Battling dragons Bele Chere parade clash leaves bitter legacy

[Editor’s note: This story was originally written as part of a longer article about downtown culture clashes. Some citizens say police, at the behest of downtown merchants, are selectively enforcing certain city ordinances — targeting the often unconventional-looking young people who regularly hang out around Pack Square. Look for more on this issue in an upcoming edition of Mountain Xpress.]

More than three months after police broke up an illegal parade at Bele Chere, the bitterness still lingers. Charges of excessive violence by the police — and of irresponsible and hostile behavior by the marchers — remain unresolved.

Evar Hecht, a bystander who questioned the aggressive police response to the parade, was arrested and is still awaiting trial. Hecht says he was assaulted by the arresting officer, Forrest Weaver, and eyewitnesses corroborate Hecht’s account.

But Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino unequivocally maintains that the police did not use excessive force in breaking up the parade, though he admits that there were certain incidents he did not see, including the incident involving Hecht and Weaver. “I want to go on record as saying I’m proud of my officers’ restraint with a group who refused to cooperate,” he declared on Oct. 8, at a special Citizens/Police Advisory Commitee meeting held, in part, to address the parade incident. “I’m not aware of an officer who mishandled anything,” he added.

And Officer Weaver has not returned Mountain Xpress’ numerous phone calls.

Meanwhile, parade participants also question the slow police response to a fight that broke out later that same Bele Chere evening, in which a Weaverville man was injured and subsequently died. That incident, these critics note, went unreported in the local news media. And they wonder why the police mounted such an emphatic response to a peaceful parade, yet seemed to do so little when confronted with a situation which proved to be far more serious.

Police representatives, in response, say the large crowds at Bele Chere and the increased number of complaints in the evening hours, after many people have been drinking alcohol all day, make it harder for police to respond quickly.

At the Oct. 8 meeting, Annarino concluded by saying that he would not address the parade issue anymore.

Enter the dragon

On July 25, 1998, a group of local performance artists, visual artists and musicians joined forces to stage what they called a “people’s parade.” The idea was to snake through downtown at the height of Bele Chere, offering what participants felt would be a creative alternative to the scheduled festival activities — featuring drumming, dancing, singing, colorfully dressed marchers with painted faces, and original, three-dimensional artwork. The piece de resistance was a large, pink, papier mache dragon. Little did the group know, when they gathered on Montford Avenue to begin the procession, that the day would end in what many characterize as a violent clash with police.

Carrying a banner proclaiming, “Stop mind control,” and hoisting the dragon and other artworks, the group marched from Montford to the center of downtown.

“We were fine until we got to Pack Square,” reports Jim Genaro, one of the parade’s organizers. “Then, as we entered the square, an officer [later identified as police Lt. Jon Kirkpatrick] came up, without really trying to communicate with us or tell us what was going on, and started grabbing … [the dragon] and poles and stuff.”

It turns out that the group hadn’t obtained the required parade permit from the city, which rendered the procession illegal. But even if they had applied for a permit, it would have been denied, Chief Annarino explains, because City Council, “understanding concerns of safety, made no stipulations for parades during Bele Chere.”

Genaro says the organizers were unaware that they needed a permit.

Other marchers report that police officers, many of them not in uniform, refused to give names or badge numbers when asked. Annarino, though, notes that — while it’s a common courtesy often afforded people — there’s no law requiring officers to provide that information.

Genaro says Kirkpatrick pointed Mace at him, and parade participant Elizabeth Terry reports being pushed and shoved by other officers.

Hecht, the bystander who was arrested, says he intervened when he saw Officer Weaver being physically abusive to another bystander, whom Hecht says was “kind of picked up by the backpack and thrown down by [Weaver], after he apparently accidentally bumped into him.”

Hecht reports asking the officer why he had to be so rough: “[Weaver] said, ‘You need to get out of here now,’ and I said, ‘OK, I’ll leave, but I think what you’re doing is wrong and not what a peace officer should do; this is a peaceful parade.’ I started to back away, and he reached out and grabbed me by the throat. I stepped back, then he put me in an arm lock and took me down, then picked me up, put me in handcuffs and threw me in the paddy wagon.”

Eyewitness Jay Marlow, who owns a local antique store, was so upset about the incident, he wrote a letter to Mountain Xpress, saying, “the officer’s right hand [went] directly to [Hecht’s] trachea, as if he were trying to choke him. Then he picked the boy up by the neck and threw him backwards onto a table, dragged him off the table onto the asphalt, and jumped on top of him.” (Mountain Xpress received at least three other letters from citizens who reported being shocked by the officers’ show of force during the parade incident).

Hecht, however, was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer and using speech to incite or provoke violent retaliation. Two days later, Hecht visited the Mountain Xpress offices, displaying visible bruises on his neck and legs, which he said were the result of Weaver’s physical aggression.

