CARRBORO - Aldermen will meet with the police chief, both individually and at a future board meeting, to talk about the police response to last weekend’s “Guerrilla Gardening” event and other activist claims of police harassment.
Elizabeth Reeves and David Maliken, both Carrboro Commune members, asked the aldermen Tuesday night to prevent selective law enforcement, intimidation and surveillance that targets activists engaged in peaceful protests.
The Carrboro Police Department had 22 officers – more than half the town’s approximately 40-member force – at the March 17 event, which was a protest against a planned CVS store at the corner of Weaver and North Greensboro streets. Demonstrators lobbed wildflower “seed bombs” onto the property, planted herbs and other plants along the fence and chalked anti-capitalist slogans on the sidewalk and street.
In an interview, Police Chief Carolyn Hutchison stood by the response and the arrest of one participant on a misdemeanor charge of impeding traffic. She said criticism of the department’s response has stung.
“Yeah, absolutely, it hurts morale,” Hutchison said. “We continue to do the right thing. We focus on our roles and responsibilities as police officers and enforce the laws ... despite the lack of support.”
Carrboro Commune and some aldermen have criticized or questioned the arrest of Vincent Michael Gonzalez, 31, who was arrested for chalking in a traffic lane on West Weaver Street. Gonzalez was handcuffed and taken to a magistrate in Hillsborough before being released on a written promise to appear in court. He also must stay at least 100 feet from the West Weaver-North Greensboro street intersection until a judge changes that order.
Reeves said the arrest was a preemptive attempt “to demoralize the activists present and to make an example of one individual as a tactic of intimidation.” Police also have followed Carrboro Commune members in recent weeks and detained them to check their identification, she said.
Aldermen Dan Coleman and Sammy Slade said they want the board to discuss whether the police response was appropriate. Coleman said he also is concerned about the department’s relationships with other law enforcement agencies.
“We need to be thinking more broadly in terms of what’s appropriate for Carrboro, regardless of who the protesters are, and thinking back historically to some of the things that have gone on that we deplore in terms of how civil disobedience has been treated by the authorities,” Coleman said, noting, “we are the authorities.”
Slade said the group’s actions thus far don’t warrant a heavy police presence or surveillance, but he also thinks people shouldn’t assume Carrboro police might use the same violent tactics departments in other cities have used. In any case, the aldermen are accountable to the public, he said.
“If anyone in our community came to us and told us there was a police officer who was harassing or asking for documents when they had no right to do that, that would be problematic to me,” Slade said.‘In harm’s way’
Hutchison said she ordered Gonzalez’s arrest and takes responsibility for it. She said she wanted to make clear, as she had announced before the event, that protesters would be charged if they broke the law. But she said police also gave Gonzalez multiple warnings, which he ignored.
“I made the decision, because his behavior warranted it,” Hutchison said. “He placed himself in harm’s way, and I elected to stop him from doing that. I watched him look at the vehicles (and) remain stooped in the roadway. He had an opportunity (to move). He didn’t do it.”
Maliken, who also chalked the street during the protest, said Gonzalez was “clearly complying with the spirit of their request” by being just outside the crosswalk, and police did not stop or charge other people jaywalking in the area.
Police patrolled the surrounding block on foot and in vehicles during the event. Officers also videotaped and took photos of the roughly 50 participants and observers. The demonstrators also recorded the event.
“I’m really disturbed by the fact that there was a consistent presence of overwhelming force that was not only hostile to us the whole time, but that was clearly so overwhelming that they didn’t even know what to do,” Maliken said.
Lt. A.L. Westbrook II said the police response was based on history, especially after the occupations of the former WCOM community radio station on the CVS property in February and the Yates Motor Co. building in Chapel Hill last November. Some of the protesters at the Guerilla Gardening demonstration also participated in those events.
“We have to plan an appropriate response to the anticipation of something happening,” Westbrook said. “Law enforcement has been like that since law enforcement began. The absence of crime means we’re doing our job.”Return visit
Although CVS fenced in the site following the Carrboro Commune’s Feb. 4 occupation, the group chose to return to raise awareness of CVS’s plan and the broader influence of corporations in Chapel Hill-Carrboro and beyond, they said.
Mayor Mark Chilton said the group’s fliers did not indicate how serious people were about trespassing on the property or how many would show up, which is why the aldermen discussed the potential response a few days beforehand. The Chapel Hill and Carrboro occupations were illegal, while the “guerrilla gardening” could have gone either way, so it is unrealistic to expect the participants wouldn’t be investigated, he said.
Reeves and Maliken said the group never intended to trespass on CVS property. A flier for the event, though, was ambiguous in urging people to reclaim private property for the community: “Trespass, loiter, enter, beautify, ensonify, animate, cultivate, collectivize, occupy, decolonize, resist, open doors, unlock fences, free spaces,” it stated.
Alderwoman Jacqueline Gist said civil disobedience sometimes brings consequences and suggested the group talk with Hutchison about their concerns. Gist also plans to meet with Maliken and Hutchison.
“I do know that (Hutchison is) a very open person, who cares very deeply about this community, and if citizens are having issues, I think she would be very amendable to talk to people about what happened,” Gist said.
Coleman and Slade said the aldermen should talk with Hutchison before advising individuals to do so.
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