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Occupy Chapel Hill: Police tactics debated even at small protest

November 15, 2011 |  3:03 pm

As Occupy Wall Street protests go, the Occupy Chapel Hill movement has to be one of the nation’s  smallest, quietest and least intrusive. Its camp consists of a dozen flimsy tents and a few polite young men and women who hand out leaflets outside the U.S. post office in downtown Chapel Hill, N.C.

But the unobtrusive Occupiers now find themselves in the middle of a heated debate over police tactics. 

Heavily armed officers raided a nest of 70 self-described "anti-capitalist occupiers" who took over an empty former car dealership a few blocks from the Occupy Chapel Hill camp. Police, who described the protesters as "anarchists," charged seven people Sunday with misdemeanor breaking and entering.

FULL COVERAGE: Occupy protests

The protesters were not armed, but a flier handed out by the group said: "Make no mistake: this occupation is illegal." A banner in the building read: "Stop Taking Orders -- Start Taking Over.’"

In a statement, Police Chief Chris Blue said his department deployed a tactical team armed with semiautomatic weapons "based on the known risks associated with anarchist groups [and] the tactics employed" inside the building. Blue said police found a bag of rocks and "flammable materials" inside.

In a statement Tuesday, Occupy Chapel Hill said it did not authorize or endorse the building takeover. But the group said the two movements’ memberships overlap, and some Occupy Chapel Hill members attended an "anarchist book fair" held over the weekend.

Occupy Chapel Hill said it was outraged and disappointed at the "disproportionate and disturbing use of force" by police. "Officers pointing automatic weapons at the heads and bodies of unarmed and peaceful individuals ... raises serious questions about who they are meant to serve and protect," the statement said.

The police actions also angered the News and Observer of Raleigh, which demanded an apology after a female staff reporter wearing press credentials was ordered to lie on the ground for 15 minutes, handcuffed and seated with protesters who had been detained. The newspaper said reporter Katelyn Ferral had been conducting interviews and taking photos outside the building.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt told the newspaper that he had asked the town manager to investigate. His statement came after a raucous news conference Monday in which the mayor and police chief were heckled by protesters bearing posters, one of which proclaimed: "Cops: Army of the 1%."

Mark Kleinschmidt told reporters Monday: "We had breaking and entering of private property downtown. The government has to respond."

Meanwhile, the Occupy Chapel Hill camp went about its usual quiet business Tuesday, displaying handouts and signs. The protest is across the street from a plaque, installed last month, commemorating those who successfully challenged a 1963 Speaker Ban Law that prohibited "communists" and leftists from speaking on the adjacent campus of the University of North Carolina.

Police said Occupy Chapel Hill would be allowed to continue its protest, which began in mid-October, as long as access to the post office isn’t blocked.

The plans of the "anti-capitalist occupiers" remained unclear, though the group’s statement suggested it would be heard from again. The protesters had hoped to convert the former car dealership into a free clinic, library, kitchen and child care center.

"We hope that this occupation can inspire others around the country," the statement said. "Strikes like the one in Oakland present one way forward; long-term building occupations may present another."     


PHOTOS: New York police clear Zuccotti Park

Occupy Wall Street camps are today's Hoovervilles

L.A. police chief says timeline in works to close Occupy L.A.

-- David Zucchino in Chapel Hill, N.C.