On May 1 — a traditional day for leftist political protest — people gathered around town for everything from an immigration-reform rally in Pack Square to an anti-capitalist party in Aston Park.
However, amidst the peaceful demonstrations and shindigs, a vandalism spree hit downtown that night around the Grove Arcade area: Businesses both corporate and local saw their windows smashed, as did a number of cars parked in the area. In response, police arrested 11 people — most from out-of-town — and hit them with a bevy of vandalism and conspiracy charges, eventually adding several felonies to a number of misdemeanors. Bail was set at $65,000 for each individual, though all 11 were eventually released (which hasn't stopped some supporters from slapping "Free the Asheville 11" stickers to newspaper boxes in town). Some of those arrested, though not all, had a history of involvement in anarchist causes.
The arrest of the "Asheville 11" soon became a rallying point for some anarchists around the country, who claimed that the 11 were the victims of an indiscriminate police sweep.
Meanwhile, the Asheville Citizen-Times columns' had nothing but fury against all anarchists, with John Boyle writing "I’m trying to think of a stupider, more illogical movement than anarchy, but I’ve come up dry.” Over at Xpress, I wrote calling for calm — "anarchism isn’t remotely my creed, and it probably isn’t yours either, but there’s a massive difference between someone whose beliefs drive them to such nefarious actions as running a community garden or free book exchange and the beliefs of the thug busting up a local business" — and emphasizing the need for a fair trial. It would not be the end of the public fight over this issue.
The worker-run, downtown-Asheville café Firestorm Books held a benefit for the local business owners (CORRECTION: A benefit was planned, but not held), and some Firestorm worker/owners penned a column in this paper taking issue with some of the media coverage and asking Ashevilleans not to lump all anarchists in with vandals.
Supporters set up a website defending the 11, complete with printable posters, and in September a blog post and printable 'zine debuted at the anarchist website Infoshop entitled 5 Myths About the Asheville 11: Why They're Being Demonized and Why It Matters.
"Eleven people arrested at random are being charged with breaking the same ten windows, and folks who met for the first time in jail are being charged with conspiring together to commit specific acts of vandalism," the post, by an anonymous author, asserts. "Sensationalized coverage spread through news outlets all across the U.S., provoking shock and outrage. This outrage has been primarily directed against the arrestees, despite a lack of evidence connecting them to the vandalism."
However, the author adds complaints about incidents of police misconduct and gentrification, including local businesses, as a possible justification for the smashing.
"Even though some of the businesses vandalized market themselves as 'local,' it’s easy to see how longtime Asheville residents might feel tremendous resentment toward them. This has no bearing on the defendants, of course, but it does cast light on the narrative that appeared in the press," the writer asserts, adding that the case represents a larger attempt by law enforcement. "This case is not merely about a few alleged vandals; this case is about the future of protest itself."
A poster distributed last week by the Asheville 11's defense website took a similar tack, beginning with an assertion of the 11's innocence before devoting space to a justification for the vandalism.
"The cops and bosses know that the past doesn't pass. Because they have systematically extracted revolutionary elements from the social, revolt is finding a different place to take place. History will tell the story of such 'every persons' who broke down, who accidentally led a charge and who found each other in their stumbling. The Asheville 11 are of this story. If they are guilty of their crimes, then their deeds are that much more glorious. If they are acquitted or found not guilty, then we are all that much more anonymous."
That rationale — essentially "the 11 are totally innocent of vandalism, but if they did do it, it was awesome" — hasn't exactly sat well with many, including other anarchists. Anarcha-feminist activist Ciara Xyerra, who lives in Lawrence, Kan., singled out the outcry over the 11 in a blistering blog post back in September, specifically in reaction to the Infoshop post, proclaiming her "disgust" with both the accused vandals and their supporters.
"Mostly what pisses me off about this case is that it’s like the crystallization of everything that is wrong with anarchism," she writes. "SOMEONE thought it would be a good idea to smash up downtown asheville on mayday … probably under the auspices of some kind of anarchist commentary. someone failed to do their homework, & small businesses & non-fancy cars were targeted. (& even if it was just a niketown & a jaguar — i’m not convinced that property destruction is an awesome tactic.)," Xyerra continues in her personal no-caps vernacular. "some kids, a staggering quantity of whom were just temporarily passing through asheville, were arrested. & those kids played to the anarchist media, basically insisting that they were political prisoners in need of bail money, vegan sandwiches, & attention for their political beliefs …even while conspiracy charges prevented them from making their defenses too explicitly political."
Some of the accused vandals were active in the anarchist community in Lawrence; Xyerra notes that they didn't have a good reputation among local activists in her area, quoting one as saying "i was pretty relieved when they left town."
"Given the privilege & hubris of the defendants," Xyerra adds. "i don’t feel much pity for them."
In September, an official grand jury indictment came down for the 11 and posters and stickers began to appear around downtown. District Attorney Ron Moore revealed that he'd received about 50 pieces of mail supporting the arrestees.
More recently, a group of about 30 to 40 people marched through downtown, shouting pro-anarchist slogans, condemning the police as the "absolute enemy" and demonstrating their support for the 11. Despite the animosity, the closest the protest came to a direct clash with the police was when the marchers briefly occupied the right lane of College Street before, at the APD's urging, they returned to the sidewalk.
"The small crowd, fed up with an abundance of pigs, yuppies, and Obama fans, made the busy Pack Square echo with irregular drumbeats, foghorns, and chants that taunted nearby pigs," an exuberant post on Anarchist News read of the event. "The effects of MayDay and the steep charges of the 11, as well as too many others around the country, have reached far beyond those individuals’ possible sentences; they have left Asheville and elsewhere paralyzed with a residue of fear, they have been divisive and imposed limitations on the way we fight together. For the people who have felt the emptiness of life after repression, this uneventful march acted as a reminder that we are not alone, and we will not stop fighting."
The same post targeted the press presence at the protest, including me, as "parasites of the media." Nonetheless, the author ended the article with links to all the local media coverage, including my own reporting. The comments took an even more vitriolic turn when some critics of the protest weighed in, including one commenter writing "nobody gives a fuck about your small business," a slogan unlikely to ever be a hit in this town.
Over on the Xpress website, the article accrued more than 6,000 views and 44 comments, including plenty of anger and condemnation of the protesters and accused vandals as spoiled, self-indulgent, from "up north" or, in one particular case, "deserving of a beat-down."
When the 11 individuals showed up in court ton Dec. 6, a trial date of Jan. 24 was announced, but the District Attorney's office is still deciding how to handle the trial — whether the 11 will be tried together or separately — so their day in court may face further delay.
Anarchism, as most radical creeds, tends to attract furious emotions and a lot of attention; people love to choose sides in order to strike a pose and feel part of a larger struggle. For some of the anarchists, the arrestees provide instant martyrs; for their detractors, an instant enemy to condemn an entire set of beliefs.
I do have to wonder if this could become an annual ritual — vandalism spree, arrests, boom, "Asheville [place number of arrested here]" a vehicle for instant righteous indignation, whatever one's side. Getting angry feels really good, and I don't see that changing anytime soon, especially in this city.
Of course, lost in all this is the fact that the "11" are individuals, not a monolithic entity, or that small businesses like the Grove Arcade Copy Shop had to dig into their narrow margins to repair senseless wreckage.
It's entirely possible a fair trial (which is what everyone should insist on) could end with some guilty on all charges, some guilty on only a few and others completely acquitted; we simply don't know yet. The people arrested that night have remained silent, for obvious legal reasons, making it all the easier for others to hold them up as a symbol to love or hate.
Reality, as always, is a more complicated beast, as we will no doubt be reminded in January.