A volcanic surge of outrage met members of Asheville’s Citizens Police Advisory Committee on March 7.
During a meeting at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, a packed room of Asheville citizens confronted members of the committee, government officials and members of the Asheville Police Department, including Chief Tammy Hooper, with personal stories and calls for reform.
The CPAC meeting occurred about a week after the Asheville Citizen Times published leaked body camera footage showing former Asheville Police Senior Officer Chris Hickman, who is white, beating Asheville resident Johnnie Jermaine Rush, who is African-American.
“The value of this process is allowing everyone here the opportunity to be heard,” Hooper said. “To express your feelings and your outrage and for us to take that and try to work toward making things better for our entire community as we move forward.”
Officials on stage buckled under a torrent of emotion from members of the audience. Many citizens were visibly upset. Some were crying, and speakers frequently interrupted each other. At least one member of the audience called for the mayor, city attorney and city manager to be fired, and another asked Hooper if she would resign.
“I’m happy to resign if that’s going the solve the problem,” Hooper said.
Resident DeLores Venable said the large crowd came to call out entrenched racism and structural racial bias in Asheville.
“We have been here over and over and over again,” Venable said. She pointed to the stage, indicating the source of the blame. “Every single person on this stage is part of the system.
“We’ve all been talked to like dogs, trash,” Venable said. “We’re not valued. We have no voice in this system. That is what Asheville is. They believe in tourism. They don’t believe in the people who make this city run.”
Southside resident Priscilla Ndiaye said she has seen a pattern of response when the Asheville Police Department comes under fire. “I know there’s a lot of hurt, anger and pain in this room,” Ndiaye said, “but I just want to stand and say that I’m tired of coming to these types of meetings, and I’ll be here [and there’s] all this screaming and hollering back and forth and we leave out, and nothing is accomplished. Nothing. We go away until something else happens, and then we come back again.”
Rondell Lance, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police and a candidate for Buncombe County Sheriff, said the video is disgusting and broke his heart.
“All I ask of the community, all I ask of you is don’t judge the rest of those officers there because of Chris Hickman,” he said. “Chris Hickman is the one that is at fault.”
Recent City Council candidate Dee Williams said a small group of people runs Asheville — people who ostracize those who are not acquiescent. “I hate that this gentleman got beat, but he isn’t the first one and he won’t be the last,” Williams said. “Not unless we do something decisive. We have got to stop talking so much and start doing.”
Nicole Townsend, another Asheville resident, told the committee she didn’t originally plan to speak but approached the microphone because she couldn’t help thinking about her nephew.
“My nephew is 8,” Townsend said. “He loves chicken nuggets and firetrucks and ice cream and hugging me and being the cutest, sweetest little kid he could possible be. My nephew is also a little black boy.” She’s concerned about how police officers will see him as he grows older.
She also told a story about her own run-in with Asheville police when she was 19. Late at night, she sat in the car talking with a friend, an African-American man, outside her mother’s house. One of her mother’s neighbors called the police, and when officers arrived at the scene, they asked to check Townsend’s and her friend’s ID.
“The officer said to me, ‘The next time y’all want to talk at 2 a.m., you can go to Denny’s,’” Townsend said. “For me, that moment was very clear that existing while black is a crime in Asheville.”
Quentin Miller, a candidate for Buncombe County Sheriff this year and a sergeant in the Asheville Police Department, said during his time as an officer, he’s seen a lot of things — both good and bad.
“[The beating] did happen,” Miller said. “We can’t say it didn’t. … But what are we going to do now?”
He also came to Hooper’s defense. “Before we even start giving her [Chief Hooper] the boot … we’ve got to come together and talk about this. OK? Because I’m just telling you, if we get someone else in here, guess what, they might be worse than y’all think Chief Hooper is.”
Reporting by Carolyn Morrisroe