When Being "the Man" Ain't So Easy: Satyagraha, Yates Motors and the Greensboro Massacre
I spent most of Sunday afternoon out at the Haw River just outside the mill village of Swepsonville about five miles upstream of Saxapahaw. I managed to enjoy most of my time out there even though I was there was because I have been having trouble there with trespassers. The land I own out there is the hydro-electric power plant that formerly powered the cotton mill in Swepsonville.
My hydro-electric plant has been out of operation for about 40 years and the windows in the building are almost completely broken out. Inside the building are huge, deep holes in the floor where the generators once sat atop the turbines. I have been gradually working on making the interior of the building safer by covering over the huge holes in the floor, but the building is definitely not a safe place for unwary visitors.
To get to my land I use my neighbor's driveway pursuant to a private easement that came with the land when I bought it. My neighbor is gracious about my use of the easement, but it upsets him when fishermen and others cut across his land to go fishing on my property. There's no public access to the Haw at my land, though Swepsonville Park is open to the public about a mile further upstream.
On a recent visit my neighbor complained that people were constantly trespassing on his land in order to access mine, so I knew I had to do something about the situation. It's a huge headeache for my neighbor and it's a serious liability issue for me as well. I had already installed a fence and a padlocked gate (upon orders from my insurance company), but determined trespassers have broken the gate and lock several times before. So reluctantly, I went out there Sunday and boarded up the gate.
Inside the building I was appalled to discover that someone had broken in and stolen a can of spray paint that I had previously used to paint "No Trespassing" signs all over the place. Whoever-it-was spraypainted graffitti inside my building - and worse yet wrote obscene messages on the natural rock outcroppings beside the mill. I really hate having to be so unfriendly to those who want to visit the Haw River - an activity that I enjoy so much myself, but my neighbor and my insurance company insist that I keep these people out. And I absolutely cannot abide whatever jackass was spraypainting the rock outcropping.
While I was boarding up the windows of the building, my cell phone rang at about 3:30 PM. It was the Acting Town Manager of Carrboro, calling to consult with me on a difficult situation. The Town of Chapel Hill had contacted the Carrboro Police Department to request assistance under the terms of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Mutual Aid Agreement. CHPD was preparing to remove some trespassers from the Yates Motor Company Building and wanted the Carrboro Police Department to provide back up.
Immediately, I was concerned. Removing protesters from a building can be a tricky thing and I was already aware that the protesters included some avowed anarchists who live in Chapel Hill. Some of these same folks had been involved in the "riot" (or whatever it was) at Greenbridge a few months ago, and some of these same people were apparently part of a vocal minority within the Occupy Chapel Hill General Assembly. I had heard about them second hand from others at the OCHGA who had been disgusted by this splinter group's insistence that non-violence should not be adopted as a goal - that non-violence was but one tactic of many, but not an end unto itself.
I told the Town Manager that I was reluctant to have Carrboro PD involved because I thought the situation could go badly, but I was also concerned that a Mutual Aid Agreement is a two way street. If Carrboro declines to assist Chapel Hill in an ugly situation, then how will that come back to haunt us when we are the ones in a bad spot, calling upon Chapel Hill for assistance.
In all of this, I have very little sympathy for Joe Riddle, the Fayetteville zillionaire who has left the former Yates Motor Co. building vacant for approaching a decade. Some of his actions have helped downtown Chapel Hill (eg the Top of the Hill Building), while others evince a lack of concern for Chapel Hill. On the other hand, I've never so much as met the man. But the law does not allow the Town of Chapel Hill to decide to enforce some laws while not enforcing others.
This was not a situation that would be easy to deal with for any Mayor, but I found it especially difficult because I don't believe in the use of violence. As a young adult my hero was not an athlete or actor or politician; my hero was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And from Dr. King's life I had learned of the power of non-violence. As I grew older I learned from reading Dr. King's writings that he was not the progentitor of the non-violent resistance movement. Dr. King drew his inspriation from Mohandas Gandhi (Mahatma is an honorific term, not his first name). Through Dr. King, I learned the Gujarathi word that Gandhi coined for his political/philosophical/moral theory of social change: Satyagraha.
Satyagraha is the combination of two words of ancient Sanskrit origin. Satya means 'truth' and agraha means 'insistence' though neither word translates perfectly into just one English word. Gandhi explained what Satyagraha means: "Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence." The point of Satyagraha is that meaningful and lasting social change can only come from non-violence - or more accurately from non-violent resistance to injustice.
