An Open Letter to the Town Council
Re: About last night’s Council meeting, and my statement from last night, (Monday January 9) regarding the Yates incident.
At the bottom of this message is the text from my statement last night, with a few additional lines I had omitted to save time. I encourage you to read this whole message, as I and many others felt frustrated last night, after issuing our statements and as the Council was deliberating, unable to respond to or correct the circuitous discussion between council members, Chief Blue, Mr. Stancil, Mayor Kleinschmidt, and Attorney Karpinos.
I want to congratulate the Council on two tremendous resolutions, regarding the Northside neighborhood and regarding corporate personhood. I am however highly disappointed that, despite many on the Council having acknowledged the numerous inconsistencies, unanswered questions, and omitted facts in the Manager’s review and the Police Chief’s report, and despite numerous citizens articulately making the case for this independent task force, you did not pass this task force petition. How many in our community spoke in its favor last night – twelve? Thirteen? Public support of the police’s actions and Stancil’s report were represented by only two individuals – one father to a police officer, and one former police officer; surely there are more who share their opinions, but their convictions are not strong enough to compel them to come to the Council and air their thoughts, as many of us on the other side of these issues did.
As was made clear in the last Community Police Advisory Committee meeting, this committee is not equipped or tasked to conduct an investigation – only to make recommendations to the town and the police. I read a quotation of chairman Ron Bogle to you last night – a quotation also published in the Independent Weekly – but some of you did not listen: “If you expect this board to conduct a complete, thorough investigative review of police procedures and processes, we are probably not equipped to do that. We don’t possess the professional expertise or the resources to do that job in a thorough way.” A video of that CPAC meeting is available online at http://youtu.be/5BujnEMSmdw. As Jim Neal reiterated last night, most or all of us are in full support of the CPAC, but we assert that a parallel, independent task force – unbiased by the Council liaison, Donna Bell, unbiased by the police liaison, Chief of Police Chris Blue, unbiased by the Council-appointed members of this committee. In bringing to your attention what the committee has said about its function and lack of resources, I was hoping to illustrate how the CPAC is no substitute for an independent review, but council members Donna Bell, Matt Czajkowski, and Gene Pease, and Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, either failed to comprehend this functional difference, or simply refused to acknowledge it.
I want to thank Councilman Storrow and Councilwoman Easthom for their pertinent questioning of Chief Blue, Manager Stancil, and Mayor Kleinschmidt. Councilwoman Bell, you claimed that none of us had raised questions of the review, that we had only complained and called the town report “lame,” when many of us, and some of your fellow council members, had posed numerous relevant questions. For example, Mr. Storrow pressed Chief Blue on Alderman Dan Coleman’s assertion – an assertion that was brought to light by a community speaker last night – that there was in fact a civil, lengthy discussion between a police officer and members of the Yates occupation on Sunday, November 13, prior to the SERT raid. This important fact – confirmed last night by Chief Blue – had been completely left off the report, which claimed that the police had tried, unsuccessfully, to address the squatters. A civil and lengthy conversation – a conversation in which, reportedly, the officer gave no mention of the impending SERT raid – does not sound like an unsuccessful attempt at communication. Blue writes many times, this time in Attachment 11, that “our sole attempt to approach the building was cut short when assistant Chief Vereen was confronted and partially surrounded by masked subjects.” I don’t need to point out that this written statement by the Police Chief is in direct contradiction of his admission last night that an officer engaged in a real conversation with several of the squatters that Sunday morning.
I also want to thank Councilman Ward and Councilman Harrison for their acknowledgment that the inconsistencies of this report merit an independent review. But I disagree, Mr. Ward, that Jim Neal is biased; any person tasked with forming this commission will have opinions – what is important is that this person (and those appointed to be on the commission) is not under the employ of the Town: not a government official, employee, and not a police officer, former police officer, or legal counsel to the police. Jim Neal, while opinionated as anyone would be, has no interest in preserving the reputation of the town government or the CHPD by nature of simply not being employed by either organization. Thus, he fits the bill as independent. Still, Mr. Neal, and myself and I imagine most or all of the task force supporters, would be happy for someone else to be in charge of forming this task force.
