Xpress has obtained 270 emails from city of Asheville staff concerning Occupy Asheville. The emails reveal law enforcement considering their approach to (and surveillance of) the protests as well as city staff and Occupy representatives debating freedom of assembly, among other things.
These emails are available to the public in a searchable list created by Xpress, and more emails will be added as soon as they are released. On Oct. 25, Xpress made an open-records request for this material. City staff estimate there are more than 2,000 emails pertaining to Occupy Asheville. Xpress will add the additional email to the database as we receive them. However, city staff have withheld some emails, citing legal grounds. Open records law does allow for some exemptions, including personnel issues and ongoing legal investigations.
Here are some highlights.
The law enforcement reaction
The emails give glimpses into the Asheville Police Department’s thoughts on dealing with Occupy Asheville, including some of its surveillance and negotiation efforts.
Initially, the impression seems to have been positive. On Oct. 6, Sgt. Ronnie Lance wrote to other officers, including the APD’s command staff, saying, “Downtown units have met with them [Occupy] each evening and biked along beside them as they march thru town. They are very good about cross walks and obey all the laws that govern their march. After each march they come to us and asked if they did anything wrong and seem eager to not cause any issues for law enforcement.” Lance continues, “So far, they have been very open and friendly to our presence.”
In response to a petition delivered by local business owner Rosetta Starr, who called for the city to “protect the constitutional rights of the citizens of Asheville to peacefully assemble in our town square,” APD Interim Chief Wade Wood replied on Oct. 7, “I’m not clear what you hope to accomplish with the petition — as APD does and will protect the rights of all people, yet we are responsible for enforcement of the laws as well.”
On Oct. 13, Lt. Stony Gonce writes about his observations of a meeting with some Occupy representatives where city staff were laying out three possible camping spots:
“The 3 [possible camping location] options were presented and declined by Occupy Asheville representatives,” Gonce notes. “They were extremely disorganized and even argumentative with one another at several points during the meeting. Ms. [Jennifer Foster, at that point Occupy’s attorney] appeared lucid and willing to consider the 3 options. The other representatives discussed their concerns with each site and reiterated that they wanted to occupy Roger McGuire Green and told me that Police should elect not to enforce laws related to the Occupy Asheville movement.”
Wood wrote that he had particular concerns about one of the representatives, Anthony Benton, who, he claimed, “walked a fine line of making veiled threats related to ending the peaceful and non-violent occupation and the consequences it could have for the city. He displays the potential to encite [sic] a riot … or at least talk about it a lot.”
In an Oct. 16 dispatch, Sgt. Jonathan Brown writes about his observation that policing the protests is going well: “Our main objective was to keep everyone safe, which we did, and not to be the next day headline if we could help it,” he wrote. “So far so good.”
Brown added, “My gut feeling with this group is that they are starting to spread their wings more and more and I sense.” He also writes, “There is a certain element within this group that is becoming increasingly antagonistic towards APD as we try to maintain order. I would not be surprised to see an increase in violence, nuisance crimes and a faction challenge officers in an attempt to get a negative, if not violent, response.” At this point, he says, “everyone knows each encounter is being recorded and officers are maintaining the professional standard that is expected.”
He said he was trying to build “West Asheville up as the land of milk and honey! Perhaps they would become interested in what it might offer.”
The same day, Michael Adams of Moog Music asked the APD for increased patrols near the temporary Occupy Asheville camp site under the Lexington Avenue overpass.
“Will you please ask your folks to increase patrols around here? I’m concerned about increased vandalism around the Moog facility and my employees being hassled (that’s already happening),” he writes. “Plus, they are using our dumpster for their trash.”
Capt. Tim Splain replies, “I’ll let our Baker District and downtown officers know, so they can keep an eye on things.”
Adams replied “Can you let them know now? We have six people behind the dumpster in our parking lot this very minute … I don’t need them to hassle my people as I leave the building.”
On Oct. 20, Patrol Capt. Daryl Fisher sent out a missive detailing a conversation he had with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Patrol Capt. Jeff Estes about that city’s methods of dealing with Occupy protests. Fisher cites Charlotte’s designation of a space in front of its police headquarters as a “public forum space” and that it has assigned two officers full-time to the Occupy site; the officers “do not interfere or take any action unless to quell a breach of the peace,” and they gather intelligence on Occupy’s activities, later presented in daily briefings.
