Editorâ€™s note: This piece was edited down from a longer statement by the mayor.
By Mark Chilton
At about 3:30 or 4 on Sunday afternoon, I received a call from the acting town manager of Carrboro, calling to consult with me on a difficult situation. The Town of Chapel Hill had contacted the Carrboro Police Department to request assistance under the terms of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Mutual Aid Agreement. CHPD was preparing to remove some trespassers from the Yates Motor Company Building and wanted the Carrboro Police Department to provide backup.
Immediately, I was concerned. Removing protesters from a building can be a tricky thing, and I was already aware that the protesters included some avowed anarchists who live in Chapel Hill. Some of these same folks had been involved in the incident at Greenbridge a few months ago, and some of these same people were apparently part of a vocal minority within the Occupy Chapel Hill General Assembly. I had heard about them second-hand from others at the OCHGA who had been disgusted by this splinter groupâ€™s insistence that nonviolence should not be adopted as a goal â€“ that nonviolence was but one tactic of many, but not an end unto itself.
I told the town manager that I was reluctant to have Carrboro PD involved because I thought the situation could go badly, but I was also concerned that a Mutual Aid Agreement is a two-way street. If Carrboro declines to assist Chapel Hill in an ugly situation, then that could easily come back to haunt us when we are the ones in a bad spot, calling upon Chapel Hill for assistance.
This was not a situation that would be easy to deal with for any mayor, but I found it especially difficult because I donâ€™t believe in the use of violence. As a young adult, my hero was not an athlete or actor or politician; my hero was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And from Dr. Kingâ€™s life I had learned of the power of nonviolence. As I grew older, I learned from reading Dr. Kingâ€™s writings that he was not the progenitor of the nonviolent resistance movement. Dr. King drew his inspiration from Mohandas Gandhi (Mahatma, as an honorific term, not his first name). Through Dr. King, I learned the Gujarathi word that Gandhi coined for hisÂ political/philosophical/moral theory of social change: satyagraha.
Satyagraha is the combination of two words of ancient Sanskrit origin. Satya means â€œtruthâ€ and agraha means â€œinsistence,â€ though neither word translates perfectly into just one English word. Gandhi explained what Satyagraha means: â€œTruth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or nonviolence.â€ The point of Satyagraha is that meaningful and lasting social change can only come from nonviolent resistance to injustice.
As the U.S. is once again proving in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are very capable of bringing about change in the world through violence. But what kind of change is it? Thousands upon thousands have died, and what problems have been solved? And what problems have been created? As a nation, we have exacted our vengeance for 9/11, but we have only inspired more people to hate us. As Gandhi so famously put it: â€œAn eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.â€
Believing in Satyagraha is more than just pacifism, more than just nonviolence. Itâ€™s about more than just being nonviolent in the way you carry out your personal affairs. Satyagraha is the use of nonviolence to bring about social change, the use of interpersonal nonviolence to bring an end to the injustice of organizational violence. It was Satyagraha that brought an end to Englandâ€™s imperialist rule in India, to Jim Crow in the Southern U.S. and to Apartheid in South Africa.
I donâ€™t mean to be self-righteous or pie-in-the-sky in discussing the power of Satyagraha. I mean to be very practical and down to earth. Because for me, my belief in Satyagraha causes me real-life problems. Itâ€™s all fine and well to sit around saying that I donâ€™t believe in violence, but a long time ago I decided to pursue nonviolent social change through local government. Yet, as a local elected official, I am responsible for operating our police department. And police departments ultimately draw their power from the legally sanctioned use of violence, or the potential thereof.
Yet Gandhi wrote: â€œSatyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatsoever.â€ It would be both extraordinarily difficult to run a police department based on a literal reading of that principle. There are some people who must be handled with force in order to protect the lives of others.
Even if a police department could be run on the principle of Satyagraha, it would probably be illegal to do so. When I get re-inaugurated next month, I will put my hand on the Bible and take a solemn oath to â€œuphold the laws and Constitution of the United States and the laws and Constitution of North Carolina, not inconsistent therewith.â€ And all police officers in North Carolina take an even more specific oath to uphold and enforce the laws of North Carolina. We canâ€™t turn a blind eye or protest nonviolently against the wrongdoing of criminals.
