There are no good guys in this story. It begins Saturday with anarchists' illegal occupation of a privately owned, vacant building on West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. It peaks 18 hours later with a showdown between a Chapel Hill Special Emergency Response Team wielding loaded rifles, shoving them, according to witness accounts, in the faces of some anarchists before arresting seven of them and detaining two journalists.
Now the story hangs, suspended after an acrimonious press conference and Chapel Hill Town Council meeting, while town residents and observers nationwide wait for answers: from a community police review board investigation, from the mayor, the cops, the anarchists.
Meanwhile, the potential collateral damage is severe: to the Occupy Chapel Hill activists, who, after camping for a month without incident in Peace and Justice Plaza, risk being lumped in with the anarchists; to the artists who were creating—legally—an installation in the vacant building; to the trust between Chapel Hill residents and town officials, especially the police.
Branding themselves as "some autonomous anti-capitalist occupiers," the anarchists broke the law when they enacted their "experiment": to claim the Chrysler building, also known as the Yates building, at 419 W. Franklin St., and transform it into an art studio, a free store, clinic, school, bike shop and shelter.
But on the day after the raid, the concrete floor of the building, left dormant by Fayetteville owner Joe Riddle for almost a decade, is littered with trash. Duct tape that once held banners reading "Capitalism left this building for dead, we brought it back to life" clings to the windows. A handyman who doesn't want to give his name climbs a ladder steadied by a police officer and rips down the two remaining red flags weighted by bamboo: "Occupy" and "Everything."
A Town of Chapel Hill notice is attached to the front door declaring the building as condemned, unfit for human habitation.
Who is left to clean up the mess—literally and metaphorically?
Jim Neal, a Chapel Hill resident and 2008 U.S. Senate candidate, describes a "groundswell of rancor and confusion" about Sunday's events, noting two camps: one dismayed by the officers' use of force, authorized by Police Chief Chris Blue, a 14-year veteran of the force who is in his first year as top cop, and another yielding to the judgment of police.
He delivered a five-page petition to council on Tuesday that asks 29 questions he wants an independent commission to answer. Among them: What attempts were made to determine if any weapons were inside? What was done to protect bystanders? What constitutes a "critical condition" that warrants a Special Emergency Response Team?
"I don't dispute for a moment that the law had been broken," Neal says. "Police had every right to act. What concerns me is the means by which they did that."
Riddle's building once housed University Chrysler and Yates Motor Co., but it's been empty since 2003. When Chapel Hill politicians face questions about how to deal with vacant storefronts, Riddle's name is the one that always comes up. He bought the building with the intention of adding on to it, but those plans never materialized. According to county records, he owes $12,947.37 in property taxes, which were due Sept. 1.
Nathan Hollister, a minister at Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist, was among those at the press conference supporting the anarchists. "The town is choosing to protect that building and this person's property rights. What's he contributing to the town?" he told the Indy.
Before Sunday's events, the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership had finally found a use for the vacant building. UNC art professor elin o'Hara slavick said one of her students was preparing to debut a town-sanctioned show later this month with silhouettes in the window of a diverse group of people gathering for the holidays. Plans for the art installation are on hold indefinitely.
"It was a positive, constructive, beautiful thing," slavick says. "I think it's a shame that something like that gets ruined because of something like this ... I don't think that's what solidarity or humanity should be about."
Activists with Occupy Chapel Hill are working to distinguish themselves from the protest and response three blocks away.
"Occupy Chapel Hill is nonviolent, it is peaceful, and it does not break the law," said Harry Phillips, a member of the group. "Other groups around town may choose different tactics; Occupy Chapel Hill does not support them."
Phillips emphasized that OCH has a respectful relationship with town leaders and officers, who have worked to facilitate the campsite. The group does not condone the actions of the anarchists, some of whom have been affiliated with OCH, nor do they approve of the police response.
Occupy Chapel Hill spent two hours crafting a press release at its Monday night General Assembly meeting, ultimately deciding to "express outage and disappointment at the disproportionate and disturbing use of force" by police and making clear that the Occupy Everything experiment "was neither discussed nor authorized by our General Assembly."
Events such as this are the reason that for three years, peace advocates, concerned citizens and the NAACP had urged town officials to establish a Community Policing Advisory Committee. In March, the town council approved the committee, which is charged with advising the police department on policy, not with reviewing individual grievances.
Committee members said they want to wait until after they are briefed to issue a response. Blue said he will debrief the committee about the incident at its Dec. 14 public meeting.
Yet Donna Bell, the town council liaison to the committee, already had formed an opinion about the incident on Monday. "I don't know what it takes to enter a building that you don't know who is inside or what they have inside," Bell said at the council meeting. "The people who caused the situation are the folks who were in that building. It's not the police, and I trust they did the best they could do in a difficult situation."
The department also will undergo an internal review, though Blue, who authorized the use of force, is the same person who makes the final determination on whether that force was justified.
At a press conference Monday, during which anarchists and their supporters hissed and repeatedly interrupted, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Blue tried to explain why such a dramatic use of force was warranted. Kleinschmidt called the raid "deliberate and measured."
"I'm grateful to be talking about this today than the kinds of things our police officers had feared," he said.
Blue said he stands by his decision to send the response team, even though officers did not find any weapons inside the building. "The reality is we didn't know what we were walking into," he said later at a Town Council public hearing. "We felt there was a great potential for an active resistance if we didn't act swiftly."
Officers became nervous after approaching the building Saturday night; they said they were confronted by a group, including some people wearing hoods and masks, chanting "ACAB," "All Cops are Bastards." The police retreated and monitored the scene overnight.
Blue said officers were alarmed by a flyer that referenced Occupy Oakland, where, he noted, protesters set fire to barricades in an abandoned building and hurled objects at police. The also worried about banners that obstructed the view inside and "known risks associated with anarchist groups."
Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton was having a cup of tea across the street when, unknown to him, the police moved in. He questions what the protesters expected to happen when they knowingly broke the law and occupied the building. "It wasn't that exciting of a moment to witness," Chilton told the Indy. "It will certainly be memorable, but this isn't Oakland. I know there must be people who would like to paint that picture. It wasn't my town, but I can understand the difficult spot that Mark Kleinschmidt finds himself in.
"If you're going to take over a building and say we don't rule out the possibility of violence, how are the police to respond to that situation?"
Self-described anarchist Daniel Meltzer would likely say "not with loaded rifles."
"By the time I arrived at the building, my friends were being held at gunpoint on their faces with assault rifles in their backs," said Meltzer, a Chapel Hill resident.
Chapel Hill police officials also called Carrboro and UNC police to help secure the perimeter of the raid. Carrboro Alderman Dan Coleman wrote a letter to Interim Carrboro Town Manager Matt Efird stating his concern about "the presence of our officers potentially drawing them into unanticipated escalations ... Recognizing that CHPD did appear to maintain discipline in this case and has had a thus-far commendable response to Occupy Chapel Hill, I would hate to see Carrboro PD play a supporting role in an action that led to the injury or shooting of an unarmed, nonviolent protester. I would be interested in understanding how we can minimize this risk."
Alderman Sammy Slade was more blunt: "Seeing police pointing machine guns at unarmed protesters, next to a public bus ready to carry them away and plastered with a Wells Fargo billboard was really ironic. It really makes you think about the kind of democracy we have."
The story continues next Monday when Town Council is scheduled to hear Jim Neal's petition and his 29 questions.
"In reality, everyone really lacks the facts," Jim Neal says. "I think the public needs and deserves answers."