Racial equity focus of recent city discussions

Vance Monument
BYE-BYE: Asheville's Vance Monument may not stand in Pack Square much longer. The obelisk was covered with scaffolding and a shroud in July, until the Vance Monument Task Force reached a decision about the marker's fate. On Nov. 19, the body voted 11-1 for removal. Photo by Virginia Daffron

Nearly six months have passed since the summer’s racial justice protests over the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. In that time, Asheville officials have launched a series of initiatives to attempt to remedy generations of harm to Black residents; now, several of those early projects are coming to a head.

Although the full Asheville City Council didn’t meet the week of Nov. 16, a three-member committee continued to plug away at understanding the Asheville Police Department’s crowd control decisions during the summer protests. A new proposal to build affordable housing on land acquired through urban renewal faced community criticism. And the Vance Monument, dedicated to controversial Confederate governor and slaveholder Zebulon Vance, may soon no longer stand above the city’s downtown. 

Affordable housing complex proposed on land exempted from reparations

Downtown’s Haywood Street Congregation, which has long served the needs of people without housing, hopes that a 1-acre plot of vacant land on Asheland Avenue will soon be the site of 42 permanently affordable apartments. 

City Council has also worked for years to increase Asheville’s stock of affordable housing, but in the church’s case, that objective has gotten tangled up with a more recent Council initiative: halting the sale of property obtained through urban renewal. The parcel in question was acquired in 1991 through the East Riverside urban renewal program but was excluded from a recent resolution stopping transactions of city-owned property until a reparations committee can make formal recommendations. 

The real estate proposal passed Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee in a 2-1 vote on Nov. 17. Outgoing chair Julie Mayfield and member Sheneika Smith voted in favor, while outgoing member Keith Young said the project shouldn’t be approved until a reparations fund is created. The committee’s conversation was only a start, Mayfield emphasized at the start of the meeting, with many more opportunities for community discussion to come before a final decision is made. 

The proposal from city staff and Rev. Brian Combs, leader of the Haywood Street Congregation, outlines a community with units available at 20%, 60% and 80% of the area median income, equivalent to $16,910, $31,870 and $42,500 per year, respectively, for a two-person family. Roughly 5,500 feet of flexible community space will house nonprofit services, Combs explained, including a food pantry managed by MANNA FoodBank, case management by Homeward Bound and onsite legal counseling through Pisgah Legal Services. 

Estimated costs stand at $7.91 million, said Nikki Reid, Asheville’s economic development program director. To keep the project affordable, Haywood Street Congregation is asking the city to sell the land for $1, subject to perpetual affordable housing deed restrictions. Dogwood Health Trust has already committed $2 million; the church is also seeking a $1 million loan from the city’s Housing Trust Fund. 

During the public comment portion of the virtual meeting, some callers argued that selling the parcel would go against Council’s stated commitment to help the Black community. Instead of transferring the land to the predominantly white Haywood Street Congregation, Dee Williams of Asheville encouraged the city to invest in Black churches and organizations. Rob Thomas of the Racial Justice Coalition echoed that idea and suggested using the same format to move forward with reparations.

“I’m pretty sure that we have Black churches in Asheville; I’m pretty sure that we have Black real estate developers in Asheville. And if you got those people together to converse and give them the opportunity to develop our community, that’s the solution,” Thomas said. 

Other commenters were frustrated with the project’s lack of transparency and the prospect of more affordable housing in an area already saturated with low-income developments. Combs said he had been directed by city staff not to publicly discuss the project until it came before the HCD committee; when asked about this guidance, Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball said she wasn’t sure who made that call or why. 

The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Asheville, a group of local Black pastors, has committed to fighting the proposed land transaction on the grounds that it directly takes ownership away from a Black community already deprived of generational wealth, says the Rev. Damita Wilder. Speaking to Xpress on Nov. 19, she said clergy members only discovered the proposal the evening of Nov. 16, despite earlier conversations with Council members about purchasing similar parcels of land themselves. 

The real estate proposal and the committee’s recommendation will go before the full Council on Tuesday, Dec. 8. If approved, the city would enter a purchase agreement with Haywood Street Congregation; the church would then develop site plans and hold community engagement sessions before bringing plans back to Council for conditional zoning approval in early spring.

