“Ally is the new woke.” London (Black Activist)
Trying to get a handle on the last few days is like trying to eat an elephant – except that the elephant is on acid and there are cops in riot gear tossing tear gas containers at you like it’s the only thing in life that gets their rocks off and there are black leaders being sometimes drowned out by white protestors and there are secret agents and white nationalists and angry teenagers and an entire movement trying to call out the systemic racism of the police force and guys on the riot line that look like their father taught them how to shave yesterday. So, tensions mounting I go and try to find someone in an Asheville Police Department uniform who will speak to me. After striking out a half a dozen times the only person with a voice turns out to be an impossibly young officer named Trevor. He looks like he is geeking out, his pupils are the size of dinner plates and he is holding his riot shield like he clearly has never held one before. His dad was a plumber, a blue collar worker, and he just wanted to help people. And no, he didn’t ever expect to be part of tear gassing the citizens he swore to protect.
But here he is. And here we are. It’s 11:37pm, Sunday, May 31st and, with a little luck and a whole lot of work, this town may never be the same again.
“Give us the resources and get out of our way and see how resourceful we can be.” Anonymous Black Woman Speaking at Pack Square
Racism in Asheville didn’t begin with Johnny Rush, and it sure as hell didn’t end twenty-five minutes after the above exchange when the riot line took a knee. Asheville’s history is jarring at best – the displacement of scores of black people to create the River Arts District, the beating of black high school students conducting a peaceful walkout at the hands of white adult police officers, the overt gentrification of this town as a whole. The percentage of the black population in this town has been cut in half in less than two decades.
And you know whose fault this is? All of ours. As a journalist covering the music scene in Asheville the percentage of my interviews over the last three years with people of color was less than 8%.
Reparations and divestment are a pair of joined topics that even the most liberal of white people are uncomfortable with, yet, if we are going to have real conversations moving forward about destroying systemic racism, those concepts have to become normalized.
The average black family in The United States has approximately 1/10th of the wealth of the average white family – a number that has remained relatively unchanged since the civil rights movements of the 60’s. Of course, what would you expect in a country where many voting districts and business laws are the result of “black codes” and “redlining?”
But justice is never free. It always costs something.
“Imagine me in white cis form,” Brian, a queer black person says from the stage on Thursday afternoon. “Imagine me in white cis form applying for a job versus me as I stand. Imagine who gets that job… so (speaking to white allies) what are you willing to lose? What job opportunities are you willing to sacrifice? You are going to have to let go of some flesh.”
It’s Thursday night, the third day of curfew, and the police on the front lines are no longer in riot gear. The national guard is trying to lay low in the fire department and the vigil at Pack Square is wrapping up. I see Captain Stepp of the APD and ask if I may approach with a few questions.
“I have reports of medics being fired on last night as well as having personally had pepper balls fired at me by police after clearly identifying myself as media on Tuesday. Does APD have any statement about their rules of engagement?” I ask.
Captain Stepp: “I have no reports of that.”
“Does the APD plan to continue to destroy medical supplies as a military tactic?” I follow up with.
“No,” is all she can manage at first, visibly shaken by the question.
“No what?” I push forward. “No you don’t intend to destroy medical supplies or no you don’t intend to answer the question?”
“No, to my knowledge we do not intend to destroy any more medical supplies tonight,” Stepp responds (emphasis added).
90 minutes later I watch as several Asheville Bike Police find a clearly labeled medical bag that had been left in the bushes across from the police station, dumping the milk of magnesia on the curb and tossing the bandages and ice packs into the trash. Across the street in clear view Captain Stepp mingles with other brass badges from APD.
At 7:45 pm the police begin to announce that there is a curfew in place and that anyone who chooses to stay will be subject to arrest. This warning does not have the effect they were intending. Before the sentence can even finish the megaphone is drowned out by protestors chanting and yelling. A few minutes later, as the riot squad heads down the street from Vance Monument the crowd begins to move – not to disperse – but to march peacefully through the streets of Asheville begging for change.
But what change exactly are most of these protestors begging for? Over the last thirty minutes I have watched at least seventeen white people, dressed in their sexiest black antifa gear, head to the front of the crowd to pose for photos. By the time the tear gassing starts around 9:30 I am not surprised to realize that most of them are gone. I assume they are watching the rest of the protest from home.