“Captain Estes does tell me that they are having similar issues as we are with persons or groups trying to escalate the occupation to include vandalism and related criminal violations,” he writes. “What Charlotte PD is doing is what we at APD are in the beginning stages of doing.” Fisher adds that he doesn’t know if APD has the staff to monitor the Occupy camp continuously, but “we will also be using on duty folks in a plain clothes capacity to conduct intelligence gathering.”
The email designates Brown as the recipient of intelligence gathered by the APD. In multiple emails, the APD makes clear that, whenever possible, they will record encounters with protesters.
The same day, in another email, Fisher fears that the APD will be “tasked with eviction” of the Occupiers.
On Oct. 21, Animal Services Supervisor Brenda Sears sent an email to Capt. Sarah Benson expressing concern about animals at the campsite.
“Many of the residents have dogs which are receiving questionable care,” Sears writes. “But more importantly are posing a public safety issue by being unvaccinated, unlicensed and unaltered.” Sears adds that such owners need warnings at the site and return in 30 days to enforce.
At the Oct. 25 Asheville City Council meeting, Council did not approve Occupy Asheville’s request for a portion of McGuire Green as a permanent spot, instead voting to close the Lexington Avenue camp and expressing a variety of concerns about problems with the site.
Legal wrangling, Council inquiries, the Cherokee and more
Of course, many non-law enforcement staff have dealt with Occupy Asheville as well, and the emails reveal more about those exchanges.
On Oct. 7, Tom Downing, an administrative assistant in the City Manager’s office, wrote an account of his encounter with Lisa Landis, a protester associated with the Occupy movement and (now former) spokesperson.
“They want a ‘permanent spot in the City to share their story,’ which is related to the Occupy Asheville movement,” he wrote. “She said that if they can’t use Pack Square Park then they are going to enlist the assistance of the Cherokee Indians and try to take over the park by use of eminent domain. … Also, she said that the Indians are going to their ‘protectors’ to ensure that the authorities don’t do what happened in New York. The Indians will stand in a ring around them and make sure that the protestors are not harmed.”
When Downing asked who their contact person might be, “she said she hoped they might determine a leader tonight as they have no leaders.”
Foster also had a lengthy exchange with City Attorney Bob Oast during the negotiation for a possible site for Occupy Asheville.
“We strongly believe that we have the right to do exactly what we are doing under the First Amendment Assembly rights, and we are seeking your cooperation rather than mass arrests and court challenges to so prove, but that, as always, is an option,” she wrote to Oast on Oct. 12. In other emails, Foster expressed her hope for a “permanent free speech” area.
Oast asked Foster to “provide … citations to case law that support your position … and I will be glad to review.”
She shot back, “Shouldn’t you have done that already?” Then, in a subsequent email, notes, “Sorry to be short earlier, but I’ve just been under a lot of stress and trying to hold this together from many angles to ensure peace. It has not been easy.”
Foster then cites cases, such as United States v. Cruikshank in 1876 and Edwards v. South Carolina in 1963, asserting that the right to picket and assemble extends to the Occupy Asheville encampment. Oast replies, “We are finding that some degree of content-neutral regulation, including regulations that prohibit camping, is constitutionally permissible.” He cites Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, a 1984 case where the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Park Service could prevent protesters from camping overnight in a symbolic tent city they had erected.
Early in the protest, Council member Gordon Smith passed concerns from Occupy Asheville member David Stewart onto City Manager Gary Jackson, who replied on Oct. 5.
“I know you probably realize, but … our police department has more experience than almost any with protests and protesters, and as well counter-protests and counter protesters,” Jackson writes. “So, their batting average is pretty good for working through differences of opinion.”
Jackson added that “based on emails however, it appears Mr. Stewart wants blessing or permissions that can’t be granted by ordinance or statute. APD will continue to advise him what the ordinances allow and do not allow. We will expect the usual extra special sensitivity from our officers, but they can’t just look the other way when and if legal lines are crossed.”
Smith asked Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson on Oct. 17 if it was possible to get an update on “general cleanliness and any public health issues,” citing request for personal hygiene supplies he’d seen on Occupy Asheville’s Facebook page.
On Oct. 24, Smith noted that “there is not a single Occupy Asheville group — there are various clusters operating under that name, and the ‘leaderless’ organizational style is the case with each … the Lexington Avenue camp has a variety of opinions regarding strategies and the way forward.”
Foster no longer represents Occupy Asheville. Since leaving the Lexington Avenue site, the Occupiers have shifted locations from sidewalks next to the Federal Building to an area in front of the Merrill-Lynch building in downtown to, most recently, a strip near the steps of City Hall.
Photo by Bill Rhodes