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Our Militarized Police

November 17, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Police in Chapel Hill, November 13, 2011

[Katelyn Ferral, kferral@newsobserver.com]

I got home from Chicago Monday night and woke up Tuesday to the news of Mayor Bloomberg and the New York City police clearing out Zuccotti Park of Occupy Wall Streeters. Then I read a reference to Chapel Hill and stumbled on the photo above, accompanying an article in Raleigh’s News & Observer about Chapel Hill police clearing Occupy Chapel Hill protesters from a vacant car dealership on Sunday afternoon. I’m tempted to say the photo speaks for itself and leave it at that. But in case more needs to be said — really, is this what it has come to? Has the militarization of our country reached the point where small-town police forces operate like domestic armies? Are there not more benign ways to clear unarmed people from a space, assuming there’s good reason to clear them?

From News & Observer reporters Katelyn Ferral and Mark Schultz we learn that

Officers brandishing guns and semi-automatic rifles rushed the building at about 4:30 p.m. They pointed weapons at those standing outside, and ordered them to put their faces on the ground. They surrounded the building and cleared out those who were inside.

About 13 people, including a New & Observer staff writer covering the demonstration, were forced to the ground and hand-cuffed.

Those who had been outside of the building at the time of the arrests – including N&O staffer Katelyn Ferral – were detained and then let go after their pictures were taken. Eight people inside the building were cuffed and put on a Chapel Hill Transit bus to be taken to the police station to be charged with misdemeanor breaking and entering.

“Along with facilitating citizens’ ability to exercise their constitutional rights, it is also a critical responsibility of all levels of government in a free society to respond when rights of others are being impinged upon,” Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said in a statement issued Sunday night.

“This weekend a group of protesters broke into and entered a privately owned building in downtown Chapel Hill. … The Town has an obligation to the property owners, and the Town will enforce those rights …”

Okay, go ahead. Enforce those rights. But with semi-automatic rifles?

The LA Times picked up the story Tuesday, with a link I might otherwise have missed to the statements of Chapel Hill’s mayor and police chief at a news conference Monday. Police Chief Chris Blue explained that the tactics used were “based on the known risks associated with anarchist groups.”

Those darn hippie anarchists. Meanwhile, the News & Observer requested an apology for the police behavior.

The News & Observer is seeking a public apology from the Town of Chapel Hill after one of its reporters was detained with protesters Sunday afternoon.

“She wasn’t doing anything illegal,” said John Drescher, N&O executive editor. “She was doing her job, and she identified herself as doing her job.”

Staff writer Katelyn Ferral arrived at the former Yates Motor Co. building at 419 W. Franklin St. about 4:30 p.m. to report on the occupation of the building.

Ferral was on the scene for approximately 15 minutes, interviewing people inside and walking around the site, when she heard demonstrators say police were gathering down the block.

When police approached the building, they ordered everyone to get on the ground, but they allowed Ferral to continue to shoot photographs. After a few more minutes they told Ferral to get on the ground as well.

Ferral told them she was a member of the media. She was wearing her press photo badge around her neck.

She remained face-down on the ground for about 15 minutes before she was cuffed with plastic zip ties and told to sit in a line with about 12 other people who had been detained.

After about 30 minutes police took her picture, took down her name, address, date of birth and drivers license number.

Ferral asked why she was being detained and was told that she was not on the bus with those charged with breaking and entering because she wasn’t inside the building.

Police told Ferral she would be arrested if she was caught on the premises again, Ferral said.

After she was released, Ferral was not allowed to take additional photographs and was told to go across the street.

During a press conference Monday, Police Chief Chris Blue said officers detained everyone that was either in the building or at the entrance. Ferral was treated like anyone else who was outside the front of the building, he said.

Meanwhile, back in New York … I was dumbfounded as I listened on Tuesday morning to the news of Zuccotti Park’s clearing at the matter of fact way NPR’s reporters gave the news. Is it really possible to talk about Mayor Bloomberg ordering the NYC police to empty the park without noting that Bloomberg is himself number 12 in Forbes’ list of the 400 richest people in America? Look, Bloomberg has done many good things with his money. (As a mathematician and one-time member of the Institute for Advanced Study, I’m especially fond of this.) But, I’ll say it again. He’s the 12th richest person in the US. He’s worth $20 billion, give or take. He bought himself the mayoralty of New York. In his eighth year as mayor, when faced with term limits, he had the law changed and bought himself a third term.

Maybe Bloomberg was a better choice than the alternatives. That’s not my point. My point is, this is no ordinary mayor. I don’t understand how his actions with respect to Occupy Wall Street can be described without reference to his wealth and its source. I don’t know how to take a news report seriously that doesn’t provide this context. I don’t know how to take NPR seriously. Any regular reader of Gail Collins knows that whenever she mentions Mitt Romney in her NYT columns, she provides a reminder that he drove the family to Canada on vacation with the family dog strapped to the roof of the car. I take her motivation to be that you can’t understand anything about Romney without knowing this. Surely a similar rule should apply to Bloomberg. No story should be written about his actions, especially those related to Occupy Wall Street, without a reminder that he’s the twelfth richest person in America, and yes, that he made his fortune on Wall Street.

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