Enforcing a new city ordinance, the Asheville Police Department cleared tents from the Occupy Asheville campsite — among the last public Occupy encampments in the country — in front of City Hall late yesterday evening. Three protesters, claiming the rules infringe their rights, were arrested for ordinance violations.
The new rules, passed by Asheville City Council in response to the camp, went into effect at noon. By that time, most of the rows of tents that had filled the space since late November were gone. City employees came by to clear away full trash bins and erect new signs declaring the camping ban. The grass in the area was mostly gone.
But some were determined to stay. John Penley, an Asheville native who's moved back to the area after helping start Occupy Wall Street's original Zuccotti Park camp, moved his tent to the brick area in front of City Hall, asserting he intended to use it as a meditation and information space, not for sleeping. Another tent soon joined it, and remained until the police arrived. Penley made contact with an American Civil Liberties Attorney and claimed they advised him he was within his rights to do so.
The APD only had a sporadic presence throughout the day. Around 10:20 p.m., just after the park's curfew, six APD officers approached the area. Penley had chosen to stay in one tent, Matthew Danovich in another. Slogans like "Occupy the Future" were chalked around the area.
"We will stay nonviolent, we will be peaceful," John Spitzberg, president of the local Veterans for Peace and an Occupy Asheville participant, said, his words repeated by the crowd as part of the "people's mic" used by Occupiers to amplify their words.
Under the city's new rules, protesters can remain in the site, designated a "public forum" 24/7, but can't set up tents (though they can use sleeping bags). APD Lt. Stony Gonce and Capt. Daryl Fisher explained the specificities of the new rules and asked for the protesters' cooperation.
"We're here to keep peace and we want everyone to be peaceful," Spitzberg said to Gonce.
"Thank you very much, I want the same thing," Gonce replied.
Contact between the protesters and APD was mostly cordial. Before the arrests got underway, some protesters were chatting with one officer about his time in the military, and Penley told Xpress earlier that the police here were more polite and respectful than behavior he'd witnessed in New York and other cities. Some protesters suggested forming a circle around the campers, but Spitzberg and others warned against the idea. In the end, about 20 people, some with pink duct tape over their mouths, made a circle nearby, humming "om." The APD presence grew to around 30 officers. Penley held a copy of the U.S. Constitution while protesters around him echoed his words.
"I have a first amendment right to be here," Penley said. "We will continue, even if it means arrest and jail. So come and get me."
Penley and Danovich refused to move from the tents. The owner of the tent Danovich was staying in, Perry Graham, declined to dismantle the tent, saying he would do so when he left the park.
One protester asked Gonce if he had come to remove the constitution.
"I'm here to remove the tents," he retorted, later adding that "it's not about what I want," but about the APD enforcing the city's laws.
The three were all arrested by the APD for violating the new ordinances. The rest of the protesters moved back, shouting "shame!" and asserting that the men were standing up for their rights. During the arrests some argued over the status of the police. While some protesters compared them to Nazis and claimed they would be violent if not for the media attention the eviction drew. But others objected, asserting that the officers were "just humans trying to survive" and shouldn't be blamed for the actions of police in other cities.
The debate eventually died down and the group began a "general assembly" to deliberate over bail money for the arrestees. The police took down the remaining tents, asking people in the crowd to take items from the old camp, before leaving into the night, a scattered group of protesters still in front of City Hall.