The following is a first-hand account written by Josh Davis, a master’s student at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Davis was at 419 W. Franklin on Nov. 13 when demonstrators were arrested for trespassing in an unoccupied building. Davis was quoted in the reesenews story here, and live-Tweeted the night from his personal Twitter account.
Questioning police response to nonviolent protests
Just after 4 p.m. I received a call from a source from the Occupy Durham demonstration urging me to head to downtown Chapel Hill at once. Details were scarce, but I learned that an offshoot of the Occupy Chapel Hill group had moved into a vacant former Chrysler dealership at 419 W. Franklin St. Saturday and that a police raid was imminent.
As a graduate photojournalism student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, I have been independently covering the Occupy Movement on Twitter and Flickr. So when I got the call I put down my coursework, picked up my press pass and camera, and headed over.
About 20 young people were hanging out around the building when I arrived. Its garage door had been pried open and balanced on a long wooden beam. Inside stood a small shelf full of books, handmade banners and a few ‘Occupiers’—the only details in an otherwise dusty grey and empty space.
A man told me that I “missed a pretty awesome dance party” in the space the night before, when they first occupied the building.
A demonstrator shouted that twelve cops in riot gear were gearing up nearby. Then, at 4:30 p.m., the scene changed.
Without warning or orders to the crowd to disperse, the police stormed the building. From where I stood in public space outside the building, I could see police in riot gear and green army fatigues aiming automatic rifles at anyone in the vicinity.
“On the ground, face the ground,” were the only orders given by police.
I attempted to step into a side alleyway while waving my press pass when a protester pulled me to the ground.
“They have weapons, man. Get down,” he shouted.
Sure enough, I counted at least five automatic rifles ready to aim at anything that moved. I stopped and hit the ground.
The officer who cuffed me was nice enough. Realizing I was a member of the press, he made sure not to damage my camera or escort me straight to the public Chapel Hill Transit bus being used to transport those arrested.
For nearly half an hour, I sat handcuffed with Chapel Hill Herald Reporter Katelyn Ferral, while the Chapel Hill Police aimed their weapons—fingers on the trigger—from the rooftop to the ground.
“Count,” I thought to myself. About 30 officers—some in fatigues, others in riot helmets. What were the guns loaded with? Rubber bullets? Live ammunition?
How many people boarded that bus number 1609? About eight. How many people are shouting “shame” from across the street? Too hard to tell.
I’ve never been handcuffed before, but there I sat on West Franklin Street handcuffed with close to 100 onlookers watching from across the street.
By 5 p.m. I was released, but not before police took my photo and demanded my personal contact information.
As I made my way to the Chapel Hill police station to file a formal complaint, I went back to a running dialog I’ve been having about police response to nonviolent demonstrations.
Yes, a private building was being squatted by a group of activists. But a community affairs officer could easily have walked in, asked some questions, and issued a warning. Perhaps this happened? I do not know.
But the occupiers did not have weapons. That much was painfully clear. I question the wisdom of those in charge to send in a SWAT team with live ammunition into this situation. What if something happened? What if I had broke for the alley. Could my press pass and iPhone be mistaken for a weapon? Then what? Would Chapel Hill police Chief Chris Blue or Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt want the unintended consequence of an error in judgment on their consciences?
Kleinschmidt said in this situation that the “town will respond in accord with the oath every elected official and law enforcement officer takes.”
Mr. Mayor, what part of your oath states that journalists can be detained at gunpoint–effectively censored–from performing his or her First Amendment protected duties?