GPD civil emergency unit makes impression at UNC-Chapel Hill

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Greensboro police Capt. Jonathan Franks reaches for his pepper spray as the civil emergency unit extracts Silent Sam supporters. (photo by Daniel Hosterman)

The Greensboro Police Department’s little-known civil emergency unit made a jarring appearance at a nighttime rally on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill on Aug. 30 that began with pro-Confederate activists gathering under heavy police protection while antiracist students held a dance party.

First revealed thanks to the reporting of former Triad City Beat associate editor Eric Ginsburg in 2015, the GPD civil emergency unit anchored the multi-agency response in the wake of widespread criticism from UNC Police for allowing the opposing groups to mix during a previous event. Officers in the GPD civil emergency unit formed a cordon with their bicycles to allow ACTBAC NC and their supporters to reach the site of the toppled Silent Sam monument on Aug. 30, and then extracted the pro-Confederate activists so they could leave while pushing back against counterprotesters.

The unit’s handling of the event, including ramming bicycles into antiracist counterprotesters and deploying pepper spray, has drawn marked criticism. Capt. Jonathan Franks, the commander of the special operations division, can be heard in a video posted by the Daily Tar Heel saying, “Use your bicycle and hit them if you have to,” as counterprotesters pursued the departing ACTBAC contingent.

Indeed, a freelance writer covering the protest showed me a photo of her leg that had been bruised and scraped from being rammed by a police bicycle. Whatever the police’s justification for that level of force, she contends that the counterprotesters were not attempting to break through the police line, and that the police escalated the situation. For what it’s worth, I also watched an officer in the unit shove his bike against my colleague, Daniel Hosterman, before ACTBAC even arrived.

Capt. Franks also pepper-sprayed counterprotesters and journalists as ACTBAC reached the parking lot at the Morehead Planetarium. Right around the same time I personally observed that the unit allowed a gap in its bicycle line, prompting one officer to frantically yell for his fellow officers to tighten up. If the aggressive use of bicycles and pepper spray was premised on the fear that a melee would ensue if the police lost control, no one tried to make a run for it during the two- or three-second period when the gap opened. Surreally, all of us — counter-protesters, journalists and cops — were coughing from pepper spray together.

The Move Silent Sam Twitter account, maintained by activists involved with the protests asked on Tuesday: “Anyone working on getting answers about Capt. Jonathan Franks’ pepper spray misuse at UNC last week? And the inappropriate use of bicycles as weapons?” The tweet also asked whether a formal review was underway.

“It’s still being looked into by the department,” said Ronald Glenn, the public information officer for the Greensboro Police Department, while declining to elaborate.

Admittedly, subjectivity can come into play in the fraught dynamics of police involvement in conflict between ideologically opposed groups, so here’s another reporter’s take.

“Things didn’t get really testy until police were escorting those supporters out of here and they used pepper spray on the counterprotesters — that’s when things really flipped,” said Briana Connor of WXII 12 News. “It’s just students out here now, and again this crowd here has been pepper-sprayed twice. And they’ve turned on cops, chanting some ugly things toward them, and police have been aggressive, too. I’ve noticed two separate instances where police got a little nasty with protesters out here.”

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