Black residents in the town of Battleboro are using their collective economic power in protest.
No one disputes the origins of the episode last April 20. Marilyn B. Powell, while driving her car, noticed that her niece had been stopped at an intersection where two white police officers were checking licenses and seat belts.
Powell, who is black, pulled over and asked the officers to let her take a 3-week-old infant from her niece's car because of the heat. The police told her to wait, and she objected.Accounts of the scuffle that followed differ, but by the time it ended, Powell, a 36-year-old substitute teacher and nurse's aide with no police record, had been sprayed with Mace and charged with three misdemeanor counts of disobeying, resisting and assaulting a police officer.
The ensuing turmoil in Battleboro, which has a population of 524 and is 45 percent black, has forced attention on complaints by black people here and in other small, isolated towns that police harassment is routine, and it has fanned long-simmering complaints of economic and political bias.
Only white men serve in Battleboro's police department, on its five-member Board of Commissioners and on its seven-member planning board. The mayor also is white.
To press their demands for a black police chief, black people have banded together into a group called Concerned Citizens of Battleboro and have staged an effective boycott against white-owned businesses.
On July 30, the town's biggest retail store and second-biggest taxpayer, a Red and White supermarket, went out of business, saying the boycott had cost it 25 percent of its business.
With black people doing more of their shopping in Rocky Mount, six miles to the south, several other businesses are ailing. ``Faces I used to see every day don't come in anymore,' said Robert Hayes, the proprietor of the Kitchen Korner restaurant. He said the town's commissioners ``have done absolutely nothing' to try to accommodate black residents.
Black people have yet to get a black police chief, but partly because of the dispute the department has been reduced from three full-time officers and three part-timers to just one: the Chief, David Snyder.
Impressed by the events in Battleboro, black politicians in the region say the stage is set for protests in more towns where brutality accusations are commonplace.
``Battleboro is a first,' said the Rev. Thomas L. Clark, pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Rocky Mount and a commissioner of Edgecombe County. ``The benefits that are going to come of this are enormous. They showed they had economic power even though they're politically powerless.'
In June, the Rev. Jesse Jackson led a demonstration here in support of the boycott.
Powell, who is preparing to sue the town, declined to discuss the April incident on the advice of her lawyer. Her friends say the police officers hit her first. Snyder claims that Powell struck first and that the officers were trying to prevent trouble rather than start it.
In a report in July, Howard S. Boney Jr., the area District attorney said the police had acted ``overzealously' and ordered the charges against Powell dropped. But he said the officers had not broken the law or acted with malice or racial hostility. That report enraged many civil rights leaders.
Battleboro, in eastern North Carolina, is in many respects an easygoing place. Residents of both races say black people and white people coexist uneventfully in schools, farms, shops and the nearby factory of Abbott Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company.
The harmonious racial mingling ceases away from the main intersection. Most well-off white families live on large lots on the west side of Highway 301. A few black and some white families live along a semi-industrial strip on the highway's east side, where most homes are smaller.
That area stops at the railroad tracks, parallel to the highway, where the town spreads from Nash County into Edgecombe County. The population on the other side of the tracks, both within the town and for several blocks beyond, is almost exclusively black.
Commissioners are elected citywide, not by district. With white people in the majority, no one from a predominantly black area can win when people vote along racial or neighborhood lines.