used to justify right-wing vigilante violence; for instance, George Zimmerman was acquitted of the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin. Despite all this, Justin Contreras, a licensed gun owner, was obligated to answer the door empty-handed when three men showed up uninvited and unannounced in the middle of the night.
On the other hand, the police had been made aware that Contreras could be suicidal. In the U.S., police kill about a thousand people a year. Their “use of lethal force” is usually “justified” by their perception of a threat. For example, Cleveland, Ohio, police officer Timothy Loehmann was acquitted of murdering 12-year-old Tamir Rice because he “feared for (his) life,” although he shot to kill less than two seconds after arriving. Unfortunately, but realistically, nearly everyone in the U.S. knows that “suicide by cop”—intentionally giving a police officer the perception that they are in danger—is a method of suicide, a way to be killed. According to The Guardian, from the beginning of 2015 through October of that year, U.S. police officers killed more than 100 people described as suicidal. Between 1999 and 2016, the people of New Hampshire have experienced a 48 percent rise in suicide rates, nationally the third most rapid rise.
At the very least, the existing governing institutions in New Hampshire have the responsibility to allocate resources to guarantee robust, accessible mental health services and to establish and expand social programs that in some small way alleviate capitalism’s heartbreaking and traumatic alienations. Instead, ironically in the name of fighting problematic relationships with opioids and assisting people with mental health concerns, more and more resources are going toward militarized police forces. The U.S. police, whose primary function is to maintain capitalist property relations through violence on behalf of the owning and ruling class, should not be in any way involved in psychiatric emergencies.
At the Hillsborough County Superior Court South on July 12, a prosecutor alleged that Justin Contreras pointed his unloaded gun at James Ciulla, and apologized to police after Ciulla shot him, saying, “I just wanted you guys to kill me.” If these allegations are at all true, this is no reason for Contreras to be locked in a cage for seven years. Just as “suicide by cop” is a preventable death, if there is any veracity to these claims, the shooting of Contreras was a preventable shooting and Ciulla bears responsibility.
Contreras is out on bail, ordered to live with his parents in Hudson, and placed under a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. His attorney pleaded not guilty for him on July 12. It is now a primary task of the working and oppressed people of New Hampshire to act in solidarity with Contreras and his family, showing them that they are not alone in their struggle for justice after this tragic series of events. Justice for Justin Contreras!