With the recent wave of evictions of Occupy camps around the country, Occupy Asheville’s encampment in front of City Hall is one of the few still standing.
The original Occupy Wall Street camp — in Zuccotti Park — was forcibly evicted last November and Occupy Los Angeles’ camp fell later that month. Occupy Portland was cleared twice: in November and late January. Occupy Charlotte was thrown out Jan. 31. Elsewhere in the Southeast, Occupy Atlanta was evicted in late October, Occupy New Orleans in early December, and Occupy DC this past weekend. Occupy Pittsburgh’s camp is mostly abandoned, with an eviction looming. A recent USA Today article called the actions “a second wave of evictions.”
Occupy Asheville’s campsite changed locations for much of its early life. When the protests began last October, a few tents clustered near the Wall Street parking deck served as the camp. Soon, others sprang up near the federal building. An appeal for a permanent, city-permitted location in Pack Square Park failed, but led to city staff — at Asheville City Council’s direction — agreeing to let demonstrators set up a temporary encampment under the Lexington Avenue overpass, but Council didn’t vote to continue that camp, and protesters, citing multiple problems with the location, agreed to leave. The federal building camp remained, and another encampment sprung up near the Merrill-Lynch building.
In late November, Occupy Asheville members set up tents on a swath of city property that didn’t technically fall within the neighboring Pack Square Park or its 10 p.m. curfew and camping ban. As there’s no prohibition for camping on the spot, it fell into a “legal gray area” in the words of City Attorney Bob Oast, and this camp proved more enduring than the others downtown. Right now, there are over 20 tents on the site.
While city staff proposed a camping ban on Dec. 13, Council balked, and instead sent the measure to the Public Safety Committee for review. At that committee, Council member Gordon Smith proposed a compromise — a permitting process — and directed staff to develop it. At Council’s Jan. 24 meeting, both Smith’s attempted compromise (which was opposed by Occupy Asheville) and an attempt by Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer to set an eviction date for the camp fell one vote short of passage.
But Occupy Asheville could soon share the fate of other camps around the country. While the last move to evict the campers failed, more than one Council member made it clear that was because they wanted to see the protesters voluntarily leave in return for the city supporting a resolution supporting the end of corporate personhood. On Feb. 14, Council will vote on evicting the camp (and on the corporate personhood resolution), though the measure will likely give the demonstrators some time to pack up.
After two general assemblies and a meeting of its coordinating council, the protesters didn’t take the city’s deal, instead issuing a letter claiming the camp is “a representation of the people’s natural rights.” Smith tells Xpress that he now feels “the votes are there to evict,” though he doesn’t plan to support the move.
Unlike protests in some other cities, Occupy Asheville hasn’t seen the same level of tense confrontation between police and protesters. While the remarks of some city employees have caused controversy, and the APD dropped charge for handing out fliers after a public outcry, there’s been no widespread crackdown, allegations of police brutality or prevention of media from observing police activity. City Manager Gary Jackson has noted that police and staff are trying a cautious approach to the camp and several Council members have expressed sympathy for the Occupy movement’s goals.
But the camp has drawn complaints from city employees, surrounding businesses and some passerby, fueling the support of others on Council for its end.
The encampment isn’t just controversial outside of Occupy Asheville. Since early December, some protesters have argued that the movement’s time and resources are better allocated elsewhere, and that problems from belligerent drunks to exposure to the elements make the location untenable. Others, however, countered that conditions at the camp have steadily improved and that it serves as an important public symbol.
Photo by Bill Rhodes