CHAPEL HILL — More than 100 people marched down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Monday night, some chanting and some banging drums, to protest the police force used to remove squatters from a vacant downtown building Nov. 13.
The march began at the Police Department and spilled into two lanes of traffic. Two police cars, blue lights flashing, drove slowly behind the marchers.
The protesters overflowed the Town Council chambers, holding signs, banging on windows, and loudly booing or cheering speakers as they addressed the council. The chambers hold 185 people.
Rob Haith of Durham rolled in the march in his wheelchair with his son Isaac, 7. He is a part of Occupy Chapel Hill and wanted to send a message to Chapel Hill's elected leaders.
"The overwhelming use of force that was used was just above and beyond anything that was necessary," he said.
Elizabeth Evans of Chapel Hill marched in the dark with her son Avery, 4, and held two candles.
"The use of excess force has gotten to the point where it's alarming and difficult to turn on the news. I'm not hearing enough said about that," she said.
The group was protesting the police response to a group of anarchists and others who had broken into and occupied the former Yates Motor Co. building on West Franklin Street. A Chapel Hill Police Department Special Emergency Response Team carrying assault rifles rushed the building and charged seven people with misdemeanor breaking and entering after a group of 70 had occupied the vacant building the night before.
Police Chief Chris Blue has said the group was distributing violent riot literature and had threatened an officer who visited the building Saturday night.
Council hears petitions
Several speakers spoke at the council meeting, criticizing town leaders for comments they made last week supporting the Chapel Hill Police and town response to the break-in.
Michael Connor, who said he was part of the group at the Yates building, disparaged the town for the artillery weapons pointed in some demonstrators' faces.
"Do you believe that you need to kill us to remove us from your community, and is that a reasoned response?" he asked.
Connor's comments were met with cheers and applause from dozens listening to the meeting outside the chambers in the hallway.
The council heard two petitions about last week's arrests, from former Senate candidate Jim Neal and from council member Laurin Easthom.
Neal called for an independent commission to review the police response and detainment of two reporters who were cuffed in plastic zip-ties and told to lie on the ground.
"I believe that the only way to bring this to resolution is to have independent eyes, third-party independent eyes to come in and evaluate the beginning and the end," Neal said. "This is not only in the best interest of the community, ... all of these people gathered here tonight, it's also in the best interest of the council and town management."
Council member Laurin Easthom submitted a petition calling for an apology to the reporters.
"We are not elected to be bureaucrats; we are elected to be leaders of the community," .she said, adding that freedom of the press is the cornerstone of democracy. "The detaining of these reporters is wrong."
'The loss of trust'
Some council members said the incident on Franklin Street has eroded public support of the town and police department.
"I am concerned about the loss of trust that this incident has precipitated. I share the concerns of many of you," said council member Sally Greene.
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward, who has served on the board for 12 years, agreed.
"I see that the issue before us, the reaction of the police force at the Yates building, has quickly eroded the trust that I know you folks have," he said. "To me it is significant enough that we need to be at least supportive of the need for a third-party investigation."
Council member Donna Bell said the town's review should be conducted through its new citizen advisory committee, which has some members appointed by the council, that reviews police conduct during specific incidents. "I don't think we should create new systems in reaction to an incident when there is already a system in place," Bell said.
Easthom's resolution failed 3-6 as the majority sent both her and Neal's petitions to town staff for review. Greene and Ed Harrison supported apologizing to the reporters Monday.
"I'm not going to support making a decision on any of these issues with one piece of information that at least requires three if not more," Kleinschmidt said. "I would like this to be referred to our manager and to our citizens review board and get their feedback on it."