Also on the consent agenda was a proclamation for Hemp History Week. The verbiage was the same as last year’s. Those who love to hate the nation’s founders for not finishing the job of liberating all humankind, don’t mind making them heroes for fifteen seconds because they grew hemp for rope and paper. Supporters were advocating for marijuana without THCs; but Todd Stimson, who spoke at the end of the meeting, had at least the mayor’s go-ahead to draft a resolution in favor of HB185 and S648, two active bills that would legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina. Stimson recently served twenty-five months in prison on charges of trafficking, while he claimed he had been running a legitimate business for selling pot to persons in pain. His family says it was the pot that cured his fourteen-year-old daughter of cancer. Stimson told how he had to share a 7’x10’ cell with a convicted murderer, raising questions about policing priorities.
The time for the public hearing on the budget had arrived. The ritual is a farce in which citizens are invited to pretend to know how many golden toilet seats can be hidden in six-digit line items. And while very few challenged the overall 9-percent growth in the budget and rising property taxes, two rooms and two hallways were full of people who wanted to protest giving the Asheville Police Department more money. Chief Tammy Hooper had requested $1 million more to support the hiring of fifteen new officers; but, citing public pressure, it was announced just prior to the formal meeting that the department would postpone hiring, and the city would squeeze partial-year funding from elsewhere in the budget.
Brandon McGaha, president of the local Police Benevolent Association, said Asheville ranked fourth or fifth in the state for Part I crimes, which include rape, murder, auto theft, and violent assault. In 2015, 4823 Part I crimes were reported and cleared by APD officers; 444 of those crimes qualified as violent. Adding in calls for “barking dogs, car crashes, and other civic duties,” McGaha described the city with its current criminal-to-officer ratio as “unmanageable.” What’s more, the APD is about the most ridiculed department he has seen in his entire, international law-enforcement career. McGaha ran out of time, so Richard Tullis concluded his remarks. In the overflow room, three girls laughed uproariously, signaling that this man’s diversity was not to be tolerated. When he mentioned the word, “Constitution,” the laughter drowned out the rest of the presentation. The girls also cackled as Susan Watts, white, elderly, and not modeling the edgiest of fashions, complained about crime downtown.
Off the record, concerned citizens said increased policing was needed to deal with all the intoxicated and disorderly conduct downtown. There is, after all, a big opioid scare, and government is doing all it can with economic development incentives to win back for Asheville the Beer City title. As Leicester resident Alan Ditmore later noted, government was making its own problems – except Ditmore was talking about the housing crisis being caused by fees and zoning restrictions.
A rallying point for the masses was Jerry Williams’ murder. Last July, Williams, while intoxicated, fired a rifle in one public housing development and then took the police on a high-speed chase to another housing development in a car with two women and a small child. The testimony of one of the women made it sound like he was trying to shoot the officer. The courts ruled the officer acted appropriately, out of concern for the life of the ladies. Williams’ supporters charge the incident is illustrative of systemic racism in the APD.
Nicole Townsend called for the creation of a citizens’ oversight body with powers to hire, fire, and discipline police officers, set budgets, and direct third parties to subpoena information. She said Asheville leadership had indicated the state would not stand for the creation of such a board, but people in Greensboro were pushing to create one. What’s more, she said, “That’s what city council is for, to work with other communities and push for state legislation for the people.”
Alan Luis Ramirez told council he was tired of “having to find alternatives to policing” in his community. There was no simple, legal way for immigrants and undocumented persons to get drivers’ licenses. Once they get tickets for driving without a license, warrants for their arrest rack up, setting them up for deportation, which, in turn, destroys families and communities. More police, he said, would only further criminalize people with black or brown bodies.
JaNesha Slaughter, who studied political science at UNC Asheville and wrote her thesis on policing, told how President Kennedy appropriated resources to fight the war on crime “today and tomorrow” with punitive measures and social programs like childcare, meals, and job training. Then Nixon cut the social services, leaving punitive police departments overloaded with funding and personnel. Now, history repeats with the objective of getting rid of people instead of the issues. The bottom line was that council should give the $1 million to community programs.
Angel Archer shared that the average net worth of a black woman in Asheville is in the single digits. She told council the system, “owes the people who are in poverty. It owes people who have been oppressed, nationally oppressed by United States imperialism, colonialism, slavery, etc. It owes them reparations. It owes people a better life. … People are running out of patience and are starting to see this institution, this state, as something which only exists to maintain and perpetuate those existing power relationships within society, inherently, and not something that can actually be used to change peoples’ lives for the better. And therefore, I hate talking to you all. Because I don’t believe for one second that you’re going to do anything positive.”
Archer then read, filibuster-style, an analysis of Friedrich Engels’ history of classism from the Marxist tome Classes, Power and Conflict, beginning at page 49. Others who chose to read included Adam Olson, who had compiled an assortment of facts about pigs; and Hillary Brown, who shared a reflection on Williams’ friends’ and family’s quest for justice.
Rondell Lance asked if council was willing to expose Asheville citizens to the levels of risk Hooper was trying to prevent. To heckling and eyerolls, he said APD officers put their lives on the line every day. They love everybody in the city, and they don’t ask about color, religion, or national origin when they respond to calls. By way of contrast, Dewana Little said cops drive by where she lives every five minutes, her friends get stopped daily, they have six cops descend on them because they’re sitting in a car or smoking a cigarette. They’re bullied. Then, when there’s a real crisis, it takes 45 minutes to two hours to get a response.
“We have a tale of two cities going on,” observed Dee Williams. “Modern day policing is no more than a compilation of, let’s face it, slave catching and protection of property that folks who are landed gentry own.” To whoops and applause, she added, “You can’t serve people if you don’t love them, so clearly we don’t have a lot of love here. These people up here believe in votes, so organize, organize, organize. That’s all they believe in.”
When all was said and done, Councilor Cecil Bothwell told those who accused council of playing a shell game that that was how budgets were created. Items get added, subtracted, and moved until the numbers work. Keith Young said the conversations reminded him of the Plebeians and the Patricians. He sensed the “despair, dejection, and discontent” in the room and hoped people could work together for healing.
Gordon Smith addressed those in the audience who had requested enhanced public funding for childcare, healthcare, housing, living wages, and nonprofits. He said council was setting records for spending, including $9 million for transit, $3.2 million for new buses and bus stops, $3.5 million for programming focusing on opportunities for youth of color, $3.7 million for public parks, $9 million for new parks capital improvements, $2.5 million for federal housing programs, $6.7 million for affordable housing, $8.7 million for new sidewalks with another $600,000 for repairs, and $4.7 million for greenways. The city will also launch Mountain Community Capital, a new minority business fund.
As an added item, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler said the Boards and Commissions Committee decided the Citizens’ Police Advisory Committee had neither the tools nor the mandate to do what people in the audience wanted. Citizens had greater issues, among which were “racism, inequality, poverty, violence, homelessness, low wages, lack of jobs, helplessness, and gentrification.” To better address needs, the city was going to replace that board with a Human Relations Commission. And, since one thing that rang loud and clear was that people did not want top-down governance, an open, inclusive process would be used to develop that board’s structure and mission.