Several hundred people assembled at the Vance Monument in downtown Asheville on Sunday evening, Aug. 13, to express opposition to a white nationalist gathering that took place in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend. Three people died in Virginia, including 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who died after being struck by a car while taking part in a counterprotest; at least 19 others were injured. The driver of the car was later charged with second-degree murder.
The Asheville Solidarity with Charlottesville rally was scheduled at the Vance Monument in Pack Square by two different groups of organizers denouncing white supremacy. Fliers were circulated during the event demanding removal of the monument and describing Zebulon Vance as a slave owner and Confederate officer. Enslaved people were auctioned on the site of the monument, speakers told the crowd. Spontaneous chants of “Tear it down” broke out during the demonstration.
With no specific schedule for speakers or amplification for those who did speak, people took turns addressing the crowd, reading poetry, leading groups in song or trying to shout over the sound of drivers honking their approval. Attendees included parents with young children, religious leaders, people wearing Black Lives Matter shirts and military veterans. Familiar chants rang out, such as “Forward together, not one step back” and “No hate in the 828,” along with the singing of “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Protesters carrying anti-fascist, or antifa, signs led chants of “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.”
Nicole Townsend spoke to the crowd of mostly white faces, saying she was glad to see them there, but Asheville’s black community needs more support. As a person of color, she said, “I am tired of white fragility and white fears. I am tired of white people thinking all we need is organic produce.” She pointed to difficulties that people of color have in making bail and asked why those in attendance weren’t also at recent City Council meetings when activists spoke out against a proposed $1 million increase in the Asheville Police Department budget.
Jerry Pinkham explained why he felt compelled to attend the vigil. “I think that we have to stand against the few people in this country that are white supremacists that are against everything that our nation has ever stood for,” he said. “They are not the true Americans; we are.”
As the evening progressed and night fell, many of the older attendees who had come for the peace vigil left the scene, and the crowd became restless. One man shouted that he was an immigrant who had been living and working in America for 28 years. He said protests and demonstrations were of little help to him and people like him. He urged people to get involved with their communities and find ways to help their neighbors instead of arguing with each other about how best to protest.
Some in the antifa contingent expressed frustration about the police presence, which had been requested by organizers of the peace vigil, chanting “Cops and the Klan go hand in hand.” Antifa demonstrators took up a position directly facing off with the police line. Others with the peace vigil took up space between the officers and the crowd. An older woman yelled, “Hate is not the new normal!” to which a young black-clad woman replied, “I hate Nazis!”
The shouting and chanting escalated for about half an hour until the crowd began marching in the street with a roar that echoed off the buildings as they waded through traffic and tourists up Patton Avenue to Pritchard Park, returning to the Vance Memorial after about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, pickup trucks sporting large American and Trump flags circled the block around the monument, gunning their engines through the intersection of Broadway and Patton Avenue.
Lead organizer Valerie Hartshorn with Indivisible Black Mountain said she planned the event to show solidarity with the city of Charlottesville. She expressed disappointment on her event’s Facebook page on Monday, saying, ”The antifa protesters disrupted what was supposed to be a peaceful vigil.”
Brie, who declined to give her last name, attended as an impartial and trained legal observer. “I don’t think it was very conducive at all to any change that’s going to occur anywhere — in Asheville, Virginia or the nation. I saw a lot of anarchists going after people who were quietly trying to protest and hold a vigil. It went from pretty chill and calm to a complete riot in our eyes. Some people are just ready for a fight, and that can spread quickly in a crowd like that.”
The event began around 7 p.m. and was slated to end at 8 p.m., but then stretched until almost 10 p.m., when a rainstorm and the closing of the park sent participants home.
On Monday, the Asheville Police Department requested public assistance in identifying a suspect involved in an assault of a WLOS News 13 reporter who had been livestreaming the protest on Facebook. Anyone with information on the identity of the suspect is asked to contact the Asheville Police Department at 828-252-1110 or Buncombe County Crime Stoppers at 828-255-5050.
Editor’s note: Xpress staff reporters Carolyn Morrisroe and Virginia Daffron contributed reporting to this story.