There is a veritable laundry list of reasons that people could be out here right now, many of them legitimate, but I wonder how many protestors should be holding different signs, truer signs that say why they are actually here.
Signs like “Make Marijuana Legal,” or “I’ve always wanted to go to a protest,” or “Parents are mean.” It’s not that there aren’t some real allies out here, but I have to say, if I were a person of color I wouldn’t know who to trust.
As we march towards Montford Avenue, twenty or so minutes after curfew, I hear a voice from behind me.
“Caleb Calhoun, FUCK YOU.”
I turn to see my ex-girlfriend’s best friend and some man I have never met.
“Feels like there may be a better time to have this conversation,” I mention, after finally ascertaining who they are, but this is clearly the reason they are here.
“Fuck this guy,” the man starts shouting, trying to explain to the crowd that they feel like I was mean to their friend and everyone should take a few minutes out of their Black Lives Matter protest and maybe beat me up.
But for some of the more white privileged members of our community, this is what the protest is. A chance to scream their frustrations while holding a #Black Lives Matter sign. I mean, as a privileged white person what could be better? Get out in the streets, get your riot cred, break some windows, kick an ex’s ass, and guess who gets blamed for it?
Two nights later as Antonio took the stage to speak to the audience at large I couldn’t help but notice his shirt. “Antifa – Stop Hiding Behind Black People’s Pain” it read in bold letters.
Mike Martinez, black activist and lead singer of Natural Born Leaders, is speaking to the events of the last two weeks.
“It’s not a surprise to me, you know? I think that the beauty of this is that it isn’t a surprise to anybody who is brown, but it gives other people that were in that crowd the chance to be like ‘holy shit, this is how much the police don’t want us. All the police did was to make us look good this week.”
It’s been seven days, and for the last three nights things have been peaceful. Mayor Esther Manheimmer (known less affectionately these days as Mayor Manhandler) has called off the curfew, white people are actually sitting at the feet of black leaders in town – listening, learning, growing. There is a clear shift in the messaging coming from the APD and The City Council, and I’m hoping we can start moving forward with conversations.
I catch Lieutenant Brown outside of the police department and ask if I can have his email to set up an interview with him this week. At first, he isn’t interested. “I’m just here doing my job,” he tells me, “my opinion doesn’t really matter.”
It’s an interesting tactic to take, but I’m not so easily bowled over and I really want to tell everyone’s story, not just the protestors. So, at his request we go off the record. He tells me a moving story about how the protests feel personal to him. When he finishes I say “but you understand, this is why I need you on the record. At some point we all have to sit down at a table and have some kind of conversation. How are we supposed to do that if we can’t start seeing each other as humans?”
In that moment he appears to understand this is a potential path forward and agrees to give me his email. But then he cancels our initial interview, and I receive an email from Christina Hallingse identifying herself as a public information officer for the APD. She says Lieutenant Brown is out of town immediately and indefinitely. She says they would be willing to give me an opportunity to interview Lieutenant Moore. She asks for times that work and a list of questions.
The questions I send later the same day are thoughtful and real. They are intended not to tear down the APD but to give the APD an opportunity to speak to their humanity and hopefully, the conflicting nature of the last week and a half. Questions like “The phrase ‘Defund the Police’ is a major hot button right now. While the actual concept behind it is much less radical than the catchphrase it has been given, how do you feel about diverting a percentage of funds that traditionally have been allocated to the police force for social services and community projects?” and “What are you personally, not as an officer but as a citizen, doing to help achieve equality and destroy systemic racism.”
I receive a reply from Hallingse. She says the APD is unwilling to discuss any of the events of the last week.
Here is a link to the email correspondence with Lieutenant Brown and Christina Hallingse, including the questions they found to be too unnerving to answer. This is the reason people are calling for defunding the police. I had hoped to tell some of APD’s stories here, but if the only statement they are willing to make is with their weapons, then I don’t even have the option to use my words to defend their actions.
Your move City of Asheville.
“I think a lot of white mothers are being activated right now because their white children are the allies that are being tear gassed.” -Local black activist.