Councilwoman Rich, I was happy to see that you supported the idea of an independent task force – you recognized the inconsistencies of Stancil’s review – and I wish you had followed through with that support. I believe that we as citizens could come back to the next Council meeting with a complete list of the inconsistencies, unanswered questions, and omissions from the Town review, and with a clearly defined description of an independent task force and how it would work, and win over your vote, thus gaining at least a 5-4 majority. I personally will not be doing this – I will instead, along with others, be uncovering the mistakes and falsehoods of Stancil’s review, and Blue’s report, and presenting real, confirmed anecdotes from others involved whose voices were not considered in the construction of the Town and Police conclusions. At a later date, we will be publicly airing these findings and will invite all local media to cover this event.
But, for the record, I would now like to point out one glaring error on the part of our police, an error that Chief Blue repeats in his report, and an error on which the decision to deploy the SWAT team was based. This is an error in interpretation of the pamphlet handed out by the squatters to passersby (Attachment 3). The reference to Occupy Oakland on which Chief Blue puts so much weight is one photo of a banner stating “Occupy Everything” in a window. Additionally, a blog post by “trianarchy” (from Attachments 4 and 5) included one description of that night in the Yates building, when the occupants had a dance party (I can think of worse things), and in the background, projected on the wall, were images including scenes from Oakland, where protesters broke the windows of big banks. Does the screening of a video, and the reprinting of a photo of a banner, indicate malicious intent? If I have people over to my house to watch a murder mystery, am I advocating murder? Blue horribly misinterpreted the language on this pamphlet. While Blue claims that the pamphlet deems peaceful occupations ineffective, this pamphlet in fact proposes that peaceful occupations are possible remedies to “speaking truth to power,” which has failed. It is idle speech that they were questioning, and peaceful occupations for which they were advocating. This is why they peacefully occupied the building. Blue has come to a conclusion that is fundamentally opposite to the primary intent of the building’s occupiers. Is proposing an occupation of an old, abandoned building, with plans for a library and media center, an art studio, child care, a stage, yoga classes, a welcome center – a demonstration that peaceful occupations don’t work? The squatters write, “we offer this building as an experiment, a possible way forward.” Those are not the words of activists who think they need to attack police or overturn their cars. Those are the words of activists who are sick of requests and demands falling flat, activists who believe in action, like turning a decaying eyesore into a hub for community, self-betterment, art, music, exercise, and education. Blue’s numerous references to this pamphlet (Attachment 3) and two other attachments that include the “trianarchy” description and reprint the text from this pamphlet (Attachments 4 and 5), and his tactical decisions based on his misinterpretation of these publications, should be discounted, as they are based on his own incorrect conclusions of the language.
I’ve written enough. I sincerely hope that you council members – while some of you disagree with me – will think about why I, a Durham resident, someone who wasn’t at the Yates building that weekend, someone without any close friends held at gunpoint that afternoon, would take the time to attend two council meetings, give a statement at one of them, attend the CPAC meeting, write lengthy emails like this one, and scour the town review and police report in the two or three days we had to read it between its release and the council meeting last night. It is because I, alongside many other community members, was shocked, horrified, disgusted, and terrified by the SWAT raid on November 13 – so much so, that it has hindered my sleep, it has taken me away from my dissertation writing, it has monopolized countless conversations I’ve had with friends and family. Some of you know that in order to regain the trust of your constituents, you’re going to have to endorse an independent task force – or at least, after we have done our work, acknowledge the failings of the internal review and the merits of our discoveries. Much like the Occupy movement, whose influence is still – amazingly – discounted by its objectors, I think you underestimate the amount of community mistrust that originally resulted from the SERT deployment, but also a great deal from your failure to address it appropriately, and your endorsement of the one-sided, incomplete, often factually incorrect review by Manager Stancil and Police Chief Blue. I think you underestimate how your lack of action will play out next time you are up for reelection. I applaud council members like Ms. Easthom and Mr. Storrow for daring to speak out against the internal workings of the government which employs them, and the police force that is supposed to serve and protect us all. Down the road, when police militarization reaches a point of climax, a point of utter tragedy, and this trend is finally reversed, members of government like those who supported the independent investigation will be remembered for having been on the right side.
