By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – On June 2, after two nights of protest, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer declared a citywide state of emergency and put an 8 pm – 6 am curfew into effect immediately and indefinitely. The curfew was lifted this past Saturday, June 6.
In the current crisis, people throughout America are taking to the streets in protest of a police officer using lethal force and captured in the video. The suspect, George Floyd, was neither resisting arrest nor in the middle of perpetrating a violent crime. He was stopped for passing a counterfeit $20 and suspected of being on drugs. The incident, protesters say, is evidence of “systemic racism” in police departments all across America. A dozen other high-profile instances of white cops abusing people of color were cited as evidence.
While there may be several other sides to the story, a lesson learned by society this time around was to divide the crisis. Leaders separated those exercising the right of all Americans to petition for redress of grievances and their First Amendment right to free speech, from looters and vandals. Across the country, police officers and protesters took a knee together, listened to each other, and even danced together, all in an effort to assure each other of their mutual support.
A statement signed by the Asheville mayor and members of the city council said Floyd, “was part of our human family,” and that he and others had been harmed by a lethal mix of prejudice and power. “We are frightened. We are outraged. We are distrustful,” it read. After a brief overview of all the training the Asheville Police Department had undergone to eradicate systemic racism, the statement closed saying Asheville is a community where everybody has value.
Asheville’s nightly protests were described as peaceful gatherings that turned violent. Main stations where protesters were staged included in front of the Municipal Building, in Pack Square, under the Vance Monument, and in Martin Luther King Park. At one point, the protesters even shut down traffic in both directions on the Captain Jeff Bowen Bridge on I-240.
Most property damage occurred downtown, with a lot of graffiti and some broken windows – for which the East Asheville Lowe’s donated 12 pallets of wood for boarding. Store owners interviewed by mainstream media were not going to express anger. They didn’t express toleration or resignation. Instead, they expressed support for a group fighting for the same values they cherished, like justice and equal rights under the law.
Throughout the crisis, Asheville’s new police chief, David Zack, was in frequent communication with the public. Early on, he stated, “I recognize the anger and frustration in our community surrounding the death of George Floyd. Your anger is justifiable, and your First Amendment rights to speak and gather will be protected. The Asheville Police Department also has an obligation to protect the members of our community, property, those involved in the protest, and our police officers.”
On the first night of protests, Zack described an impromptu parade, which officers were following as escorts until the crowd veered off Charlotte Street and down the on-ramp for I-240. Officers on bicycles formed a barrier to steer protesters away from the “55 mph” traffic, but the crowd persisted, and demonstrators started throwing flares and fireworks and getting in the way of oncoming traffic.
One vehicle struck three protesters as well as an officer, “breaking his bike in two,” and other protesters hopped the median and vandalized it. The group returned to the police department only to make another move for the interstate, and the police, again working to protect human life, intervened. This time, the fireworks tossed toward police were accompanied by other projectiles, like rocks. So, the police gave a verbal warning over a megaphone before releasing tear gas.
By 11 pm, the crowd at times numbered around 300, and Zack described a scene of violence, with protesters fighting protesters and vandalizing property. The police responded with rubber bullets, and the crowd returned to the police station to demonstrate until about 2:30 am. The police department then requested assistance from “local, state, and federal resources, as well as the National Guard.”
For the most part, the protests had been peaceful, with young professionals in PPE masks carrying signs. In the daylight hours, they appeared to be pleading for justice more than looking for an ax to grind. Often, they would lie face-down on the ground for 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence, the amount of time Floyd was under the officer’s knee.
A shrine was set up for people to lay flowers and light candles around pictures of people killed in acts of police brutality. In addition, a coalition of local ministers worked together to bring a message of peace and overcoming to protesters.
Making national headlines was an incident in which officers sliced and emptied bottles of water and turned a table, scattering supplies in the alley. The mayor publicly condemned the police for destroying a medical tent, but Brandon McGaha of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association rebuffed this, saying it was no medical tent, but a supply station carrying things to throw at the police.
Zack explained that, in addition to stocking projectiles used on the police, the table was on private property without permission and operating after curfew. He later issued an apology.