On the evening of March 12, more than 200 people streamed up Montford Avenue and down Cumberland before entering downtown on Lexington and eventually gathering around the Vance Monument.
Escorted by Asheville police, they carried signs emblazoned with "Hate + Silence = Death" or "Our rights, your rights, human rights." And though it took the marchers a few minutes to get going and coordinate their chants, before long the name of the march — "We are not bashful!" — could be heard echoing through the streets, along with other chants, such as, "We're here, we're queer, we're fabulous, don't f**k with us!"
Designed as a show of strength and "a stand against violence," as organizer Samantha Soper put it in her remarks before the rally, the march and rally were held in response to a series of incidents that took place from Friday, April 30, to Sunday, May 2, which LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists are describing as assaults against members of their community.
According to Amber Van Pelt, who's helping to revive the Safe Streets Asheville Project, on Saturday, May 1, one woman was attacked with a metal pipe on the Clingman Avenue Bridge. The next day, someone was hit in the face with a metal pipe on Cumberland Avenue and someone else was followed and verbally threatened. In all three cases, the victims described the attackers as three college-age white men in a red Volvo. On that Friday, Van Pelt claims a woman was assaulted on Chestnut Street by a man driving a gray Chrysler. She believes that in all cases the individuals were targeted because of their perceived sexual orientation.
"All of the people attacked could easily be seen as part of the queer community," Van Pelt notes.
She adds that she and some friends were followed by three young white men on April 30 for several blocks in Montford. "We made them aware we knew they were there, and they eventually left."
Allysa Oliver said she had a similar experience on Cumberland Avenue — on the same day.
"I was walking with a group of friends who could be perceived as homosexual, and a group of guys got out of their car and said 'hello' in a very aggressive manner and followed us for quite a few blocks."
In response, "We're starting a non-profit called Safe Streets Asheville Project, to try and reach out to the community without the police," Van Pelt says. "It's our attempt to look out for ourselves."
SSAP was initially founded in the summer of 2008 in response to a similar attack, but Van Pelt notes that it "lost its momentum as the attacks became less frequent." The group is currently working on setting up contacts, a hotline for people facing similar assaults and other efforts.
"We're trying to find people to offer free therapy for an extended period of time. We're working on setting up a support group [and] self-defense classes, [and we're] distributing whistles and pepper spray," she tells Xpress.
"There's a lot of fear"
The march was pulled together after news of the attacks spread. An announcement from Soper declared: "This peaceful, permitted demonstration is in response to recent alleged hate crimes against LGBTQ residents. The demonstration will promote harmony and tolerance."
Representatives of Safe Streets and march organizers met with police and city officials, and Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith participated in the march.
So far, no police reports have been filed about the attacks. Van Pelt, who's spoken to the victims, says that's a result of their distrust of the police and skepticism that the attackers will be caught. "They're terrified of cops," she tells Xpress. "We've never been helped by the police as a community. A lot of people in the queer community have been assaulted by the police. Most of us don't have any fond experiences with them, but a lot of us have had [bad] experiences with them. There's a lot of fear."
"Since I moved to Asheville [from Greenville, S.C.], I've noticed it's like a haven, but I still experience the same kinds of threats and assaults [that] I got there, just not as frequent," Oliver tells Xpress. "With this many assaults in one weekend, it's nerve-wracking to walk down the street alone. It's hard to report an attack if you don't know who they are and they run away immediately after. Most gay bashings do go unreported because of that, or because [victims] feel the cops won't handle it in an appropriate manner. But far as I know, the Asheville police force has been very accommodating towards trying to keep everyone safe."
Asheville Police Department Chief Bill Hogan says that the department has had a good rapport with the marchers. "We extended cooperation, and they were very receptive," he says, encouraging victims to report attacks as soon as possible.
"We don't know that assaults occurred — not saying they didn't, but we just don't have any factual information to go on," Hogan tells Xpress. "Obviously, if those kinds of things happen, they need to report them to the police immediately. We always encourage people to travel in a group of folks late at night. It's just always safer."
The lack of reports, he says, "puts us in a difficult situation. We want to investigate it, and if there's a criminal act, we want to charge and prosecute."
The faster it's reported, Hogan continues, the better the odds that the attackers can be caught.
"It depends on what they did and if they can give us an accurate description, if they report it in a timely fashion. There've been many, many cases where someone calls, immediately gives a good description, and we intercept the vehicle or the person walking down the street, identify this person as the offender and then enforcement action is taken."
Stopping assaults is a priority for the police, he adds, but they need citizen cooperation.
"We want everyone to have the freedom to move about this community safely and not feel put upon or harassed for any reason," Hogan says. "Our desire is to have open lines of communication with all our citizens and for them to take comfort in knowing that they can come to the police department, and we'll work hand-in-hand to make this community safe. We need citizens to be good witnesses and to help us be our eyes and ears."
Oliver says that people should remain aware of their surroundings, and that assaults on LGBT people are more common than often thought.
"My experience with most gay bashings is that if you [show that] you're aware they're being aggressive, they'll most of the time back off, because they're afraid you'll call the cops," she says. "The worst thing you can do is ignore it. I'd like to see the community more aware. With everything going on, it seems like people can forget there's still a civil-rights battle to be won…. I feel like the gay population's pretty vulnerable."
At Vance Monument, the enthusiasm swelled. Marchers clapped, chanted and cheered while passersby honked their horns in support.
One man, R.K. Wells, brandishing a "HOMO Sapien" sign, climbed atop a low wall and shouted, "This is awesome! This is the biggest pride event I've ever seen in Asheville!"
David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, x137 or at firstname.lastname@example.org