If you’ve read this far, I appreciate that you care enough to do so, whether or not you agree with my position. Below is the text from my statement last night.
January 10, 2012
I am here tonight to talk about the SERT unit deployed on the Yates building on November 13. But I’m also here tonight to talk about a greater trend, across this country, of increased militarization of the police post-9/11, of police brutality, of excessive show, and sometimes use, of force. I am here tonight because I grew up in this town. And when strolling down Franklin Street, I felt safe. But Chapel Hill is not that town I naively thought it was when I was younger. I’m here tonight because Chapel Hill is a town that deploys 21 police officers in riot gear, armed with assault rifles and extra clips, to remove a handful of peaceful squatters from a building that had been abandoned for ten years. It’s a town that, upon widespread criticism, appoints its own manager to conduct an internal review, relying entirely on police and government officials to take responsibility for their own actions. And now, after the Manager’s predictably positive review of these events, it’s a town that leaves itself open to more inappropriate SWAT raids, and who knows what else.
In the last year, I’ve followed the militarization of the police. I’ve read about a 12-ton armored tank rolled out in Tampa, Florida. I’ve read about military drone planes used to apprehend cattle thieves in North Dakota. On YouTube, I’ve watched an officer hurl a tear gas canister into a crowd of Occupy Oakland protesters, fracturing the skull and swelling the brain of an Iraq war veteran. I’ve watched officers bludgeon students and professors at UC Berkeley. Most chilling was the video of Officer John Pike, calmly spraying liters of blinding pepper spray into the faces of student protesters, sitting peacefully on the ground at UC Davis. Even an 84-year-old woman was pepper sprayed in Seattle. This is all part of a national trend of excessive use of force, and intimidation to preclude future protests.
Police Chief Blue and Manager Stancil applaud the forces for not injuring or killing anyone. But what masquerades as self-praise to deflect criticism is actually a huge sigh of relief. What if one of the squatters had reached for a cell phone from a front pocket? What if someone had fought back? Would one of those many assault rifles have been fired? Just the other day, police shot and killed a 15-year-old 8th grader in Texas, who carried an air pistol. Shouldn’t all this military training instruct officers to subdue a kid without killing him? In Britain, cops aren’t allowed to carry guns. Here, in a small college town, we deploy SWAT teams.
In light of the positive review, Chief Blue said on WCHL that if he could go back in time, he would have made the same call again. Stancil’s internal review has encouraged more of these same drastic paramilitary tactics. In looking forward, Blue said he doesn’t know if the recently formed Community Police Advisory Board will change the way the police make decisions. At the request of the Manager, this committee will be purely advisory in nature. Committee chairman Ron Bogle said in last month’s CPAC meeting that they don’t possess the professional expertise or the resources to conduct a thorough, investigative review. Ms. Bell, you said in the November 21 council meeting that the CPAC would be accomplishing the same goal as an independent, investigative task force; as you can see, this is not at all the case. I fully support the CPAC; however, Council, it is no substitute for an external review, and it won’t regain for you political credibility, or the trust of your citizens.
At the Yates building, in addition to seven squatters, police arrested a 63-year-old woman, a bystander who never entered the building. Two credentialed journalists were detained, and prevented from doing their jobs. Is this an operation that the town wants to condone?
When I was growing up, I was taught that admitting one’s mistakes allows one to learn from them, and establish trust. Councilmembers, this is a chance for the government and the law enforcement to regain the trust of its citizens, not to lose even more of it. This is a chance for Chapel Hill to be an example to the whole country, to recognize the militarization of the police, and the rampant, dangerous misuse of force that’s only becoming more and more frequent. Would you want your children to be met with assault rifles, to be pushed to the ground and handcuffed, if they, unarmed, had committed a misdemeanor, and were preparing for the morning teach-in, or the afternoon yoga class, or the evening film screening at their new occupation of a long-abandoned building? The right thing is an independent investigation of what happened, not an internal review led by the very people whose decisions are under question. Do the right thing, for your constituents. What has become a growing bruise on the town could turn into something positive for the whole nation, if you let it.