Chapel Hill: A call for review, a march forward | Orange County | Indy Week
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Chapel Hill: A call for review, a march forward 

On Monday, members of Occupy Chapel Hill and fellow demonstrators protested the Chapel Hill Police Department's use of force last week against anarchists who took over a vacant building downtown, and bystanders who were swept up in the raid.

Photo by D.L. Anderson

On Monday, members of Occupy Chapel Hill and fellow demonstrators protested the Chapel Hill Police Department's use of force last week against anarchists who took over a vacant building downtown, and bystanders who were swept up in the raid.

When protesters overtake a private, vacant building and are rooted out at gunpoint, how does a community heal? Stunning images, incendiary chants, finger-pointing, media spotlight and public outrage have tested Chapel Hill in the week since the illegal occupation and overzealous raid of the former Chrysler Building at 419 W. Franklin St.

Now a divided community is trying to learn from these events, ensure they don't happen again and move forward, but how?

Does healing come from banging drums, wielding signs and marching?

About 100 protesters assembled at the Chapel Hill Police Station on Monday night. Members of Occupy Chapel Hill, who immediately after last week's arrests had distanced themselves from the anarchists, joined them and their supporters.

A day earlier, Occupy Chapel Hill held a conversation on the movement's goals and the tactics needed to achieve them. Pete MacDowell said more trust was needed within the group. He worried that when Occupy Everything took control of the Chrysler Building without more input from OCH, it risked hijacking the movement and muting its message.

But on Monday MacDowell joined Occupy Everything in solidarity against the police officers' excessive use of force. "I think everyone is united on the fact that the police really overstepped the bounds and the town council needs to reign them in and do a real investigation," MacDowell said. "I think there is very widespread unity on the question of police overreaction. Uniting a large bunch of folks is always a work in progress. The 99% is a very diverse group."

The march blanketed two southbound lanes of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and it continued from the police station to the Town Council meeting. Members chanted, among other things, "Who do you serve? Who do you protect?" and "Whose town? Our town," as they pushed on.

At Town Hall, protesters were greeted by more drums and trumpets and by a police officer, who explained the occupancy limit, 185, which was easily met. A dozen people watched the council meeting on TV in an overflow room. Others demonstrated outside, continuing to block traffic during the meeting. Police assisted by slowing and rerouting traffic.

Does healing come from an independent investigation and a public apology?

Maybe, but not yet. Inside Town Hall, Jim Neal, a 2008 U.S. Senate candidate and current Chapel Hill resident, pitched his petition for an independent review of the incident.

"I believe the only way to bring this to resolution is to have independent eyes," he said. "It's not only in the best interest of the community, of all these people gathered here tonight and in the rooms overflowing, but it's also in the best interest of the town council and town management."

Nine residents spoke, all in favor of a review.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt attempted to quickly refer the petition to staff before Councilwoman Sally Greene, who leaves office next month, said the council needed to address the public.

"I am concerned about the loss of trust that this event has precipitated," she said. "I share concerns with many of you."

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward said he supports the town manager and the police chief but that the community needs a third-party review.

"Without the third party assessment, I think we end up the same place we are now. We don't have confidence in the system now," he said.

Councilwoman Laurin Easthom also backed the review but wanted to go further. She petitioned her colleagues that the town has enough information to offer an apology to the two journalists who were handcuffed and detained by police.

"They are the eyes and the ears of those of us who were not there, and to prevent them from doing that job is not right," Easthom said.

Her petition failed by a 3-6 vote, with Greene and Councilman Ed Harrison voting in favor.

Does healing come from personal appeals?

Those involved in the movement and those in government attempted to humanize the ordeal Monday.

Mike Connor identified himself to the council as "your friendly neighborhood anarchist." He spoke about his work organizing the Really Really Free Market and sending books to prisoners.

He contrasted that "peaceful history" with statements from Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue, who said the police responded with a Special Emergency Response Team because of literature and "known anarchists" inside the building.

"Replace the word anarchists with any other political ideology or group and see how that sounds," he said. "Do you believe you will need to kill us to remove us from your community, and is that a reasoned response?"

Kleinschmidt said he was sorry that people were arrested and "that the community has had this experience." But he added that the newly formed Community Policing Advisory Committee and Town Manager Roger Stancil need time to review the events before issuing an official mea culpa.

Protesters hissed at Kleinschmidt, who, to quell the mood, told them "who your mayor is": "a 25-year veteran of civil rights and civil liberties activism."

He talked about his experience leading the N.C. American Civil Liberties Union, marching in Washington, D.C., for women's and LGBT rights and occupying the UNC chancellor's office to call for a free-standing black cultural center.

Protesters were unswayed. As the council concluded its vote, someone in the back of the room began shouting that though the group understood Kleinschmidt's past, they still want an apology. As Kleinschmidt attempted to keep order, Councilman Matt Czajkowksi told his colleagues, "Let's just get up and walk out."

Kleinschimdt called for a five-minute recess and asked those attempting to obstruct the meeting to leave.

"Wait a minute, I didn't come here for this," Keith Edwards, a longtime Northside resident best known for fighting wage inequality as UNC's first black female police officer, stood up and said. "I came here for Northside."

Twenty-six people were signed up to speak on the next agenda item: a community plan seeking to curb gentrification and the ill effects of the student rental market in Northside and Pine Knolls, the town's historically black and working-class neighborhoods. A pause.

A return to addressing what the Occupiers say they have wanted all along: access to housing, jobs and equal opportunity. Instead of pointing guns and pointing fingers, this is what Chapel Hill needs most to heal.

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