This piece is part of analysis and coverage accompanying this week's cover story on Occupy Asheville's impact
On Oct. 11, Occupy Asheville protesters packed the City Council chamber, its dark-wood wainscoting and somewhat surreal historical paintings providing an ironic backdrop to the proceedings. At issue was a campsite for the group. And when Council member Esther Manheimer told the protesters “Beggars can't be choosers,” they roared back, “We're not beggars!”
The exchange set the tone for a months-long, sometimes discordant pas de deux that has run the gamut from prickly and frustrated to understanding and even supportive, with the two sides displaying decidedly different takes on what constitutes democracy.
It was perhaps inevitable that a protest movement taking aim at the status quo would clash with city government. But the presence on Council of several formerly freewheeling political activists who now find themselves on the other side of the bargaining table has further complicated matters.
Raising issuesCouncil member Cecil Bothwell, a longtime activist and former Xpress reporter, has been involved in many local causes, including the anti-war demonstrations of the early 2000s. Council member Gordon Smith cut his political teeth as the founder of the “Scrutiny Hooligans” political blog and remains an active participant in the city's political life. Brownie Newman, the city’s vice mayor until last December, got his start in environmental protest. Council newcomers Marc Hunt and Chris Pelly, both elected in November, had backgrounds as advocates for sustainability and for neighborhoods, respectively.
“I believed we needed to make room for an exciting new movement to work itself out,” Bothwell explains. “It was clear that many or most of the people involved in the occupation hadn't done much political activity. They would ask such basic questions as 'Why does Council meet on Tuesdays?' They were certainly something happening, but hardly the only issue [Council faced].”
Nonetheless, both Smith and Bothwell have played active roles in dealing with Occupy Asheville, though they’ve taken somewhat different approaches.
“As an activist, I would have mostly been concerned with the activist agenda, but once you're on Council, you definitely hear from the entire community,” notes Bothwell. “A lot of people who aspire to be in the 1 percent were angry at Occupy.”
“I mostly met one-on-one, and I went to a couple of general assemblies,” he adds. “I think it's terrific that they raised issues. But having raised them, it seems like there has to be a next step.”
Smith, meanwhile, says he initially met with six Occupy Asheville members at the Dripolator Coffee Bar soon after the protests began. He has mostly praise for individual protesters. For example, Smith calls Kayvon Kazemini, a local musician who’s been active in Occupy protests and working groups, “a calm, smart, sharp guy who really wants to make a difference in the world.”
Early on, Smith recalls, an activist cautioned him to “look back in the history books when a government has put down a popular uprising, where history has looked favorably on them. That really resonated with me.”
Striving for “the long view,” Smith says he’s tried to figure out how best to respond to “a different kind of protest,” neither provoking violence nor neglecting the protesters’ basic needs. In any case, he explains, “I didn't think the success or failure of the movement was going to hinge on the support of government.”
Others on Council have proved more skeptical, however. Mayor Terry Bellamy criticized the protesters on a number of occasions. And while Council member Jan Davis has sympathized with their concern about declining wages, he’s also objected to some of their protest tactics, saying, for example, that they had no right to occupy public property.
For her part, Manheimer eventually spearheaded the move to shut down Occupy Asheville's controversial camp, saying it was time for Council to move on to other issues.
The path not takenA significant part of what has set the Occupy Asheville saga apart is the things that haven’t happened. By and large, the city has avoided the kind of violent clashes and accusations of police brutality toward protesters or media representatives that have often characterized Occupy encampments across the country.
“We've tried to work with them, establish points of contact within the group, even though it is a fluid group,” interim police Chief Wade Wood explains. “We want to give them options and spell out the laws that we'll enforce. We haven't rushed into any decisions where there was a chance to escalate.”
Some protesters have even had good things to say about the Police Department’s behavior.
“Despite some puffery and bogus charges, we haven't seen the draconian, load-up-the-beanbag-rounds-and-round-them-up approach,” says local waiter Martin Ramsey, who’s been closely involved in Occupy from day one. “Asheville has a very live-and-let-live, liberal culture. A lot of people were interested in working with the city."