So what is a Satyagraha-believing mayor to do? I wish I had a grand philosophical resolution of this dilemma, but I donâ€™t. Instead, I take a down-to-earth approach that I imagine Gandhi himself would not entirely support. I take the view that my belief in Satyagraha compels me to work nonviolently for social change while still being prepared to use force to uphold the law. When a law is unjust, I uphold that law as mayor while nonviolently struggling to change the law to something more just.
After some extensive discussions, I advised the manager to send our officers as backup only. I wanted Carrboro to assist, but not to be directly involved unless the whole thing erupted into some kind of bona fide riot, in which case the Carrboro PD was to assist in restoring order. The manager agreed that this was a wise approach.
Autumn is advancing rapidly now and it gets dark by 6 p.m. I guessed that CHPD would prefer to carry out their plan before dark. It was already 4 when I hung up my cell; so if I was correct, the CHPD would be on the move soon.
I trusted the CHPD not to do anything extreme, but still I worried about how they would handle the situation, about how some of the protesters might respond, about how the Carrboro police could potentially be drawn into things if the situation went badly. I knew that no matter how it went, there would be a lot of second-guessing afterwards and that there would inevitably be conflicting reports about just what happened. So I decided to drive straight down to West Franklin Street to witness whatever might unfold between 4:30 and sunset.
I didnâ€™t want to get in the way of either the protesters or the police, so I went to Tallulaâ€™s restaurant to order a cup of hot tea and observe what was happening across the street. I was just inside the restaurant ordering my tea when shouting on the street drew me and a waiter outside to see what was going on. About two dozen police officers were descending on the building shouting, â€œGet down on the ground! Everyone get down!â€ I paused on the sidewalk to judge whether it would be safe to move closer.
There were about eight protesters outside the building in the driveway and they all readily complied with police orders, lying face down on the ground. I judged it safe to walk down to directly across from Yates Motors for a better view. I watched as the officers used plastic zip ties to handcuff the people lying on the ground.
I was surprised to see that several of the officers were toting assault rifles, as that seemed like a greater show of force than necessary (though I am no expert on such matters). So far as I could see, the assault rifles were being held with their barrels pointed high in the air, away from humans, though the dramatic photo in Mondayâ€™s News and Observer clearly shows that some of those rifles were at times pointed at people.
A crowd began to gather around me as I watched the scene unfold. I could see (poorly) through the windows that there were officers inside dealing with more protestors. Soon another six or eight people were paraded out into the driveway in zip-tie handcuffs and loaded onto an out-of-service Chapel Hill Transit bus to be taken before a magistrate. Soon the crowd grew to 30 or 40 people, most of whom were jeering the police.
Ultimately, Iâ€™m not sure what to think about Sundayâ€™s events. The events I witnessed were not what I would have hoped for, not the way I would have handled a similar situation in Carrboro. Yet I did not see anything that was outside the standard and legally authorized use of police power. I was every bit as concerned for the safety of the police officers as I was for the safety of the protesters. When police go into a situation where there is some plausible reason to believe they might meet armed resistance, they have to come prepared for the maximum level of resistance within the realm of plausibility.
I am sure we will all take away various lessons from this experience. For me, it shows why Satyagraha is so powerful. Our community finds itself deeply divided over how this situation went down. How differently Chapel Hill might have been able to deal with this situation had it been clear the protesters were committed to nonviolence! Part of the power of Satyagraha comes from the fact that if the CHPD had dealt with expressly nonviolent protesters in the same way, then far more people in our community would have sympathy for the protesters. Changing the minds of those not involved in the protest, convincing more people to join in your resistance, swaying public opinion to your understanding of justice â€“ thatâ€™s the whole point of protest. As a protester, the best way to bring more people to your side of the debate is through nonviolence.
Now I fear that Sundayâ€™s display of force from the CHPD will entrench many of the protesters in their rejection of nonviolence as a basic organizing principle. And who knows how some of them may prepare for the next time? This is what Dr. King meant when he so famously said, â€œViolence begets violence.â€ Each new act of violence only encourages the other side to escalate. And what does it all accomplish?
I write this in large part to say to my fellow agents of social change: Expressly reject violence. Do not give the police a reason to use violence, or even the immediate threat of violence. That was how Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King, Bishop Tutu, Cesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony, Lech Walesa and Andrei Codrescu helped to change the world. Their actions prove that Satyagraha, expressly nonviolent resistance, can and does defeat the thing that should be the common enemy of all advocates for social change: violence in all its forms.
Mark Chilton is the mayor of Carrboro.