KOTIS: Cooper shows disregard for safety of law enforcement — again

Students and other community members sit outside tents in UNC Chapel Hill's central grounds, Polk Place, as part of an encampment protest on April 29. (Makiya Seminera / AP Photo)

Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper has shown North Carolinians yet again that he has little regard for the safety of law enforcement unless it suits his political agenda.

The latest example happened last week at UNC Chapel Hill. For two days, Students for Justice in Palestine and outside agitators held the campus hostage by occupying Polk Place. They not only ripped down the American flag and replaced it with a Palestinian flag, they held a “teach-in” on the life of Leila Khaled, a hijacker and member of the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. That the SJP is sharing her work tells us much about the group’s motives.

The UNC community could no longer pretend that the protestors’ actions were simply harmless (if not naive) political theater. Not satisfied with disrupting campus life, they want violence — either by waging it themselves or by provoking it from law enforcement or counterprotestors. They want an intifada.

Thankfully, with the exception of some campus police officers who took water bottles to the head, no one was seriously injured. The later presence of deputies in riot gear sent a message that UNC won’t tolerate mob rule.

But where was the N.C. Highway Patrol, normally a strong ally of the university and part of the law enforcement family? A day earlier, the university asked Cooper’s office to send reinforcements to aid campus and system police. Cooper indeed deployed dozens of troopers — but only to stand by out of sight until campus officers were injured or overwhelmed.

This is classic Cooper: playing politics with the lives of law enforcement. Though he isn’t running for reelection, his hand-picked replacement, Josh Stein, is. That means the Democrats couldn’t refuse our request for backup at the state’s flagship university, but they could effectively make it toothless.

The presence of police from the town of Chapel Hill also would have also sent a strong message to the unruly mob, but the cowardly council chose otherwise. This is perhaps the biggest betrayal from a town whose entire economy revolves around the university. The town councils of Chapel Hill and Carrboro added insult to injury by penning a Monday morning quarterback letter criticizing law enforcement and the university. Had they provided mutual aid, we could have avoided many of the challenges we faced.

So rather than confronting a strong, united show of force from various state and municipal law enforcement, protesters faced outnumbered law enforcement. That only emboldened the mob that removed the U.S. flag — protesters outnumbered law enforcement 300 or more to 30 — to take the next step and assault officers seeking to restore the U.S. flag. By keeping the troopers at bay, Cooper and Stein were effectively baiting university police into taking action against an increasingly unruly crowd.

In the days since, Cooper has predictably said nothing publicly about the need to protect the broader UNC community and its law enforcement, nor has he weighed in about the risk the SJP poses to Jewish students.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Cooper took a page from his 2018 playbook when UNC requested assistance from the Highway Patrol during the Silent Sam protests, and he leaked the request to the media. The governor and political allies like Stein want so badly to show North Carolinians that the “Republicans” running UNC are willing to use excessive force against “peaceful protesters” that they’ll engineer the situation themselves.

Going forward, the UNC community and the Cooper/Stein coalition need to have their eyes wide open to the true nature of these agitators. Yes, they have the right to free speech. But the First Amendment doesn’t give them the right to block roads, destroy property, disrupt university operations, assault people, violate university policies or create situations where students feel threatened by violence on campus. Of the 36 people arrested, only 15 were students and the rest were outside agitators.

The General Assembly needs to respond strongly to Cooper’s and Chapel Hill’s unwillingness to enforce law and order. It should consider moving funds from any municipalities unwilling to support fellow law enforcement and give the UNC system the additional resources to handle emergencies like the one at UNC Chapel Hill last week.

Cooper needs to let our law enforcement partners at the Highway Patrol do their jobs without political interference. It’s critical that we fully support and protect the men and women in law enforcement who put their lives on the line to serve and protect our citizens every day.

W. M. “Marty” Kotis is a member of the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and a former member of the UNC Board of Governors.