One year ago today, Sonia Katchian and seven other members of Occupy Chapel Hill were staring down the ends of assault weapons.
The Chapel Hill Police Department’s Special Emergency Response Team, or SERT, arrested the eight at the Yates Motor Company building, responding to a takeover of the building at 419 W. Franklin St. by Occupy Chapel Hill.
Sequence of events surrounding the Occupy movement
A regional offshoot of the national Occupy Wall Street movement, Occupy Chapel Hill set up on Peace and Justice Plaza on Franklin Street in fall 2011 and remained there into 2012. Member galvanization peaked after the November 2011 raid.
- Sept. 17, 2011 — Occupy Wall Street kicks off, moving into Zucotti Park in New York
- Oct. 15, 2011 — Occupy Chapel Hill begins its occupation of Peace and Justice Plaza on Franklin Street
- Nov. 13, 2011 — Raid on the abandoned Yates Motor Company building after Occupy Chapel Hill moved in
- Jan. 10, 2012 — Occupy Chapel Hill leaves Peace and Justice Plaza
- March 17, 2012 — The Carrboro Commune, a spin-off of Occupy Chapel Hill, protests at a proposed CVS site
The incident was a defining moment for the local branch of Occupy; residents and protesters alike were caught off-guard by the police’s heavy response.
“It galvanized the movement,” Katchian said. “And it brought into great contrast who we are, and what we’re fighting against systemically.”
Since the raid, the town has worked to regain residents’ trust. Chapel Hill police rewrote some policies in their department to be more clear, and a Community Policing Advisory Committee was formed.
Katchian, a photojournalist, said she was with Occupy Chapel Hill all the way, from the beginning to its end as a centralized movement.
Occupy Chapel Hill moved out of Peace and Justice Plaza on Jan. 10, and faded from the public eye soon after. But activists in Occupy said this was not the end of their activities.
“Because we’re not out there on the streets with placards, it seems like we have faded into the background,” Katchian said.
By late March, general assembly minutes on Occupy Chapel Hill’s website show an average attendance of about three.
Alanna Davis, a former Occupy Chapel Hill member and UNC senior, said that was right about the time when smaller, issue-oriented groups began to emerge.
After the raid, Davis helped found Carrboro Commune, a group that protested a proposed CVS Pharmacy at 201 N. Greensboro St. in Carrboro.
“The dialogue of reclaiming space and police reaction was really central at that point,” she said.
And Katchian said she began working with the Chapel Hill Prison Books Collective, which collects and donates books to inmates.
Both women said they would not have pursued these groups had they not met like-minded people through Occupy.
“The community-building is really the cornerstone of it,” Davis said.
Davis also said it was hard to keep Occupy’s political activism going in the summertime.
Occupy Chapel Hill’s fracturing is not uncommon for local branches of the movement. Bryan Perlmutter, a senior at N.C. State University, said the same happened with Occupy NCSU.
“The name may not be there as much, but people definitely are working on issues they care about,” he said.
On the national scale, the Occupy movement remains.
Michael Badger, a member of Occupy Wall Street, said the group worked to build grassroots organization infrastructure during the year.
He said they used this infrastructure to respond quickly with aid in New York City after Hurricane Sandy. “Occupy Sandy” volunteers have helped distribute clothes and food to victims across the city, at 90 different sites.
Badger said “Occupy Sandy” is just one way the organization now works in communities.
“I think people are starting to see us in a different light.”
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