On Sunday afternoon, around twenty-five police in full riot gear stormed an abandoned car dealership on Franklin Street and arrested a group of demonstrators who had been occupying the building. The occupation was “not orchestrated by Occupy Chapel Hill,” according to a flyer handed out to passersby, but was rather an “experiment,” and an extension of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Wielding assault rifles, officers rushed the building at about 4:30 pm, and pointed those weapons at people standing outside, ordering them to put their faces on the ground.
In a statement Sunday night, police said they had been monitoring the building since Saturday night when they learned attendees of an anarchist book fair held this weekend were aligning themselves with Occupy Chapel Hill and that about 70 people had entered the former car dealership.
“Officers also learned that strategies used by anarchists in other communities included barricading themselves in buildings, placing traps in buildings, and otherwise destroying property,” said the statement released by Sgt. Josh Mecimore. “The group in the…building used large banners to obscure the windows to the business and strategically placed members on the roof as look-outs.”
The raid at Chapel Hill illustrates a few interesting aspects that have become systemic to the entire police response to the Occupy movement.
First, there is the conflation of damage to property with “violence,” and it’s unclear how these “traps” or barricades actually damaged the property value of an already abandoned car dealership, but let’s set aside that vague accusation for the time being.
Even if the demonstrators were damaging property, “violence” is usually only considered dire when it’s directed at human beings, not at an abandoned car dealership. If society was to get really serious about “violence” applying to inanimate objects and the environment, then every multinational conglomerate on the face of the earth could be charged as being criminally liable.
Consider major companies that seek to seize private property under eminent domain laws. For example, right now in Nebraska lawmakers are debating tightening eminent domain rules for procuring land during discussions related to the proposed $7 billion Keystone XL oil pipeline. Here we have a major company, TransCanada Corp, proposing destroying property owners’ land, not to mention the environment. Put another way, it’s like dynamiting a billion car dealerships simultaneously. But since the criminals wear suits instead of bandanas across their faces, the police ignore such crimes.
Or ponder the major banks and financial institutions that treated the US economy like a casino over the past few decades. Chopping up crap mortgages and reselling them with stellar ratings resulted in millions of people losing their homes, which now sit on the market, unsold, rotting away. Some might consider that damage to property, too.
The moral of the story is it’s okay to damage property, as long it’s rich people doing the damage, they largely outsource the destruction, and the victims are poor.
Additionally, there are varying degrees of “property damage.” Shattering the window of a Starbucks with a trashcan is not the same as, say, trampling the grass of a park. Badly beating protesters for the crime of brown grass should not be allowed to exist as an official police policy without cities and towns across America first seriously discussing if they think that punishment fits the “crime.”
Second, Chapel Hill helped draw attention to the police state that not only permeates places like New York City and Oakland, but now also places like Chapel Hill, North Carolina, population 57,233 according to the 2010 census.
“It’s like Baghdad!” one Tweeter exclaimed when they saw a photo of police advancing on the former car dealership, assault rifles raised.
The perhaps subconscious implication is that this kind of rough police/military-like treatment is fine when the victims are poor, foreign brown people or maybe even domestic poor brown people, but not for the good, wholesome folk of a city like Chapel Hill.
Ask any Occupy Oakland or Occupy Wall Street protesters if police brutalize demonstrators and they’ll give you the war-torn smirk of a veteran deeply familiar with just how out of control the police state has gotten in this country.
Every seasoned protester has their story of mistreatment: being slapped, kicked, punched, shot with rubber bullets, tear gassed, pepper sprayed or verbally harassed by police dressed in full riot gear and equipped with dangerous weaponry that can land protesters in the hospital in sometimes critical condition, as we saw in the case of veteran Scott Olsen.
Right now, police across the country are permitted to abuse protesters, fairly accountability-free, because Wall Street activists are considered undesirables who need to be suppressed and marginalized.
In Oakland, numerous media outlets report that police routinely cover their badge numbers so they can declare open season on protesters without fear of retribution later. This, combined with the fact that OPD propels tear gas canisters at protesters with the same casual indifference of meter maids handing our parking tickets, means activists are in more danger than ever from the police, and at no other time has there been less chance for accountability.
Before the raid, the Chapel Hill occupiers had drawn up plans to transform the space into a place for civic engagement and public support, including a free store, kitchen, clinic, performance space, school, workshop, library and dormitory. Right before the arrests, the space was hosting a free yoga class.
“Anarchism” does not always imply shattered store windows and scary masked black blocs. Some anarchists base their beliefs in mutual support, sympathy, and solidarity, truly bizarre and foreign concepts to police armed to the teeth with really cool toys designed to violently crush protest. Many police forces would benefit from a course in Anarchism and learning the difference between a peaceful occupation and the black bloc kind.
As Occupy chapters continue to resist nonviolently, Americans are beginning to understand that the police no longer exist to protect and serve but instead to bully, intimidate and crush peaceful dissent. And the justice system, rather than hold the most powerful criminals on Wall Street accountable, aims its scope at the most meager “criminals,” the one inflicting negligible damage—not to human beings but to property.