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Questions linger after occupation

Amanda Ashley, a member of the Occupy Chapel Hill movement, gives a visitor to the Occupy camp information about the movement on Tuesday. Photo by Duncan Hoge

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer
In the aftermath of an incident in which a group of some 70 people occupied the former Yates Motor Co building at 419 W. Franklin St., questions have been raised about these individuals’ connection with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and a broader dialogue has ensued about the aims of those in this community who identify with the movement.

Concerns have also been raised about the police’s response to the occupation of the Yates building.

The incident at the building, a former Chrysler dealership, began Saturday night, led, reportedly, by attendees of the Carrboro Anarchist Bookfair, and resulted in a dramatic encounter with police Sunday afternoon, with seven arrests.

A statement issued by Occupy Chapel Hill said the takeover was neither discussed nor authorized by Occupy’s general assembly; rather, it was an “autonomous action by a group of people, many of whom do nevertheless identify as part of the larger Occupy Wall Street Movement.”

The statement also expressed outrage at what it called the “disproportionate and disturbing use of force by the Chapel Hill Police Department.”

At a press conference held at Chapel Hill Town Hall on Monday, police Chief Chris Blue read a statement that said, in part, “According to the intelligence we gathered, there were concerns that our law enforcement officers would be met with resistance, including possible violence. Individuals who have engaged in the take-over of private property in other cities have been known to barricade themselves in, place traps in buildings and otherwise destroy property.”

The press conference drew a number of the protesters who occupied the Yates building, and both Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Blue were heckled repeatedly as they read statements to the crowd and answered questions.

Protesters held signs reading “Cops: Army of the 1%,” “Civility? Not with police on our streets!” and “We are not intimidated” as they stood in the back of the room, shouting at Blue and Kleinschmidt that the police raid was violent and caused psychological injury.

When asked about the detainment of those outside the building, including a News & Observer reporter, Blue said police detained everyone at the scene, as a number of people had been observed going into and out of the building. Blue said police determined who was related to the break-in, and released those who were not.

“[The reporter] was treated like anyone else who was outside the front of the building at that point,” he said.
Kleinschmidt said he was concerned about the detainment of the reporter and that he had asked the town manager to investigate it.

Chosen weapons
Kassandra Ofray, one of the protesters who was arrested on Sunday, said police made no attempt to contact the group before rushing into the building.

Blue confirmed that police did not attempt to have a dialogue with the people inside the building prior to entering, other than the police’s initial entry into the building and encounter with the group on Saturday night, which police determined to be threatening.

“We had no sense of what threat might lurk in that building, although we certainly did have concerns based on the … materials we had gathered,” he said. “We were operating on the information we had gleaned from watching the group as well as the encounter we had.”

When asked about the weaponry used, which included long-range rifles, Blue said various weapons are selected for certain tasks based on the situation.

“That is a tool that we use in a variety of applications, thankfully in this community not very often,” he said.

Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton said he might approach such a situation differently.

“I would have gone for providing a little more warning to the people inside the building,” he said, while adding that he didn’t know all the details.

Regardless, he said, Chapel Hill responded in a manner that’s in accordance with the law.

“There were certainly people in the Yates Motor Company building that believe in the nonviolent struggle for social change, but there were others who expressly do not,” he said.
“I think it’s a very difficult problem for the Occupy Chapel Hill General Assembly to deal with,” he said. “The ground rules of the general assembly call for the broad inclusion of people who have a wide array of political and philosophical beliefs.”

Reactions to the occupation of the building among Occupy Chapel Hill members have been varied.

Amanda Ashley, an Occupy Wall Street protester and Carrboro resident, said that “ideally these sort of approaches are reconciled within our general assembly.”

“As in any political movement, there are differences of approach,” Ashley said.

However, she noted, “We’re all one group. We are united.”

“If the open dialogue between the police department and Occupy had continued, I think this could have been resolved in a much more peaceful manner.” Occupy Chapel Hill’s relations with the police had been positive, she said.

Michal Osterweil, a lecturer at UNC, longtime Chapel Hill-Carrboro resident and an active Occupy Chapel Hill participant, said she believes the occupation will help bring a discussion of certain issues to the table, among them, the use of public space and abandoned property.

“Out-of-town landlords can hold on to private property, incurring very little costs, while buildings that could be put to potentially good uses that would better serve the public good stand abandoned,” Osterweil said.

While certainly legal, she said, “Given poverty, homelessness and a general need to have vibrant communities accessible to all,” a question is raised of whether “the legal corresponds to the moral or ethical.” 

The occupation of the building has sparked a lot of conversation at the Occupy Chapel Hill camp about differences within the Occupy movement, said Lila Little, an Orange County resident who said she’s been coming to the camp for three weeks.

“It’s given Chapel Hill more opportunity to talk,” Little said, “and people are more willing to stop by here and talk with us.”

“I think they got off kind of light considering what they did,” an occupier who goes by the name Sign said of those arrested. He said he believes the police did what they deemed necessary to secure the building.

But, he added, “I feel comfortable saying that I associated with a number of them that were in the building, and even now I am not going to disassociate with them because of what happened.

“They are going to do what they are going to do, and there is a certain amount of rule breaking that is going to take place.”

‘The cusp’
Osterweil characterizes Occupy Chapel Hill’s connection with Occupy presences in other cities as significant but largely informal, one of “sharing news, ideas, stories, information, tactics and lessons.”

“Hearing about things that have worked or not worked in other occupations, both in the U.S. and globally, has been an important part of our process.”

“I would also say that we stand in solidarity with these movements,” Osterweil said, “although we obviously recognize that each occupation has its particular strengths and weaknesses, and even problems.”

She said efforts have been made to meet and network with nearby occupations.

Issues raised by occupiers across the country include a lack of oversight of Wall Street, wealth disparity, unemployment, the high cost of education, foreclosure rates and globalization.

Still, the movement faces criticism, and concerns from many who are generally sympathetic, that it has failed to clearly articulate a policy platform.

“When we think about movements, we tend to think of mobilized people fighting for a clear set of objectives, usually demands they place on those in power,” Osterweil said. That, she said, is not the case with the Occupy movement.

“This is in large part because the broader movement sees the failures of the economic system to be closely linked with a dysfunctional and even corrupt political process, especially at the national level.”

Making demands of the political system would suggest that the movement has faith in that political system, Osterweil said.
But one of the reasons the Occupy Wall Street movement is thought of as “agenda-less,” she said, is because it’s concerned with “systemic issues and, at this point, the most necessary and potentially radical thing the movement can do is to simply reveal the systemic nature of those problems and get people talking about them and potential solutions.”

Many in positions of influence are taking note. In an op-ed piece last Sunday for the New York Times, economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote, “Those who think that the cold weather will end the protests should think again. A new generation of leaders is just getting started. The new progressive age has begun.”

“We are on the cusp,” said Osterweil, not simply of a social movement with a clear-cut set of demands, but of a “‘society in movement,’ in which ideas, problems and the unjust practices of corporations and politicians cannot simply take place without hundreds of thousands ready to respond.”

Susan Dickson and Rose Laudicina provided reporting for this story.

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