By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – At the last meeting of Asheville City Council, the City Attorney Brad Branham gave an overview of the findings of his office’s internal review, “limited to the collection of the facts and circumstances leading up to, and resulting in, several key aspects of the city’s response to the [George Floyd] protests as recounted by key city personnel and elected officials.” According to the narrative, council had originally wanted to contract for an independent review of police action during the local protests undertaken in George Floyd’s name, but they were dissuaded by the $80,000 price tag. So, they settled for the attorney’s review and a separate after-action report to be completed by the Asheville Police Department.
More specifically, the narrow scope of Branham’s assignment was to interview the mayor, members of council, the city manager, the police chief and deputy chief, and other key members of APD’s command staff. The focus was, without judgment, to establish who authorized the initial response to the protest, deployment of riot gear, use of tear gas, use of other crowd-control projectiles, acceptance of help from the National Guard and other police forces, intervention in the non-permitted march down I-240, and destruction of the “medic tent.”
Branham’s report was rather straightforward, stressing members of council were appropriately nowhere in the chain of command. The only role the mayor played was to call the governor to ask for reinforcements from the National Guard. The only thing the city manager did was instruct the police chief, once, to take whatever measures were necessary to protect the safety of the community, including the protesters and law enforcement. For the most part, it was the field command officers calling the shots, appealing to the police chief only in extraordinary situations, like when they requested authority to remove protesters from the freeway.
The full report, available through the city’s website, lists data like the number of officers provided each night from each of the 18 assisting police forces, among whom were the National Guard. It also provides descriptions of the crowd control measures used, and who authorized what when. For example, the APD does not use bean bags or rubber bullets, which many social media accounts claimed were injuring protesters, although Councilman Brian Haynes said the sting balls they did use sounded equivalent.
Key findings included: (1) The decision to bring in outside forces was based on the volume of protesters and intel from other communities about growing contentions and eruptions of violence. Police Chief David Zack was also concerned about officer fatigue. (2) Police warned, attempted to block, and closed the highway behind marchers headed for the interstate out of concern for the safety of protesters, motorists, and officers. (3) The medic tent was destroyed upon information and belief that it was a resupply station for the bottles and fireworks being thrown at officers. Follow-up investigation indicated it was indeed staffed by medical personnel, but claims that it was permitted and authorized were contradicted by a search of city records and a complaint from an affected property owner.
A list of the 57 arrestees was also included. Most were local, and most were detained for failure to disperse on command or curfew violation. At least three of the five who were booked with out-of-state addresses had criminal records. Joshua Johann Jinks, who was allegedly throwing firecrackers at APD officers, was arrested at least twice in Michigan, for involvement with motor vehicle theft and drunk and disorderly conduct; Holbrook Green Christiana was arrested twice, for joyriding in a stolen vehicle and burglary in New York; and Austin Maurice Baluska triggered two school lockdowns in Washington for allegedly carrying arms. Social media accounts for some appear to have been scrubbed.
Haynes channeled sentiments from his supporters, casting doubts on the city’s investigative process. Speaking of APD, he said, “Whether or not they can rationalize in their own mind what they did doesn’t take away from the facts … but it does sort of distort the information being offered here and make it sound as if they were taking appropriate action…. I don’t need a report to tell me that I think we were inappropriate in many actions that we took.”
Asheville Councilwoman Julie Mayfield, who is running for state senator, reiterated council’s hands were tied. She said she didn’t think anybody – protesters, parents watching their children protest on TV, business owners, and even officers – was happy about the way events had transpired. She said the city should look around the country to see how other cities are ensuring the safety of protesters. She added she was disappointed that only one protester had officially registered a complaint with the city. She, however, said she understood why people would be afraid to report police impropriety; in the past, people doing so would be “harassed, approached, or have their houses approached.”
During public comment, David Greenson first questioned council’s motives in feeling the need to exonerate themselves through the report. He said “we all” saw the videos, so attempts to mischaracterize events would probably prove futile. He said the Racial Justice Coalition had received over two dozen detailed reports about excessive use of police force during the Asheville protests, but the city attorney’s office had rejected them as being outside the scope of its charge to interview municipal leadership construed to be in the chain of command. He also repeated the talking point about police deployment of tear gas being a war crime in violation of international law. Technically, the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which banned tear gas in war, also deemed it appropriate for riot control.