Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

25 Police Commandos Armed with Military Assault Weapons Arrest 8 Peaceful ‘Occupy’ Protesters in Chapel Hill, N.C.

By looking at these photos, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were taken during last weekend’s massive police and military raid on one of Rio de Janeiro’s most infamous drug lord-controlled (until now) slums. But no, this raid– conducted by at least 25 police commandos armed with military assault weapons– happened in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. What momentous public safety threat warranted such shock-and-awe? It turns out a group of eight anti-capitalist protesters from an offshoot of ‘Occupy Chapel Hill’ decided to occupy a vacant building. That’s it.

According to the News & Observer and The Raw Story, a police tactical team stormed the former Chrysler dealership and forced 13 people, including a News & Observer reporter, to lie face-down on the ground where they were then handcuffed. Eight people were arrested and charged with misdemeanor breaking and entering. The protesters, who ‘Occupy Chapel Hill’s’ website described as “some autonomous anti-capitalist occupiers” not directed by the main camp’s general assembly, had plans to convert the building, which has been vacant for more than a decade, into a multi-use space that would possibly include a free clinic, a kitchen, child care, a library and dormitories.

A statement issued by Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said: “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.”

The group that occupied the vacant building wrote this on ‘Occupy Chapel Hill’s’ website:

“All across the US thousands upon thousands of commercial and residential spaces sit empty while more and more people are forced to sleep in the streets, or driven deep into poverty while trying to pay rent that increases without end. Chapel Hill is no different: this building has sat empty for years, gathering dust and equity for a lazy landlord hundreds of miles away, while rents in our town skyrocket beyond any service workers’ ability to pay them, while the homeless spend their nights in the cold, while gentrification makes profits for developers right up the street.”

It is understandable that police would raid and arrest protesters who’ve occupied private property, even if it is vacant and even if those who support the ‘Occupy’ movement (present company included) believe that authorities ought to be arresting the Wall Street banksters instead of peaceful protesters. But the detention of journalists is an unacceptable practice that has, unfortunately, been increasing in frequency as the ‘Occupy’ movement continues. Journalists have been arrested covering ‘Occupy’ news in Atlanta, Nashville, Milwaukee, Richmond, VA and, most recently, in New York at this morning’s NYPD eviction raid on the original ‘Occupy Wall Street’ encampment in Lower Manhattan.

When Chapel Hill Mayor Kleinschmidt decries the impinging of rights, he would do well to consider respecting reporters’ First Amendment press freedom rights. The same goes for any other authorities anywhere in this country who are ignoring or giving short shrift to journalists’ and protesters’ constitutional rights to freedom of speech, assembly and press.

As for the use of military-style commandos to terrorize unarmed, peaceful protesters, such imagery will only boost support for the ‘Occupy’ movement. Imagery is everything. Photos and newsreel footage of Southern cops brutalizing blacks and those whites who dared stand up for their civil rights in the 1960s turned public opinion in favor of equality. Nightly footage of the carnage in Vietnam likewise helped turned the tide against that heinous war. In  this modern world of 24-hour news cycles and ubiquitous social media, images are more important and powerful than ever. Those who would unleash commandos on those of us standing up to corporate greed and economic inequality would do well to think twice. The whole world really is watching, and those who aim to crush the ‘Occupy’ movement are on the wrong side of history.

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