Pictures from the scene Sunday afternoon showed heavily armed SWAT team members with semi-automatic weapons drawn entering a former car dealership on West Franklin Street and arresting people.
Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt admitted that the pictures were disturbing, saying it "was not the type of image we want to have come to mind" when thinking of the town's police force.
But Kleinschmidt called the action "appropriate" given the situation officers faced.
Police said about 70 protesters broke-in to the empty car dealership on West Franklin Street around 7:45 Saturday night and set up camp. Police Chief Christopher Blue said the group did not appear to be part of the Occupy Chapel Hill movement that's been protesting in Chapel Hill for weeks. He said some of the occupiers are known to be affiliated with anarchist groups.
Soon after the break-in Saturday, a Chapel Hill police officer approached the building and reported being threatened by occupiers wearing hoods and masks yelling "ACAB" - which Blue said stands for "all cops are bastards."
Instead of confronting the group, Blue said officers pulled back and began monitoring the situation. Blue said the occupy group began posting messages on web sites saying things like "this building is ours" and it would be held in perpetuity.
Officials said the group put up large banners to obscure the windows to the building, put lookouts on the roof, and brought in generators and food.
Blue said similar occupations of buildings by anarchist groups have taken place in other cities, and they have included putting up barricades and setting up traps with explosives for police inside the buildings.
After monitoring the situation for 18 hours, Chief Blue said officers waiting for a time period when the least amount of people were in the building and went in to secure it.
"The Town has an obligation to the property owners and will enforce those rights, just as it will continue facilitating the exercise of free speech," Kleinschmidt said.
When police went in, there were only seven people in the building.
The seven people arrested - Ellen Crawford, 23, of Richmond, VA; Eva Jones, 22, of Chapel Hill; Daniel Regenscheit, 27, of Chapel Hill; Kassandra Ofray, 21 of Pittsboro; David Maliken, 24, of Carrboro; Monica Ganguly, 29 of Chapel Hill; Jack Jarrell, 24, of Carrboro - have been charged with one count of misdemeanor breaking and entering.
Kleinschmidt and Chief Blue held a news conference Monday afternoon to answer questions from reporters about what happened. The conference was repeatedly interrupted by members of the occupy group who also showed up. When asked by one why he didn't go down to the building himself to negotiate with the group, Kleinschmidt said: "I don't make it a practice to go and talk with anyone who has broken and entered into a building."
When asked about sit-ins he himself took part in years ago on his college campus, the mayor said it wasn't a fair comparison because college sit-ins don't conflict with the rights of private property owners.
Still, members of the occupy group said the police response was completely out of proportion to events. One of them, Hannah Shaw, said she was scared when police raided the business.
"Having 20 officers with guns pointed at me and friends of mine, and people I didn't know, it was terrifying it was the first time in my life that I thought, 'I could be killed right now,'" she said. "I actually was not charged with anything. So basically the police are saying I didn't do anything wrong but I, as an unarmed civilian, am somebody who deserved to have an assault rifle pointed in my face."
The mayor said the town was also investigating a complaint from a News and Observer reporter that a journalist's camera was confiscated and not returned. Kleinschmidt said the town is committed to freedom of the press.
Once police got inside the building, they said they found a bag of rocks and flammable materials. But Chief Blue said he did "not know the intentions" of the group with respect to those items.
In concluding the news conference, Mayor Kleinschmidt said while the police response seemed heavy, he was glad that he wasn't holding a news conference to speak about the potential harm officers could have faced going into the situation given the intelligence they had to go on.