APD protest report forthcoming; Council to see body camera footage

On Sept. 8, Smith thought the proposed timeline for an internal investigation of the Asheville Police Department’s response to summer racial justice protests was too long to wait. Nearly three months later, her wait is almost at an end. 

Appearing before Council’s Public Safety Committee on Nov. 17, APD Chief David Zack affirmed that a complete after-action report detailing the department’s tactical operations and issues during the protests would be finalized within the next “two to three weeks,” within the 90-day window he’d proposed in September. 

To create the report, Zack said, APD officials are consulting department policy manuals, protest arrest data, logistical data, “hundreds of hours” of body camera and social media video footage and complaints filed by community members. The department is following federal guidelines outlined by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Standards to identify policies and practices used during the multiday response and identifying any that failed to meet community expectations.

The report will not identify any individual officers for poor performance, Zack noted. 

“I can assure you that after seeing rough drafts, this report is going to be extremely comprehensive and should answer the questions and concerns that not only the police department has, but also our elected officials and community members,” he added. 

While the report will be important to understanding the chain of events that happened over the summer — including the use of tear gas on peaceful protesters and APD’s destruction of a medical supply station — city leaders need to move forward now with new crowd control policies to protect residents, said outgoing committee Chair Brian Haynes. A previous report by City Attorney Brad Branham stated that all tactical decisions made during the protests, including the use of chemical weapons and “sting balls,” were made entirely by APD officers and authorized by Zack. 

Council has also petitioned for access to APD body camera footage depicting any use of force that resulted in a formal complaint, the use of tear gas near the Bowen Bridge, the events occurring at the medic station and any arrests made during the protests. A Nov. 12 ruling by Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Marvin Pope granted the city’s petition; Council members began individually reviewing recordings the week of Nov. 16. 

The same day, a coalition of 20 individuals present at the summer protests filed formal complaints to the APD, said local attorney Ben Scales. Speaking on behalf of Asheville’s Racial Justice Coalition at the Nov. 17 meeting, Scales explained that members of the RJC had compiled testimonies of excessive force and spent hours fact-checking statements. The majority of those testifying shared their stories anonymously because they feared police retaliation, he noted. 

A series of RJC representatives proceeded to share snippets of the formal complaints during public comment. Jane Doe 5 said she was “accosted with tear gas three times.” John Doe 3 remembers watching APD officers shoot a woman curled up in a fetal position in the middle of the street with pepper balls. John Doe 1 recounted jumping from the second story of a parking garage to escape a wave of APD officers before they launched tear gas canisters into the enclosed space.

Vance Monument Task Force recommends removal 

Members of the Vance Monument Task Force voted 11-1 on Nov. 19 to remove the monument from the center of downtown Asheville, marking an end to 12 weeks of intense public comment and community division. 

Task force co-chair Oralene Simmons led the roll-call vote for three different options: removal, relocation or repurposing.  Scales, also a member of the task force, was the only member to support repurposing. 

Since August, the task force has received more than 600 public comments, ranging from impassioned support for immediately removing the Confederate marker to outright fury that anyone would consider moving an important city landmark.

“We have taken a journey together over the last 12 weeks,” Simmons said in her remarks after the vote. “We’ve had many meetings, spent hours planning and gathering data, seeking input and evaluating facts. We accomplished a lot by listening and learning from each other with dignity and respect.” 

The task force recommendation will likely go before the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on Monday, Dec. 7, and Asheville City Council on Tuesday, Dec. 8. The task force was only charged with deciding the disposition of the monument; if its recommendation is adopted by the two governing bodies, Council and Commission will determine logistics and funding for removal. 

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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One thought on “Racial equity focus of recent city discussions

  1. indy499

    Molly, I assume this august 3 member committee wasn’t charged to investigate the destruction of property—who ordered the police not to intervene, review of footage to identify rioters/vandals, etc. Correct?

    On the homeless issue, typical Asheville “activist” BS. Never do anything. Some organization moves to make a meaningful dent in our homeless problem, and the folks who’ve never done anything complain. If Haywood gets stiffed on this proposal, the over/under on how long the lot stays vacant is 20 years.

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