Where were you when your nineteen year old daughter was tear gassed by the men from your racquetball club? Where were you when your twenty year old son was arrested for walking down Patton Avenue at 8:20pm. What were you doing when your teenage child was harassed by a group of men in all black, carrying guns and poison?
The thing about this entire situation is that, with the exception of systemic racism, this is not a black and white issue. While it would be nice to see everyone out on the streets of one mind and one heart, the truth is that bodies on the blacktop are still valuable, regardless of what they are actually there for.
Many members of the black community knew that being out past curfew would lead to major harassment, arrest, and as we have seen in other communities, higher bail and fines than their white allies. Others were unable to take time off work, knowing how much more difficult it would be for them to replace a job than it would be for a white person.
London specifically mentioned some of these issues to me, and opened up a little about how it has felt in the past, and how she would like it to feel going forward.
“I think this week was hopeful, but also sad because we have all been screwed over before by someone who said they were an ally, and I think we are also scared this momentum is gonna stop.
“I hope this is creating a generation of real allies because honestly, seeing so many white fifteen year old girls being activated has been amazing. On Thursday there were some white people dancing, some white women because some DJ was there and I was gonna tell them to stop dancing, but instead I walked up to these two white girls that had a sign and said ‘You need to go call those women out.’ They said they were scared and I told them, ‘this is your job in the movement.’”
Antonio, a tall black man who understands that his very presence represents a threat to white people, is speaking truth.
“The point I was trying to make at the rally is that black empowerment for the most part since civil rights is like a new thing, of course we need white allies, but you may just have to accept that every black person is not gonna be inclusive. Just from a general history standpoint it’s not a good track record.
“Another thing I want to clarify is that I think it’s everyone’s job to speak to power, so that’s what I mean when I am speaking to the power in policy and legislation. It’s gonna be on us to work together – like defunding the police – although I think they should rephrase that like deallocating. That’s not by accident, the phrase, that really does cut down on crime. If you give all these kids in low housing recreation centers like the ones in Shiloh, you give them outlets and the streets have access to them you will cut down on crime. It’s worked before. There is no reason for NYPD to get 6.8 billion, LAPD to get 1.8 billion, you know what we can do with that? Mental health, drug rehab there is a lot we can do about it. I mean the police don’t even make great salaries – I mean they aren’t getting the money – so I think legislation and policy is how we strive to get equality.
So where do we go from here? Hopefully somewhere new. Hopefully somewhere different. But how the hell do we move forward from all of this pain, anger and frustration. How do we get to the table? Who leads those conversations?
Unfortunately this piece doesn’t have those answers, and to be fair I’m not sure anyone in the United States of America does at this moment. It is incumbent upon those of us in the white community to swallow our pride, and our words a little. It was beautiful to see nearly 5000 white people listening to black members of our community at the vigil on Saturday. It also can’t be the only time we put on our big listening ears and let go of our pride.
I have to be honest, when I began interviewing people for this piece, the last person I imagined would have the final quote would be a white, cis-male, baptist pastor. I called Lance Michaels of The Grove Church, because I wanted to know what the white evangelical community thought, felt and intended to do with and because of all of that is going on right now.
And the truth is, my job is to amplify voices of color, but as London put it so clearly, as a white activist an even larger role that I need to fill is to use my voice, and my privilege to call out racism and bigotry in the white community.
Lance did it for me, and said it better than I ever could, so I will leave these words as the final statement – not directed to the black community, but directed to my friends and co-allies in the white community.
“I had this thought this morning, ‘How much is this interview gonna cost me?’ And I thought about Jesus’ exchange with the rich young ruler. This guy comes to Jesus and says ‘I want to follow you’ – and he is young and attractive and powerful, I mean, his title is ‘rich young ruler’ – and Jesus looks at him and says ‘sell all that you have and give it to the poor and then you can follow me.’
“That was Jesus’ ethos and the mandate for him, and I wondered what it was gonna cost me, and the story ends with the rich young ruler walking away sad. Well, a lot of white people are aggrieved right now but they don’t get it. You can be sad, you can be sorrowful, but if you aren’t willing to let it cost you anything then you really just don’t get it.”