As the United States is once again proving right now in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are very capable of bringing about change in the world through violence. But what kind of change is it? Thousands upon thousands have died and what problems have been solved? And what problems have been created? As a nation we have exacted our vengence for 9/11, but we have only inspired more people to hate us. As Gandhi so famously put it, "An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind."
Believing in Satyagraha is more than just pacifism, more than just non-violence. It's about more than just being non-violent in the way you carry out your personal affairs. Satyagraha is the use of non-violence to bring about social change - the use of interpersonal non-violence to bring an end to the injustice of organizational violence (corporate, governmental or what have you). It was Satyagraha that brought an end to England's Imperialist rule in India, to Jim Crow in the Southern United States, and to Apartheid in South Africa.
I don't mean to be self-righteous or pie-in-the-sky in discussing the power of Satyagraha. I mean to be very practical and down to earth, because my belief in Satyagraha causes me real-life problems. It's all fine and well to sit around saying that I don't believe in violence, but a long time ago I decided to pursue non-violent social change through local government. Yet, as a local elected official, I am responsible for operating our town police department. And police departments ultimately draw their power from the legally sanctioned use of violence (or the potential thereof).
Yet Gandhi wrote: "Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatsoever." It would be both extraodinarily difficult (and exceedingly unpopular) to run a Police Department based on a literal reading of that principle. There are some people who must be handled with force in order to protect the lives of others. An extreme (but very real) example would be Wendell Williamson, who in 1995 walked down Henderson Street in Chapel Hill shooting a hunting rifle at everyone in sight. He shot a Chapel Hill Police Officer in the hand and killed 42-year old local waiter Ralph Walker and 20 year old UNC Lacrosse player Kevin Reichardt before being subdued.
Even if a Police Department could be run on the principle of Satyagraha, it would probably be illegal to do so. You see, when I get re-inaugurated next month, I will, as I have six times before, put my hand on the Bible and take a solemn oath to "uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States and the laws and Constitution of North Carolina, not inconsistent therewith." And all Police Officers in North Carolina take an even more specific oath to uphold and enforce the laws of North Carolina. We can't turn a blind eye, or protest non-violently against the wrongdoing of criminals.
So what is a Satyagraha-believing Mayor to do? I wish I had a grand philosophical resolution of this dilemma, but I don't. Instead I take a down-to-earth approach which I imagine that Gandhi himself would not entirely support. I take the view that my belief in Satyagraha compels me to work non-violently for social change, while still being prepared to use force to uphold the law. When a law is unjust, I uphold that law as Mayor, while non-violently struggling to change the law to something more just.
After some extensive discussions, standing on the edge of the turbine pit in the powerhouse, I advised the Manager to send our officers as back-up only. I wanted Carrboro to assist, but not to be directly involved - unless the whole thing erupted into some kind of bona fide riot, in which case the Carrboro PD was to assist in restoring order. The Manager agreed that this was a wise approach. I asked him when the operation was to be carried out, but he did not know anything more specific than that it was to be that same day.
Autumn is advancing rapidly now and it gets dark by 6 PM. I guessed that CHPD would prefer to carry out their plan before dark. It was already 4 PM when I hung up my cell, so if I was correct then CHPD would be on the move soon. Concerned for everyone involved, I jumped in my car to head back to town. I had a 25 minute drive back from Swepsonville to think over the whole situation.
Though I knew this situation was unlikely to unfold in a truly awful manner, my mind kept turning to a time when North Carolinians at the very extreme fringes of the political spectrum made a point of telling the world that they were willing to use violence to accomplish their objectives. The terrible events of November 3, 1979 have been well documented by the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In short, that day members of the Communist Workers Party staged their "Death to the Klan March" in the Morningside neighborhood in Greensboro. Extreme rhetoric had been thrown around in the months leading up to Nov 3rd including a public challenge from the Communists to the Ku Klux Klan to attend the march and "face the wrath of the people." The Greensboro Police Department was shamefully absent from this well-publicized and obviously tense event. Members of the KKK and the American Nazi Party took the Communists up on their offer and drove up and opened fire on the marchers. The Communists returned fire. Before it was all done, five people lay dead on the streets of Greensboro.
Obviously, I was confident that the CHPD would not seek out that kind of confrontation, but still I worried about how the CHPD would handle the situation, about how some of the protesters might respond, about how the Carrboro Police could potentially be drawn into things if the situation went badly. I knew that no matter how it went there would be a lot of second-guessing afterwards and that there would inevitably be conflicting reports about just what happened. So I decided to drive straight down to West Franklin Street to witness whatever might unfold between 4:30 and sunset so that I would not have to rely entirely on others' accounts of what happened.
