By Frank Taylor, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
Police and National Guard troops in gas masks and heavy riot gear confronted protesters Wednesday night in downtown Asheville, using tear gas to disperse crowds defying an 8 p.m. curfew put in place after peaceful demonstrations turned violent on previous nights.
Although less eventful than on some other recent nights when some downtown locations have been vandalized, Wednesday’s activities included several arrests of those violating the curfew.
A dispute over police actions during Tuesday night’s protest drew an expression of disappointment from Mayor Esther Manheimer on Wednesday and a late afternoon statement of explanation from Police Chief David Zack.
As police began enforcing the 8 p.m. curfew Tuesday, they entered a downtown medic station, forcefully pushed staff away and violently destroyed bottles and jugs of water with knives and their feet. Several staff members issued statements of disgust to local news media.
Manheimer responded to reports of the incident with a statement on her Facebook page during the day. “I am aware of the incident involving officers destroying the medical supplies of demonstrators, including water bottles, food and other supplies,” she said.
“[The City] Council has asked for an explanation of why that occurred. We are a city that cares, and I want to thank all of our officers who have taken a knee and worked to protect us. But this was a disappointing moment in an otherwise peaceful evening.”
Late Tuesday afternoon, the chief provided a statement attempting to justify officers’ actions at the medic station by describing preemptive self-defense against water bottles.
“The Asheville Police Department would always prefer confiscation over destruction,” Zack said. “We apologize for not being able to confiscate these supplies last night.”
However, witness statements indicated no attempt to confiscate was made, with officers seizing some bottles and pouring them out. Sean Miller, a spokesperson for the medic group, said the group had no idea why police were acting as they did, using physical force against both the people and their supplies. She said they received no warning.
Water bottles were a key focus, Zack said, because of their role on previous nights of protest.
“Over the past three days, APD has tried to eliminate objects that can be thrown at protesters and law enforcement. Because water bottles, in particular, have been continuously used over the last three nights, officers destroyed them. Officers have also searched for potentially dangerous objects such as explosives.”
Contrary to reports that the medic station had been city approved, Zack contended it was not.
“The supply station was not permitted by the city of Asheville and was located on private property without the permission of the property owner,” he said. “The actions involving the supply station occurred following multiple warnings and after the 8 p.m. citywide curfew.”
Staff members at the medic station gave statements to the news media indicating that they believed they had an oral agreement with police to operate there and that the aggressive and destructive police behavior came without clear warning or explanation.
Later, a member of the group acknowledged that it had permission from the surrounding stores to be there but had been unaware that a different individual actually owned all of the property in the alley off Patton Avenue where they had set up.
A spokesperson for APD told Carolina Public Press in a Thursday morning email that the police received a complaint from that property owner on Monday.
Miller told CPP that the medic group did not learn of any complaint from a property owner until members were starting to set up Wednesday in the same alley and then relocated to near City Hall.
The medic group was there to provide water, bandages and possibly other emergency medical care to protesters.
Week of protest over police actions
Like much of the rest of North Carolina and the nation, Asheville has been the scene of protests over the last week due to the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minnesota. His death has brought renewed outrage over the tactics police use and their treatment of African Americans.
Asheville’s protests, like those elsewhere, have primarily been peaceful. However, incidents have occurred, including clashes with police and vandalism to storefronts.
Asked by CPP at a press conference earlier this week why he sent officers out in riot gear to respond to protests over aggressive police tactics, the police chief claimed this was initially done because protesters threatened to block Interstate 240 Sunday night, creating a hazard to themselves and motorists.
Mayor meets with medical team organizers
Late Thursday afternoon, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer posted the following to her Facebook page:
“Today, along with the city manager and members of the Asheville police department I met with the organizers of the medical team supporting the protesters whose station was destroyed earlier this week. On behalf of the city I apologized to London Newton and [Sean] Miller who have made an enormous effort to fundraise for and organize this needed service. We worked together to make sure they can continue to provide medical services and we offered and they have accepted a reimbursement for their supply losses. This is a first step in coming together. We can do better and we will. And I want to thank [UNC-Asheville] Chancellor Nancy Cable who brought us together to have this important conversation.”
Thursday evening, Police Chief David Zack issued an apology via YouTube, indicating that he was “truly sorry” for how the situation was handled.