Council grapples with systemic racism in pair of votes

ADDRESSING DISPARITIES: Council members Sheneika Smith (left) and Keith Young (right) shared the impact reparations would have on their families and community as they introduced the resolution before a vote on July 14.

“The blood capital that we have banked to spend today to fight for significant changes comes predominantly not from our allies, but from Black men, women and children who died to get to this moment,” began Asheville City Council member Keith Young as he introduced a resolution supporting reparations for the city’s Black community on July 14. “Hundreds of years of Black blood spilled that basically fills the cup that we drink from today.”

“I am a Black man with a Black family,” Young continued. “Anything that we do, in my mind, has to outlive the emotions of this present moment, because the future success of my own children and our current and future society depends on its sustained success.” 

In what member Julie Mayfield called a “sobering” and “long-overdue” moment, Council unanimously adopted the resolution, which apologizes for city government’s participation in the enslavement of Black people and recognizes inequities in housing, education, urban development and health care.  

Within the next year, Council will establish a new commission to make short-, medium- and long-term recommendations about what reparations will look like. The resolution prioritizes increasing minority homeownership and access to affordable housing, strategies to grow equity and neighborhood wealth, increasing minority business ownership and closing gaps in education and health care. However, it allocates no specific budgetary resources to fund reparations or support the commission’s work.

The first step to rectifying any societal problem is to acknowledge there is a problem in the first place, explained Sheneika Smith, Council’s only other Black member. She said the resolution was an important first step. 

“Reparations is more than restitution for what happened during the transatlantic slave trade,” Smith said. “It is a dark, evil sin of chattel slavery that is the root of all injustice and inequity at work in American life today.” 

Asheville community members flooded the phone lines during the allotted hour of public comment on the resolution. Many who were unable to speak then shared their thoughts during an additional hour of open public comment held at the end of the meeting, after the measure had already passed. 

Council’s move marked positive progress, said Rob Thomas, community liaison for the Asheville-based Racial Justice Coalition. But he emphasized that it needed to be followed by action, including real ways to generate wealth for Black residents through land and property.

A handful of callers (all of whom gave only their first names) disagreed with the resolution, claiming they should not be held responsible for actions that happened 200 years ago. “I find this wrong in so many ways,” said a man who identified himself as Keith. “I do not believe in putting the sins of the father on the sins of the son.”

Still other callers, including Lauren Bacchus, repeated calls for immediately reducing the Asheville Police Department budget by at least 50% and using the funding to support the Black community, a common thread in Council meetings over the past month. “If we abolish the practice of policing, we can divert funding to other systems that don’t have the same disturbing and discriminatory history,” she said.

APD investigation tabled

In a move that surprised many commenters, Council delayed approving a contract with risk-management firm Hillard Heintze to investigate APD’s response to late May and early June protests for racial justice that followed the police killing of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd

Council had asked City Attorney Brad Branham in June to select an outside firm to conduct a thorough investigation into APD’s use of tear gas and other crowd-control measures during the demonstrations, as well as the destruction of supplies at a medical station. At the time, members felt an outside investigation would be more objective than an internal review conducted by the APD, explained Mayor Esther Manheimer

But after listening to community concerns, Council voted 6-1 to table the contract until its Public Safety Committee could consider the proposal and recommend next steps. According to Council procedures, a motion to table discussion lasts 100 days — until Friday, Oct. 22 — at which point the motion will automatically expire. 

Vijay Kapoor was the only Council member to vote against the motion. He expressed a desire for professional outside expertise to decide if APD’s actions were justified and said he would be concerned if the contract decision was not made by all members of Council. 

In his presentation, Branham explained that the contract would hire a four-member team of “law enforcement professionals and attorneys” with experience as “department chiefs, with criminal justice, civil rights and legal practitioners” to examine APD’s response to the protests that occurred May 30 through June 6. The investigation would take up four months and cost roughly $83,000.

Several callers noted that of the 53 employees listed on Hillard Heintze’s website, only 13 are female and seven appear to be people of color. Others criticized the city for considering a consulting firm with direct ties to law enforcement officers. 

“The entire premise of this study seems to be problematic,” said Ben Spencer, a caller from South Asheville. “[Branham] specifically noted one of things they would be doing is looking at the practices and policies to see if they’re in line with modern policing standards. I don’t know where you’ve been for the last several years, but modern policing standards are, in fact, part of the problem.” 

“This is what institutionalized white supremacy looks like in action, perpetuated by a neoliberal leadership group,” said caller Rachel Keener. “There’s harm inflicted on the [Black] community because people are being murdered. And then we’re going to take money from that community and fund a study and give it back to a white institution.”

Branham’s initial presentation did not explain that the cost of the study would come directly from APD’s current budget allocation, not as an additional general fund expense. Branham also noted that two members of the four-person Hillard Heintze team would be people of color and one would be female. 


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About Molly Horak
Molly Horak served as a reporter at Mountain Xpress. Follow me @molly_horak

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3 thoughts on “Council grapples with systemic racism in pair of votes

  1. Liam

    So does this mean the police no longer have to patrol the projects or neighborhoods considered part of the black community? If you don’t want to fund the police, you shouldn’t receive their attention.

    • Pat

      Maybe the Police will send “Thoughts and Prayers” to crime victims. Or, since it’s Asheville, maybe people can have a socially-distanced drum circle and “Send Light and Love” to “Open the Criminals’ Heart Chakras.” Or, whatever…

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