With liberty and justice for some

You may have read about the Asheville Community Resource Center in Mountain Xpress. Or perhaps you simply know it as that place with the big, painted doors where all those weird kids hang out. That seems to be its overriding image at the moment.

You see, the ACRC (and the local business owner who held the lease) just lost their rights to the space at 63 N. Lexington Ave. Apparently, the property owner and a few downtown businesses had issues with the folks who use the Resource Center and spend time in the area. The incredibly vague eviction notice expressed concerns “about the usage and the safety of the occupants and visitors, especially during concerts and meetings.” Ambiguous wording aside, the letter makes no mention of any specific lease violation or legal problem, and no formal legal complaints have ever been lodged against the ACRC.

So what’s going on at the ACRC that we should be so concerned about? How unsafe is the place for occupants and visitors?

Well, for starters, the ACRC is the home of the Magpie Collective, which operates an extremely well-organized and comprehensive alternative reading room — complete with children’s play area, public telephone, computer/Internet access and public restroom — all totally free of charge to the public. The expansive warehouse space hosts art shows, poetry and music performances, and fund-raisers for local nonprofits. The space is available on a donation basis to any organization that wants to hold a public forum or workshop; it’s often used by groups passing through town as they tour the region.

In recent months, for example, the ACRC has played host to musicians from the Tell Us the Truth Tour (including such internationally known figures as Steve Earle and Billy Bragg), members of the Beehive Collective (who use their storybook-style, activist artwork to educate the public about U.S. foreign policy and IMF/World Bank globalization issues), and Granny D (renowned for having walked across the U.S. at the age of 90 to promote campaign-finance reform; last fall, at age 93, she launched another continuing campaign to help working women register to vote).

But those events don’t begin to represent what goes on behind the doors at 63 N. Lexington every day. The space is also home to a bike-recycling program that teaches bicycle-repair skills to folks who choose a less polluting means of transportation in our chokingly hazy city. The Asheville Global Report, an award-winning newspaper, has its offices in the space, along with a number of other worthy local enterprises, such as the Prison Books Program (which provides much-needed educational and other reading materials to the growing numbers of Americans who live behind bars) and the Women’s and Transgender Health Project (an information resource for a demographic that’s in dire need of such services). What’s more, every one of these organizations offers its services for free.

All of these are worthy programs making significant contributions to this community. But as a mother and teacher to the children involved, the group whose uprooting I’m mourning most profoundly is the Asheville Free School. Providing classes to local home-schooling families, the Free School has developed a thriving core group of children ages 4 to 11. With more than a dozen families regularly attending weekly classes in everything from social studies to language arts, Spanish to first aid, these Asheville students now have to wonder where, if anywhere, they’ll be able to find a space so accessible, affordable and well-suited to pursuing the new spring schedule.

Clearly, we all want to maintain control of our own space, but this eviction also touches on bigger issues. In a city that’s been reluctant to acknowledge its growing homelessness problem and the needs of people seeking a place on Asheville’s streets, some citizens finally took matters into their own hands, leasing and paying for a space where such folks could go.

These people have the same rights that every American values so highly: the right to a place to be, to seek resources and information, to use an indoor restroom. Again and again, we’ve read in our newspapers about the dilemma of what to do with people on the streets. No one wants them in front of their businesses, they’re no longer allowed in the parks or the library, and no other free, public space exists. Recognizing that problem, the ACRC’s founders answered it by leasing a space that was then made accessible to all city residents — not just those with money.

Once again, however, the rallying cry of “Not in my back yard!” has risen over this city. Profit and prejudice are having their say, and the people with the greatest needs — and the only folks who have offered to help them — are being evicted from the one place they could finally claim as their own, exercising their rights to education, free speech, the pursuit of happiness, and liberty and justice for all.

Thank you, Clay Property Management. Thank you, short-sighted Lexington business owners. Thanks for your vague excuses for kicking us out. So much for democracy or the free-market economy. Just put the kids back on the streets — and let’s see where they end up now.

[Asheville resident Justina Prenatt is a mother who teaches at the Asheville Free School, one of many ACRC-affiliated groups. The Asheville Community Resource Center can be reached at 252-8999 (e-mail: salvadorhardin@charter.net).]

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