Photo by Bill Rhodes
This the last part of a series examining Occupy Asheville’s impact. The first focused on the change in local protest culture, the second on the protesters’ “difficult dance” with City Council. The final piece focuses on the controversies — internal and external — over the occupations themselves.
Despite Occupy Asheville’s undeniable impact on the local protest scene, perhaps the movement’s biggest difficulties concerned just that: its attempts at an actual occupation.
After the original Occupy Wall Street camp opened in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in mid-September, similar protest sites sprang up across the country. Typically, they involved setting up tents on either public or private property — often, though not always, without permission. Many within the burgeoning movement felt such sites constituted an important center of gravity and visible public presence.
Meanwhile, Occupy Asheville had trouble finding a suitable spot. The first few tents were erected in front of the Wall Street parking deck; after that the group moved to a sidewalk beside the Federal Building. Over the next few months, the search for a more permanent site would become the main bone of contention between Occupy Asheville and city government.
The protesters first appeared before Asheville City Council Oct. 18, seeking permission to indefinitely occupy part of Pack Square Park. Council asked staff to negotiate a temporary spot while it considered the larger issues. Despite reservations from many within Occupy, they settled on the parking lot under the Lexington Avenue overpass, which would serve as the movement’s home base for the next two weeks.
Under the bridge
One thing city officials and protesters agree on is that the campsite didn’t work. Besides being outside the core of downtown, it brought Occupy Asheville into conflict with the existing homeless population. And the Police Department often refused to remove other people who came into the area. “APD officers are not bouncers, hired to enforce a guest list,” an Oct. 22 incident report notes.
Another camper later reported seeing a drunk man assaulting protesters, a scene she described as “like Lord of the Flies.”
Council member Gordon Smith, who visited the site several times to talk with the campers, says, “I had a lot of different conversations, but I came to the conclusion the camp just wasn’t working.” At Council’s Oct. 25 meeting, Smith made a motion to disband the camp, and the protesters agreed to leave the site. After Council rebuffed a second request to move to Pack Park, however, some protesters resorted to civil disobedience, and eight were arrested.
Some members subsequently established a small camp on the sidewalk in front of the Merrill Lynch building, and the police mostly left the tents alone. Then, in late November, Occupy Asheville found the spot it had been looking for.
In the shadow of City Hall
Although Pack Square Park had a 10 p.m. curfew, the protesters discovered that a narrow swath near City Hall wasn’t technically part of the park, and it was unclear whether other city rules restricting camping applied there. The area was soon filled with tents, and City Attorney Bob Oast had to inform Council that the spot fell into “a legal gray area.”
For many in the movement, this was an important step. “It’s a visible representation of the concern and anger people feel about the way things are being run,” activist Naomi Archer explained.
Longtime activist John Spitzberg, a retired social worker, feels the camp filled an important niche. “What I saw at the tent city was that some of the homeless people had their basic needs met,” he recalls. “For some of them — not all — they grew to positions of leadership.”
But some of the same complaints that had plagued the Lexington Avenue site soon reappeared here, including problems with what one camper later referred to, during a general assembly, as “violent interlopers.” And even as new Council members were being sworn in Dec. 3, Occupy Asheville held a frank debate outside City Hall. Many felt they’d made their point, saying it was time to shift to different tactics. Others argued just as passionately that the camp remained an important symbol.
Even the camp’s advocates, however, acknowledged that there were issues. “The people that were there couldn’t handle the problems that were coming there,” says Spitzberg.
And as Occupy Asheville continued debating its structure and identity, the broader movement had its own troubles. On Nov. 15, New York police ousted the original Zuccotti encampment. Occupy camps in Los Angeles and Portland fell later that month. Occupy Atlanta had been evicted in late October. Occupy New Orleans followed in early December, and Occupy D.C. in early February. Occupy Pittsburgh’s camp soon went as well. Other camps retreated to donated property; some had had permits all along.
That left Asheville’s City Hall camp among the last public encampments still standing.
“Believe what you believe”
Like Occupy Asheville itself, city government had a hard time deciding what to do with the camp. Staff urged banning camping on all city property, but at their Dec. 13 meeting, Council members balked, shunting the matter to the Public Safety Committee for further discussion. Smith, saying he wanted to be a “peacemaker,” emerged with a compromise: establishing special permits for protest campers. But the idea was rejected by Occupy Asheville — and, narrowly, by Smith’s colleagues as well.
“There’s legitimate protest, but you can’t expect the police not to enforce the laws because you so passionately believe what you believe,” Smith says now.
Meanwhile, a move to ban the camp outright also failed. On Jan. 24, a deadlocked City Council agreed to delay a decision on evicting the protesters until Feb. 14. That night, after Occupy Asheville had issued a lengthy list of demands they wanted met before voluntarily folding their tents, Council voted 5-2 to shut down the camp.
But whatever other effects it may have had, the proposed ban definitely rallied Occupy Asheville: despite the protesters’ internal disagreements, they were united in resisting the city’s attempt to kick them out.
The last full measure of devotion
For Occupy Asheville, the camp served as a sort of Rorschach test. Some saw it as providing a home for the homeless; to others, it was a public statement of defiance. Still others felt it was a tactic that had outlived its usefulness.
Shortly before the camp fell, Asheville native John Penley, a longtime New York City resident and Occupy protester, pitched his tent on the site. One of the original Zuccotti campers, Penley had already witnessed evictions in both his adopted city and in Washington, D.C.
“I’d been evicted twice; I was glad to find there still was an Occupy here,” he explains. “New York and D.C.,” notes Penley, “were a lot more organized,” especially in terms of security.
Finally, on Feb. 17, time was up. Around 10:20 p.m., six APD officers strolled over to begin the eviction. They were soon joined by others, increasing the police presence to about 20. Three men were arrested: Penley and another man for refusing to leave the remaining tents, a third for declining to remove his tent.
Protesters alternately chanted “Shame!” and publicly debated whether the police were akin to the Nazis or merely “human beings trying to survive.” Within an hour, the three men were taken away, leaving only a smattering of protesters facing City Hall.