Another key Occupy spokesperson, Naomi Archer, agrees, noting, “The police were efficient but not overly violent.”
Nonetheless, a trickle of arrests through October and November led to increasing tension. In some cases (such as the Merrill Lynch and Pack Square Park actions), protesters deliberately sought arrest to draw attention to their cause. But a series of after-the-fact arrests based on surveillance footage proved more controversial, prompting allegations by Occupy Asheville that the APD was harassing them.
Wood, however, defends the arrests, saying the police were merely attempting to de-escalate the situation. “We don't want to take action when tensions are heightened,” he explains. “Why [not] come back when there's a calmer environment? There's been some hostility, but it's mostly aimed at government in general, not the police specifically.”
Meanwhile, public sentiment concerning the city’s restrained approach has also been divided. At a sometimes tense Nov. 4 meeting of the Council of Independent Business Owners, one CIBO member confronted Smith, urging the city to line up mounted officers “and do a baton charge." Others implied that Bothwell and Smith were receiving money from Occupy Asheville (which both Council members as well as Occupy Asheville have denied).
And on Nov. 7, APD civilian forensic specialist Lynn Fraser made derogatory and threatening remarks about the protesters on her Facebook page, calling them “dirtasses” and claiming they “needed a hug around the neck... with a rope.” multiple witnesses saw Fraser taking video of the protesters during marches.
In response, Melissa Williams, the city's social media specialist, wrote “'dirtasses.' LMAO,” while encouraging Fraser to keep matters in perspective. Fraser was demoted but still works for the Police Department; Williams subsequently resigned.
That same day, the news broke that Asheville resident Helen Roberts had been ticketed for handing out political fliers. But the city ordinance police cited clearly applies to commercial advertisements, not political activity, and multiple Supreme Court rulings have found that handing out fliers or pamphlets on public property is protected speech. The charges against Roberts were dropped the following week.
Since November, both civil disobedience and arrests have waned, and most of the APD’s subsequent incident reports involving Occupy Asheville concerned disturbances at the now-defunct City Hall camp, which sparked complaints by city employees, neighboring business owners and even passers-by.
Lingering frustrationsIn early January, seeking a compromise over a more permanent campsite for the group, Smith proposed establishing special permits for protest camping. But he says he wasn't surprised when Occupy members roundly rejected the deal, noting, “They're a protest movement: I expect them to protest.”
Essentially, says Smith, both Occupy and the city have been confronting firsthand the challenges of trying to make governance work. “One shortcoming of democratic institutions is that some voices are elevated and some are squashed,” he observes. “The city has those symptoms in some ways, and Occupy has those same symptoms in some ways. Ostensibly, every voice is invited; in reality, many voices are not welcome.”
Bothwell, meanwhile, snapped at the protesters at one point, asserting that their focus on the campsite in front of City Hall was counterproductive. “Yeah, there was frustration,” he concedes. “It seemed, for some, like it was becoming all about camping. I really felt that Asheville City Council is making some good-faith efforts to address some of the issues Occupy is raising.” As examples, he cites the city's support for a living wage and domestic-partner benefits, and its attempts to shift assets to local banks.
“We're trying our damnedest — why don't you guys figure out what you want to do?” Bothwell explains. “I hope Occupy continues; I hope they help stimulate meaningful change. The disparity of wealth is already hurting America: You can't have a royalty and have meaningful democracy.”
Archer, however, feels the city's reaction to Occupy was more grudging than some Council members may care to admit. "It's not as if the city passed a resolution saying, 'We love Occupy: We know that they're outside our ordinances, but they play a vital role in our community,'" she points out. "Other cities have done that; Asheville has not.”
On Feb. 14, protesters packed the Council chamber, witnessing a lengthy debate before Council members finally mustered enough votes to ban the Occupy Asheville camp. By comparison, the Feb. 28 meeting was short and relatively quiet, leading some city staff to joke that things were boring without Occupy out in force. Only time will tell if that's the end of the story, or if the two sides are merely catching their breath before resuming a difficult dance.