For safety’s sake

But Annarino, who was on the scene during the parade (although he did not witness the Hecht incident), is adamant in supporting his officers’ behavior. In fact, he says, “It would have been very easy, that close to the [police] department, to arrest them all. … If we’d been doing what they claimed we were doing, we’d have taken them all in, then and there — end of story.”

In a situation like the parade, Annarino notes, the department’s approach is “to strictly regulate things in the most efficient way possible — and, in this case, make sure that the parade ended as quickly as it could.”

After officers demanded that the procession stop, Annarino says parade participants “formed a circle and blocked the entire area. … They would not identify anyone as their leader. … Some of them were the so-called ‘mud people,’ [a performance-art group whose members paint their bodies with dried mud], who have no leadership and no rules, and refuse to go by any. It’s a little tough to find someone to speak to when all they want to do is chant and beat drums, and we’re trying to get them off the street without arresting them. We were begging them to disperse.

“We don’t make policy, we carry it out,” continues Annarino. “It’s a city ordinance that if you’re going to have a parade, a demonstration or a march, you need a permit to do it. Period. [The permit is required] for lots of reasons, but first and foremost it’s to ensure that there’s adequate protection for everyone’s safety. People just can’t decide that they’re going to have a parade and go [downtown] and have one.”

Annarino maintains that he “doesn’t tolerate abuse” by his officers — and he points out that any grievance with a city police officer can be addressed through the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division; Hecht, he says, was given ample opportunity to do that. But Hecht maintains that Internal Affairs told him no action could be taken against Weaver until he (Hecht) had been found not guilty of the charges brought against him.

Order — or overkill?

Clearly, without a permit, the parade was illegal. But the question still brewing in the minds of parade participants and their supporters, months later, is: Why so much force to break up a relatively small parade? Many participants believe the group’s unconventional appearance sparked a particularly vehement police response — which they liken to the continuing confrontations between police and countercultural youth in the Pack Square area.

During the special Oct. 8 Advisory Committee meeting, Lt. Kirkpatrick explained that he, as the first officer on the scene, had radioed for backup, and that’s why so many officers showed up. “I was surrounded by a crowd chanting, ‘Let the dragon go!'” he says. “The [energy] was hostile. I’ve been policing for 20 years, and I know hostility when I see it.”

Genaro, Terry and other marchers admit that they, along with a large number of bystanders, did form a circle, in an attempt to stop police from destroying the dragon and other art objects. But instead of begging them to disperse, they say the officers aggressively demanded that they do so.

Several eyewitnesses corroborated their account. In a letter to Mountain Xpress, Isaac Stanford wrote: “[Officers] acted as if they were a gang of schoolyard bullies. … The police attempted to confiscate the dragon, … escalating the situation into what appeared to be near-riot circumstances, as a crowd gathered around them and chanted, ‘Let the dragon go.’ One officer found it necessary to pull out his can of Mace as a threatening gesture toward one of the dragon carriers, and several other officers began pushing the marchers around.”

Annarino, though, insists that no assault occurred during the parade. “No one was touched, no one was assaulted,” he asserts, adding, “except the guy that was arrested — and he was not assaulted, he was put in jail.”

At the Advisory Committee meeting, Elizabeth Terry represented the parade organizers. She relayed — at times, emotionally –her own and others’ concerns about what she describes as police officers’ hostile conduct during the incident, citing the alleged assault by Weaver and the damage done by officers to many pieces of original art (including the dragon and several handmade masks). Terry also raised concerns about what she described as the combative attitude of police, in general, toward unconventional-looking kids who hang out downtown.

Annarino and the other officers present defended their actions, pointing out that the parade violated city ordinances, as does the behavior of some of the young people who frequently congregate at Pack Square.

Terry then queried officers about the fight that broke out in Gatsby’s on the evening of Bele Chere Saturday, culminating in the death of a Weaverville man. (This reporter witnessed the initial outbreak of violence between the two men, before club management threw them out.)

The fight then moved to Walnut Street and ended on Lexington Avenue, in front of a crowd of onlookers, including patrons and employees of Max & Rosie’s Cafe. Terry, who worked at Max & Rosie’s at the time, reports that the police were called more than once, but, by the time officers showed up, the fight had ended and the Weaverville man was fatally wounded.

This incident received no media coverage.

Why the massive, quick response to a parade and not to this more serious incident, Terry wondered? Police Capt. Tom Aardema pointed out that any police response downtown during Bele Chere is, necessarily, on foot, and that there are generally more problems on Saturday night than during the afternoon — making it more difficult to respond to all calls promptly.

At the end of the meeting, however, Terry — still unsatisfied with the officers’ answers — asked what further recourse people might have who still felt troubled about police conduct during the parade. Annarino stated that she should tell her “group to focus on the future: Go through the proper channels, next time. We will not mediate this situation that’s already occurred. … Your group must become socially responsible. … Laws are in place to ensure the safety of everyone, and I strongly suggest you look at what you can do through the proper channels. The key is that everyone remains safe and secure.”

Terry then responded that she and her friends “frankly don’t feel ‘safe’ with police” — a remark that elicited no comment from the officers present.

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