A peaceful gathering turned violent the evening of May 31 as protesters against police brutality and racial injustice were met with tear gas and force by the Asheville Police Department, according to reports from area news outlets and social media.
By the end of the night, Asheville Police Chief David Zack and other officers had joined the line of protesters and knelt in response to the crowd’s demands for police to “take a knee.” Mountain Xpress was not present at the protest.
Chief Zack released a statement at 4:30 p.m. on June 1, following a press conference with Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell.
“I recognize the anger and frustration in our community surrounding the death of George Floyd,” Zack said in the statement. “Your anger is justifiable, and your First Amendment rights to speak and gather will be protected. The Asheville Police Department also has an obligation to protect the members of our community, property, those involved in the protest, and our police officers.”
Roughly 200 protesters gathered at the Vance Monument in downtown Asheville around 6 p.m. on May 31, according to reports from WLOS and the Citizen Times. Demonstrators of all ages, holding handmade signs and chanting “I can’t breathe,” joined hundreds of similar protests across the country demanding justice for George Floyd, an African American man killed by police in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 25.
The crowd marched through downtown Asheville and onto Interstate 240, which was closed in both directions. Protesters, escorted by the APD, eventually made their way to the Bowen Bridge, where police responded with “tear gas and force,” according to reporting from the Citizen Times.
Protesters subsequently returned to the Vance Monument. Around 10:30 p.m., APD officers in full riot gear deployed rubber bullets and more tear gas against demonstrators, some of whom volleyed firecrackers and other projectiles at the police line. The crowd then walked to the APD headquarters a block away, moving closer to a line of officers wielding shields. Just after midnight, Chief Zack and several other officers knelt in solidarity with the protesters, according to reports from the protests.
“This protest was to show the Asheville community that we are strong and stand with our black brothers and sisters,” says Nick Levine, a white photographer present at the protest. “We understand that we will never understand, but we fight on.”
Four individuals were arrested during the protests, the APD reported in a June 1 press release: Cori Antonio Floyd, of Asheville, for failure to disperse on command; Anthony Pacer John, of Asheville, for assault on a government official, failure to disperse on command and resisting a public officer; Michael Fox Dean, of Arden, for assault on a government official, failure to disperse on command and resisting a public officer; and Raphael Demetrius Morales, Jr., of Asheville, for failure to disperse on command and impeding traffic by sit, stand or lie.
The protests in Asheville mirrored clashes between demonstrators and police across the state. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department reportedly arrested 45 individuals over the weekend, and curfews are now in effect in Raleigh and Fayetteville.
On Sunday, Gov. Roy Cooper authorized 450 members of the N.C. National Guard to assist cities that requested additional support for controlling the protests, as announced during a May 31 press conference. North Carolina joins more than 20 states with a National Guard presence; as of May 31, Guard troops had been sent to Charlotte and Raleigh.
“I fear the cries of the people are being drowned out by the noise of the riots,” Cooper said. “Let me be clear about one thing: People are more important than property. Black lives do matter.”
Manheimer and the six other members of Asheville City Council released a statement on May 29 claiming that, while there is no way to erase “centuries of abuse and mistrust,” city leadership remains committed to equity and inclusivity.
“We know that a crime like this reaches across our country and people here in Asheville are hurting,” the statement said. “We are frightened. We are outraged. We are distrustful. A violent breach of trust by a public duty officer such as this sadly reinforces these feelings and again reminds us that so much more work is needed for equitable treatment, access and opportunities to Black, Indigenous and other People of Color.”