By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – “Crazy” was the word used by a handful of persons sharing public comment at Asheville City Council’s June 14 meeting, when racial reparations were on the agenda. For that meeting, the city published 122 pages of emails and 54 pages of transcribed phone calls minus 83 calls marked only as “FALSE” for containing profanity, in addition to airing over three hours of calls made during council’s live meeting. Worthy of note, most of the letters were not cut-and-paste, and most were well-written. Shining even brighter was the total absence of any implication by anybody that slavery or racism was acceptable.
Scott North, a resident of seven years, who due to his job spends a lot of time in the wee hours downtown, said he didn’t see the alleged systemic racism in the police department. He disagreed with language in the resolution claiming the city “enforces segregation” and “has destroyed black communities.” Most of the police calls he sees are to address public intoxication or fighting. Viewing the Johnnie Rush incident as an outlier, he said of the police, “I can confirm that they do not use the cover of night to harass or intimidate people of color because of who they are.”
Daryl Carson searched his heart and didn’t find the systemic racism there, either. “How dare you take money hard-working Americans have made for themselves for something that less than 5% of the population engaged in two hundred years ago. This is wrong. I never owned a slave. None of my ancestors owned a slave…. I believe that slavery is wrong, but to take money from hard-working Americans today for what happened then is absurd…. This is crazy.”
Eddie took the tack that generational wealth was more likely to be accumulated through sweat equity than another entitlement program. He called attention to the three things the Brookings Institution recommended for staying out of poverty: graduate from high school, don’t get pregnant before marriage, and get a fulltime job. (Some lists add a fouth, don’t feed an addiction.) Eddie said he knew people who tried to speak out against Black Lives Matter and lost their jobs because retaliators called their employers to smear them as racist. Eddie said his white privilege was growing up on a farm with eleven brothers and sisters, milking cows and baling hay.
Keith got political, saying it was Democrats who needed to apologize because, “99.9% of Asheville has nothing to do with slavery.” Like the 99.9%, he wanted to help blacks, but Democrat organizers, he said, were using them as cover for Marxist protesters who came to town and destroyed things for the sake of causing division. He then cited scriptures about how sins aren’t inherited but forgiven through grace.
Jacqueline Larson said the resolution council was about to approve was boilerplate. She was “shocked and disappointed” council would not try to at least adapt language proposed by “Black Lives Matter or some Marxist group.” She, too, wanted people of color to succeed, but the, “accusatory, extremist, militant, and divisive” rhetoric before council wasn’t showing the way. Rather than positioning itself as their source of power, she said government should lead people of color to take some personal responsibility; 70% of black babies in Asheville are now born out of wedlock, and parents aren’t taking an active role in their children’s education.
Several people objected to council’s intentions to paint “Black Lives Matter” in the street and shroud monuments as superficial and tacky. Sheila asked for something with more “charm” and “architectural beauty” like “a beautiful tree or flower garden or … a beautiful nonracial fountain or statue.” Many more viewed the changes to public art as mere window dressing and urged council to dig deeper, think more broadly, and act for the long run.
Taylor came closer than most to hitting the crux of the matter. Government in this country was instituted to protect the ability of its citizens to pursue their victimless ambitions without government meddling. If government is in any way exercising any form of oppression, except in the line of duty to protect innocents, government must stop, post-haste, and yesterday. Taylor faulted the resolution on reparations as singling out one group of people because of their race. More fairly, he said, just as government had managed to write laws without mentioning blacks to their detriment, it could “do the same thing in a positive way.”
One commenter (p. 84), whose name was cut off as the city published only one page of each submission, urged caution. Although no time is a good time for divisive rhetoric, this person reminded council that everybody, not just people of color, is hurting from the economic shutdown. No one, he emphasized, wanted a handout, just a hand up. Like it or not, Asheville’s economy relies largely on tourists, who he described as needing a police force that is “visible and happy to assist.” He wanted all locals to be “friendly, smiling, and happy,” too.
But it was David Greenson, who is a driving force behind Black AVL Demands, who made one of the strongest arguments against the direction council might be headed. “New York City banned chokeholds, but that didn’t stop Eric Garner from getting choked to death.” This is a variation on the theme that those who break old laws will probably break new laws, so nothing short of a mass reawakening of conscience will have hope of organizing a more civil society.
system would have done a better job.
Councilman Keith Young said white supremacists view blacks as “blood capital…hundreds of years of black blood spilt that basically fills the cup we drink from today.” He continued, “The same systemics that allow statues to go up and the disparities in policing to continue are the very same systemics that recycles itself generation after generation after generation and still remain regardless of this council or its financial allocations.”
Slavery, Jim Crowe laws, redlining, urban renewal, and policies like predatory lending were all ways white supremacists have held down people of color. Smith quoted the late Reverend Wesley Grant’s assessment of the toll urban renewal took on the East Riverside community: more than 1,100 homes, six beauty parlors, five barbershops, five filling stations, fourteen grocery stores, three laundromats, eight apartment houses, seven churches, three shoe shops, two cabinet shops, two auto body shops, one hotel, five funeral homes, one hospital, and three doctor’s offices. “Reparation is more than restitution for what happened during the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” said Smith, “It is the dark evil – sin – of chattel slavery that is the root of all injustice and inequity at work in American life today.”
Evan Garner, speaking in public comment, continued the new history lesson, explaining that primitive capital was land and slaves. The first commodity on the New York Stock Exchange, he said, was bodies. Others commenting continued to call for Mayor Esther Manheimer and Police Chief David Zack to resign. Many participating in public comment spoke disparagingly of capitalism, and Karl Marx was mentioned a few times, as might be expected from people feeling dispossessed, with neither means nor means of acquiring any, during a technological revolution.
Disregarding existing laws, a few didn’t seem to know much about the city, one referring to councilmembers as “congresspeople.”
Suggesting greater specificity for reparations, one emailer whose name was cut listed, “guaranteed job programs for meaningful employment, restorative justice programs, affordable housing, public education, mental health services, evidence-based substance use treatment and harm reduction services, rent subsidies and eviction diversion, [and] free public transit.” Government assistance with housing and small businesses and free transit were recurring requests.
A majority of commenters believed the Asheville Police Department should forfeit 50% or more of its budget. During another discussion about contracting with an outside firm to investigate the department’s actions during the June riots, UNCA student Rosemary Farley commented, “We shouldn’t be reasoning with these people [the police]. We know what we need to do, which is to take away their rights, take away their privileges, take away their funding. We already have all the video and evidence and witnesses of the horrible atrocities that took place during the protests.”
Commenter David Greenson, training director at Rootskeeper and a spearheader of the Black AVL Demands movement, said he was guilty for all the harms. He supported and enabled the people perpetrating the harms because his tax dollars funded the police department that battered Johnnie Rush. Furthermore, he didn’t do anything to remove from office the city officials who created the organizational culture that allowed Rush to be abused, the same people who created an economy that “pushes” people of color into low-wage jobs with hours that make them vulnerable to police incidents.
Anne and Tom Sherry wrote, “[We] have long thought that our city property taxes should have a line item of a significant sum dedicated to reparations and would absolutely support additional taxes that can begin to right the deep wrongs that have devastated black Asheville. Changing our hearts will take a longer time.”
A guy named Max said to skip the investigation into whether or not police responded appropriately to the riots. He continued saying the same skip orders could be extended to deciding what happened and what people were thinking 200 and 300 years ago. “Do right by black people,” he said simply. “Listen to them.”
Editor’s note: Be sure to read the related commentary starting on page 1