Of course, I didn't want to get in the way of either the protesters or the police, so I went to Tallulah's restaurant to order a cup of hot tea and observe what was happening across the street and a few doors down at Yates Motor Company. I was just inside the restaurant ordering my cup of tea, when shouting on the street drew me and a waiter outside to see what was going on. About two dozen police officers were descending on the building shouting "Get down on the ground! Everyone get down!" I paused on the sidewalk in front of Tallulah's to judge whether it would be safe to move closer.
There were about 8 protesters outside the building in the driveway and they all readily complied with police orders, lying face down on the ground. I judged it safe to walk down to UNC's Accounting Office at 440 West Franklin directly across from Yates Motors for a better view. I watched as the officers used plastic zip ties to handcuff the people lying on the ground.
I was surprised to see that several of the officers were toting assault rifles, as that seemed like a greater show of force than necessary (though I am no expert on such matters). So far as I could see the assault rifles were being held with their barrels pointed high in the air, away from humans, though the dramatic photo in Monday's News and Observer clearly shows that some of those rifles were at times pointed at people.
There were a few officers decked out in helmets. Most (all?) police officers routinely wear Kevlar under-vests even on routine patrol, so i am sure they were all wearing at least that, but the helmeted officers were wearing some other sorts of protective gear, perhaps a heavier grade of Kevlar - I'm not sure. I remember seeing perhaps 6 officers in that sort of garb, though there were many other more regularly uniformed officers there as well.
A crowd began to gather around me as I watched the scene unfold. I could see (poorly) through the windows that there were officers inside dealing with more protestors. Soon another 6 or 8 people were paraded out into the driveway in zip-tie handcuffs and loaded onto an out-of-service Chapel Hill Transit bus to be taken before a Magistrate. Initially the the crowd around me on the north side of the street was taking photographs and shooting video of the scene, but soon the crowd grew to 30 or 40 people right there, most of whom were soon jeering the police. That part of the story has been well told in recent press accounts.
All this transpired without anyone being injured, thank God. And I assume that weapons were not found inside the building (as we would have heard about that in the papers if they had). All of the people arrested at Yates Motors were born after 1979 and it could well be that some or all of them have never even heard of the Greensboro Massacre. I'd guess that some of you reading this post hadn't heard of it before today either. But trust me, every cop in our community knows at least something about what happened that day, if only because it was such an object lesson about the dangers of police inaction.
Ultimately, I am not sure what to think about Sunday's events. The events I witnessed were not what I would have hoped for, not the way I would have handled a similar situation in Carrboro. Yet I did not see anything that was outside the standard and legally authorized use of police power. I was every bit as concerned for the safety of the police officers as I was for the safety of the protesters. When police go into a situation where there is some plausible reason to believe that they might meet armed resistance, they have to come prepared for the maximum level of resistance that is within the realm of plausibility.
I am sure we will all take away various lessons from this experience. For me, it shows why Satyagraha is so powerful. Our community finds itself deeply divided over how this situation went down. How differently Chapel Hill might have been able to deal with this situation had it been more clear that the protesters were committed to non-violence! Part of the power of Satyagraha comes from the fact that if CHPD had dealt with expressly non-violent protesters in the same way, then far more people in our community would have sympathy for the protesters. Changing the minds of those not involved in the protest - convincing more people to join in your resistance - swaying public opinion to your understanding of justice - that's the whole point of protest. As a protester, the best way to bring more people to your side of the debate is through non-violence.
Now I fear that Sunday's display of force from CHPD will entrench many of the protesters in their rejection of non-violence as a basic organizing principle. And who knows how some of them may prepare for the next time? This is what Dr. King meant when he so famously said "Violence begets violence." Each new act of violence only encourages the other side to escalate. And where does it all end? And what does it all accomplish?
I write all this partly to give you a more complete picture of what happened last Sunday afternoon, but I also write this in large part to say to my fellow agents of social change: Expressly reject violence. Do not give the police a reason to use violence (or even the immediate threat of violence) in response to our advocacy. Many Police Departments may still respond with excessive force, but when they do they will be the ones who lose public support. Their use of excessive force would then be morally unambiguous, even in the eyes of those who do not entirely support your point of view.
That was how Mahatma Gandhi, Doctor King, Bishop Tutu, Cesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel helped to change the world. Their actions prove that Satyagraha, expressly non-violent resistance, can and does defeat the thing that should be the common enemy of all advocates for social change: Violence in all its forms.