“I went down to the mayor’s office and I took back what they stole from me,” sang over 40 members of Sunrise Movement Asheville as they lined the second-floor hallway of Asheville City Hall. After months of haranguing City Council over the wording of a climate emergency resolution, protesters occupied the government building on Dec. 6 to demand that Mayor Esther Manheimer and her colleagues pass the document as written by the climate justice group.
As hundreds of marchers participated in the Asheville Climate Strike for a Green New Deal at Pack Square Park outside the building, Sunrise member Flannery Clark addressed why her group felt compelled to act. Although the resolution had been taken up in November by the city’s Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment, she claimed that the process had stripped the document of all measures that would hold city leaders accountable on climate issues.
“If cities are declaring climate emergencies and there is nothing in it regarding legislation or accountability … it is a ploy to make it seem like they’re doing something when they’re not,” Clark said. “And that’s unacceptable when our lives and our families and the places that we love are at risk.”
Ashley McDermott, one of Sunrise Asheville’s founding organizers, noted that Council members Brian Haynes, Sheneika Smith and Keith Young had previously agreed to put the Sunrise version of the resolution on the agenda for Council’s meeting of Tuesday, Dec. 10. However, she said Young later took away his support and proposed his own “Green New Deal for the city of Asheville.”
In a Dec. 6 message to Xpress, Young said that he had not withdrawn his support for considering the resolution on a Council agenda. He did say that he had moved the resolution to the agenda of Tuesday, Jan. 28, instead of Dec. 10, a shift of which he said he had notified McDermott. Regarding his own proposal, the Council member added, “[Sunrise] knew about it before it was made public on social media. We met face to face about their issues on their own resolution, and no one offered critical crucial dissent in person to me about what I had crafted.”
Because the mayor was traveling at the time of the protest, the Sunrise group hoped to speak with both Young and Council member Julie Mayfield, who also serves as the co-director of environmental nonprofit MountainTrue and has made “a homegrown Green New Deal for North Carolina” a plank in her campaign platform for state Senate. Neither met with the protesters during the occupation.
Attorney Ben Scales, who has announced a run against Mayfield in the Democratic primary for the N.C. Senate District 49 seat, was present alongside the Sunrise members and offered legal advice as they were informed of permitted protest activities by the Asheville Police Department. He said that young people “don’t want empty promises” from elected officials.
Mayfield’s absence, Scales argued, “shows how out of touch she is” with the current environmental movement. “You can’t call something an emergency then not act in an expeditious manner,” he added.
In a series of Facebook comments on Dec. 6, Mayfield wrote that she had previously asked to meet with Sunrise leaders on three separate occasions but had not received any response. She also said that she was never informed about the protesters’ request to meet with her during the occupation. “My record on climate speaks for itself. … I am an ally and can move the cause forward,” Mayfield wrote.
Regarding Scales’ comments, Mayfield told Xpress by phone on Dec. 9 that she has been enmeshed in environmental work for the past 20 years of her professional career and remains abreast of developments in advocacy. “I have staff members and people who work in my office who are members of the Sunrise Movement. One young woman who works in my office was the stage manager for the event on Friday. I am in constant communication with these folks about what they are thinking,” she said. “I would just suggest that Ben went a little too far out on a limb there and was making assumptions that he wasn’t qualified to make.”
Numerous Sunrise protesters were escorted out of City Hall for remaining in the building after it closed to the public at 5 p.m. APD Lt. Michael Lamb had confirmed earlier in the day that such behavior could be grounds for a charge of second-degree trespassing, but the APD’s records show no such arrests taking place on Dec. 6.
At 11:36 a.m. on Dec. 9, City Clerk Maggie Burleson sent notice of an emergency meeting of the city’s Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment that same day “for the purpose of considering and recommending a climate emergency resolution to City Council.” As of press time, the meeting was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in the APD’s Fourth Floor Conference Room at 100 Court Plaza. “Council’s request for guidance on the resolution by Dec. 10 constitutes an unexpected circumstance that requires immediate consideration of the resolution by SACEE and justifies calling an emergency meeting,” Burleson wrote.
Updated at 5:40 p.m. on Dec. 6 to include comments from Council member Keith Young and reflect the current status of the protest. This story will be updated with the final status of the protest once it becomes available.
Updated at 10:35 a.m. on Dec. 9 to include comments from Council member Julie Mayfield and reflect the arrest status of the protesters.
Updated at 11:58 a.m. on Dec.9 to include information on the Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment emergency meeting.
Updated at 5:22 on Dec. 9 to include further responses from Julie Mayfield regarding Ben Scales’ comments.