Asheville City Council

“Are you the one that was at the peace rally last week sitting in the tree shouting ‘No war, no war’? … Who are you? These are all freedoms that have been afforded to you through the sacrifice of others … many of whom gave their life just for you. What have you done to ensure our freedom? Nothing. Perhaps you would prefer to live in another country. Perhaps this is where you should be.”

Asheville: Love it or leave it.

That, at least, seems to be the opinion of Haw Creek resident Fred English, who spoke the above words at the Asheville City Council’s Feb. 25 formal session. During the public-comment period, English used his allotted three minutes to publicly question the patriotism of anti-war protesters and others who disagree with the policies of President Bush. And strangely enough for a man who speaks so highly of freedom, English then called on Council to rescind a permit granted to local activists who have scheduled a peace rally on the same day another local group has planned a Support our Soldiers rally. “All those people want to do is disrupt us; that’s the only thing they’re out there for,” English complained.

He was followed by local talk-radio host Bill Fishburne, an organizer of the SOS rally. After approaching the lectern, Fishburne paused, noting, “I’m going to do something I haven’t had a chance to do in 32 years.” He then slowly unfolded a military-issue green beret and set it atop his head. Properly attired, Fishburne proceeded to recount a tale widely circulated by SOS organizers in an effort to drum up support for their March 1 rally.

“A few weeks ago, we had an incident that was a flashback for a lot of us — back to 1968 or ’71 — where two Marines were spit on outside of the county courthouse. At that point, we heard about it, and a lot of us decided it was time to let the troops who are going overseas and who serve our country now know that that’s not going to happen again. The disrespect that was shown and the lack of support, the feeling that you were out of place if you wore a uniform, that should not be how we live in the United States; so we formed the SOS.”

Efforts to confirm Fishburne’s story of the abused Marines have so far proved unsuccessful. According to event organizer Chad Nesbitt, the SOS board of directors voted not to release the names of the soldiers because they have been deployed, and the group wants to protect the families’ privacy. Meanwhile, however, the rally organizers have contradicted themselves, retelling the tale in a variety of forms. Sometimes, it’s with Marines in front of the courthouse; other times, it’s two Army soldiers on their way to a photographer’s studio. Meanwhile, further research suggests that this story may turn out to be the Asheville version of an urban myth documented by Jerry Lembcke, professor of sociology at Holy Cross College, in his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam.

Nonetheless, Council members sat in rapt attention as Fishburne rehearsed the tale of the spittle-flecked Marines. And after setting the stage, Fishburne, too, asked Council to reconsider the permit issued for the peace rally. Instead of asking that the permit be revoked, however, Fishburne requested that the peace event — which its organizers are calling Support Our Soldiers: Bring Them Home — be moved somewhere farther away from his SOS rally in City/County Plaza (the peace rally is scheduled to take place at the nearby Vance Monument). His organization, reasoned Fishburne, had been granted a permit first, and a drumming session planned by the peace rally could interfere with a prayer session SOS organizers had planned. “This [peace] rally has been established with the sole purpose of disrupting our event. It’s very difficult to pray in quiet, spiritual contemplation with your god when, at the same time, someone else is beating bongos, playing drums and shouting into microphones,” he said.

Council members Joe Dunn and Carl Mumpower expressed an interest in discussing the matter. But Mayor Charles Worley quickly dismissed the idea, noting that the city has scheduled simultaneous public events in the past and that Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino has said he doesn’t expect any problems.

Earlier that evening, Council had endorsed a joint County/City proclamation declaring March 1 to be Support our Soldiers Day, as requested by English several weeks ago. The Council meeting, in fact, had been kicked off with a patriotic flurry when the mayor announced that the pledge of allegiance — now recited before every televised session in a ritual implemented by the Worley administration — would be led by a local veteran (in response to a request by Dunn). The veteran in question was Asheville resident Grady Beard, who lost both his legs in Vietnam. If Dunn intended the moment to be a somber reminder of the sacrifices soldiers are often asked to make, then the wheelchair-bound Beard served his purpose. Some in the audience, however, seemed to find in the sight of a man crippled by a controversial war a further argument for opposing the current military preparations.

After intoning the words “with liberty and justice for all,” Beard received a thunderous ovation.

Not in my name

Not everyone in attendance was there to praise the president, however. During the same public-comment session, two city residents made separate requests that the city revisit a controversial pledge of unconditional support for President Bush adopted shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.

In resolution No. 01-144, the Asheville City Council (under then-Mayor Leni Sitnick) declared that it “supports the President of the United States as he works with his national security team to defend against additional attacks, and find the perpetrators to bring them to justice.” But Grant Millin and Rebecca Campbell each called on Council to reconsider the resolution in light of the recent Bush-led crackdown on civil liberties and the administration’s extension of the War on Terrorism to include Iraq.

Campbell also proposed that Council “either repeal or rewrite Resolution 0-144, not only to preclude possible civil-liberties litigation but to reflect a more cautious support for a national administration that history will show to have been far more inimical to the welfare of the American people than any foreign terrorists.”

Council made no comment on either Millin’s or Campbell’s proposal.

Closer to home…

Earlier that evening, Council once again tackled the ever-prickly topics of growth, zoning and self-determination. With such weighty matters on the agenda, the chamber was, naturally, packed. Only this time, most of those in attendance weren’t Asheville voters (or even Buncombe County residents). Instead, these folks hailed from Henderson County’s Mills River community, which wants to incorporate as a town.

That, however, entails clearing some legislative hurdles — including securing the blessings of the Asheville City Council. State law requires an area that wants to incorporate as a town or city to first get a nod of approval from any municipality with a population greater than 50,000 that lies within five miles of the area in question.

This approval comes in the form of a resolution of support; without it, the petitioning community faces an uphill battle in Raleigh. Under state law, if Asheville rejected the plan, the legislative committee that handles requests for incorporation could give only a limited endorsement. And it would take a three-fifths-majority vote for the legislature to approve the measure.

Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford advised Council members not to approve the resolution unless the Mills River folks considerably scaled back the size of the incorporated area. Instead of the proposed 22 square miles, Shuford called for incorporating only downtown Mills River’s historic district. Otherwise, he reasoned, it could jeopardize future economic growth in an area of prime, flat land near the Asheville Regional Airport that Shuford hopes will one day be developed for industry.

“We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that we have a regional resource here,” he said, adding, “This is a regional economic-development issue, not an Asheville economic-development issue.” Shuford also noted that his staff feels that “what’s been proposed lacks any sort of zoning or planning pattern.”

But Elana Carland, representing the Mills River interim Town Council, countered, “We’re starting a town, and we can’t undertake planning and zoning at the beginning and do a good job of it.” She did say, however, that one of the community’s top priorities once the incorporation has been approved is hiring a planning expert. Carland also stressed that the residents’ desire to protect the “rural nature of the community” is what’s driving them to incorporate. The community, she said, wants to establish a town with “minimal government and low taxes.” The proposed 1-cent tax rate, noted Carland, “would be very attractive to industry.”

Council member Dunn, however, quickly put his foot down, declaring, “We need to stay out of this completely; I don’t want us to have a dog in this fight.” But Shuford explained that by doing nothing, Council would, in fact, decrease the likelihood of the legislature’s approving the incorporation, in that taking no action would be seen as a negative response.

In the end, the idea of negatively impacting the destiny of a community outside the Council’s purview proved too distasteful. Unanimously rejecting the recommendation of their staff, Council members approved the resolution of support for incorporating the Mills River community — all 22 square miles of it.

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