The arrest of a local activist at a protest on UNC campus last night marked a turning point in what had been until that point a largely conflict-free protest.
But around eight p.m., when officers took Greg Williams, of Durham, into custody, leading him away from the crowd, hundreds of protesters followed and found themselves face to face with cops in tactical gear. And it all started because Williams, one of three people arrested, was wearing a bandana over part of his face.
It is against state law for a person “wearing any mask, hood or device whereby the person, face or voice is disguised so as to conceal the identity of the wearer, enter, or appear upon or within the public property of any municipality or county of the State, or of the State of North Carolina.” Rules posted up by the university near the Confederate Silent Sam statue where the protest began also cited this statute.
Prior to his arrest, the crowd had been gathered around Silent Sam, chanting, listening to speakers, and engaging in scattered arguments with people wearing Trump gear or holding signs opposing the removal of the statue.
In a video taken by AJ Janavel, with CBS North Carolina, officers can be heard telling Williams, “You can’t cover your face.” As they tried to take Williams into custody, he said, “I’m not trying to run, I’m trying to take it off.”
As officers took Williams into custody, the crowd rushed after them to Hyde Hall, where a stream of officers in riot gear was coming out of the door. For demonstrators, one of their own had just been taken away in an unnecessary escalation of force and affront to their personal safety. For police, they were facing a crowd calling them out not only as the protectors of a symbol of white supremacy but a cog in the larger machine that upholds it.
“Why are you in riot gear? We don’t see no riot here,” protesters chanted in one of several confrontations with officers that punctuated the evening.
From there, the crowd blocked the police transport van carrying Williams as it tried to turn onto Franklin Street, setting off another tense moment with police and the arrest of UNC student Claud Wilson, who was charged with resisting arrest.
“Above subject was arrested for preventing a police vehicle from retreating from the crowd and pushing away officers when he was told to move,” an arrest report reads. “Subject was arrested and Ofc. Jeffreys loaded into a Orange County transport van. That was blocked by the crowd. After clearing the crowd the van went straight to the magistrate’s office for fear of the crowd following us to the PD.”
Protesters then sat on the sidewalk in front of the driveway where the van was located and refused to move until Wilson and Williams were released. Officers physically moved the seated protesters and the crowd was pushed back into Franklin Street, which was closed off. Demonstrators screamed, and at least one person was knocked to the ground.
Videos taken at the scene show protesters and officers pushing each other and officers trying to move protesters who were either seated or in the street.
See a deputy take a boxer’s stance at 0:59 of this video.
Arrest reports for Williams and another man charged last night, Kenny Grabarczyk, of Graham, were not immediately available. According to UNC police, Grabarczyk was charged with having a knife on campus.
UNC police was the lead agency for police response on campus property, while Chapel Hill PD had jurisdiction on town streets. A call to Chapel Hill police chief Chris Blue was not immediately returned, and a spokesperson said no one with UNC police was available for an interview this afternoon.
“While UNC has facilitated rallies in this area of campus in the past and continues to review best practices,” the university said in a statement Tuesday, “given the tragic events which recently unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, UNC is using all resources to ensure the safety of the UNC community, prevent property damage, and facilitate a peaceful rally.”
Students Tim Osborn and Tahj Warren said they think the law enforcement response to the protest escalated the situation.
“If you see officers in riot gear with a hand on their gun, that’s going to make you scared,” said Osborn.
Osborn and Warren were among a handful of protesters who remained gathered at Silent Sam around noon today. Both stayed overnight. They said the crowd died down after eleven p.m., and by two a.m. there were about seven people left. In the early morning hours, they talked with each other and officers still standing guard around Silent Sam to stay awake.
“When you’re doing those chants, you’re chanting about the system,” Osborn said.
“They’re people, and I respect that like any other person. They need to provide for themselves. It’s a job,” said Warren, who added that she saw an African-American officer posted up around the statue chanting along with the crowd earlier. But, she says, the officers signaled what their values are by protecting the statue.
They want to see Silent Sam taken down and aren’t particular about how. UNC can either take the lead in addressing the issue, “or they could stand by while the students and the public take care of a racist problem on campus,” Osborn said.
“I just want it down,” said Warren. “If they want to go ahead and do it and make themselves feel good, that’s great.”
Silent Sam is protected by a state law that prohibits moving “objects of remembrance” without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission. As Governor Cooper told UNC Monday, there is a public safety exemption to that law.
“If our University leaders believe there is real risk to public safety, the law allows them to take immediate measures.,” Cooper told the school. Osborn and Warren say it’s clear from the number of people who protested the statue Tuesday and the number of police covering the event that Silent Sam poses a safety risk.
But the university, which has said repeatedly that it would remove the statue if it could, doesn’t think the public safety exemption to the 2015 law applies here because the statute says a building inspector or similar official should determine if there is a safety risk.
“They’re saying their hands are tied,” said UNC graduate Maggie Pinner. “If you want something done, untie your own hands.”