On March 26, the Asheville Police Department took a firm stand for homeland security by closing the Vance Monument to the public. A press release issued by the city said the decision to declare Asheville’s premier public space off-limits was made in the interest of public safety.
Apparently, the recent spate of anti-war protests and vigils at the historic obelisk has been troubling to people who believe we should all agree to agree — with them, presumably. The monument has also attracted counterprotesters, who’ve gathered to show their support for the war — or, at least, their lack of support for the other protests. Accordingly, the strategic thinkers at the APD have designated Pritchard Park as the gathering point for anti-war protesters, while assigning City/County Plaza to the pro-war folks.
This startling decision recalls the legendary wisdom of King Solomon. But has the city’s brain trust really thought this one through? Because clearly, these dramatic moves raise some interesting questions:
• With the start of this year’s Downtown After Five concert series mere weeks away and no end in sight to the president’s military adventures, what does the city plan to do about the hundreds of people who flock to the monument each Friday to enjoy what’s become one of Asheville’s most popular seasonal events? Reopen the park just for those evenings? Try to silence the expressions of free speech that will inevitably take place amid the music and the merriment?
Already, the Women in Black — a collective of activists who’ve maintained silent, Friday-night peace vigils at the monument for more than 18 months now (including during last year’s Downtown After Five) — have engaged in civil disobedience since the controversial park closure (10 of their number were arrested on March 28). And if they return on concert nights, will they be singled out by law enforcement? Will every woman in a black shirt be asked to leave?
How about the folks wearing T-shirts depicting Old Glory or proclaiming pro-Bush slogans — will they be left unmolested? Code Pinkers in coral? Greens in green? Brown shirts? Red? Mass arrest is certainly an option, but a lot of nonlocals show up at these parties, too. We’re a tourist town, remember? Let’s not go scaring off the folks who spend the dough.
• If Pritchard Park is designated for the anti-war protesters and City/County Plaza is reserved for the pro-war crowd, where does that leave the folks who want to protest Enron and other corporate scandals? The war in Iraq hasn’t distracted all of us from the corporate crime wave running rampant in this country.
• Will the pro-life/pro-choice protesters get the respect they deserve? These folks have been slugging it out far longer than the peaceniks and war supporters. Are they now to be shuffled off to some marginal park on the outskirts of town? Perhaps the Aston Park Tennis Complex would be a suitable venue for these groups’ ceaseless verbal lobs and volleys.
• What about the Pritchard family? Has anybody bothered to ask these people how their acclaimed ancestor would have felt about having his namesake public space forever associated with drumming, doves and dreadlocks? What if Pritchard was actually an ardent hawk? For that matter, doesn’t the designation of City/County Plaza as the pro-war park imply local government sanction of that viewpoint (and if so, shouldn’t there be public hearings)?
• How about West Asheville’s parks? Don’t they get any designation at all? People across the river are sick of being treated like second-class citizens. Shouldn’t they at least be allotted an animal-rights gathering or a Flat Earth bash?
• Have city leaders simply forgotten about the campaign-finance reformers? Maybe we should send them to the French Broad River Park and let the protesters stand in the middle while the local pols run around the former racetrack, shouting excuses as to why we’ve seen no significant reform to date. (To be fair, though, the city would have to let local political-action committees work pit row, so they could feed the politicos water, energy bars, answers, positions — and grease their wheels with gobs of loot.)
• Despite the name, the Grove Park Inn is NOT a public park. But shouldn’t those who want to protest the historic hostelry’s efforts to buy publicly owned property in Pack Square to build high-dollar high-rises be given a chance to purchase an equivalent parcel for their rallies? After all, fair is fair.
• Worked up about saving the whales? Determined to consume only dolphin-free tuna? Wouldn’t the city’s public swimming pools be a great place to make a splash?
• And what about the Wal-Martyrs? With the city still mired in that ugly lawsuit, where are those folks supposed to go? Hey, the landfill is this city’s preferred destination for low-priced PVC rubbish — maybe we could send them there?
Some local folks are complaining that the APD’s closure of the Vance Monument has delivered a hammer blow to our First Amendment liberties at precisely the time when Americans most need to be able to voice opinions in public. And even if such a decision is justified to avoid violence, these people maintain, shouldn’t it be consistent with an equitable policy democratically enacted by the Asheville City Council? Is public policy now decreed by Police Department edict?
Besides, if public safety is the primary concern, wouldn’t it make sense to start with proven threats rather than putative ones? An anti-abortion activist blasted the Femcare clinic with a shotgun back in February, and in 1999 there was a bomb blast at the same location. You didn’t see the police close off the sidewalk there, did you? Does anybody think the threat of protest-related violence at the clinic has faded?
And how about the peaceful protest on March 20, when APD officers roughed up a bunch of nonviolent demonstrators on Walnut Street? That was the most violent response yet to the current round of protests, but at this writing, Walnut remains open — despite the demonstrable threat of injury to law-abiding citizens.
Finally, at the March 28 Women in Black protest, an APD officer banished not only the general public but also the news media from Pack Square, telling an Xpress reporter, “You are really pushing us.” Should the city designate a separate park for members of the press? Our sister city, Vladikavkaz (in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains) is said to have some attractive public spaces available.
And Russia, we recall, has some experience in regulating protest.
As Xpress went to press, the city of Asheville announced that Pack Square and the Vance Monument would reopen for groups of 20 or less, and for larger groups that first obtain a permit. This move appears to be a de facto rewriting of city ordinances without a hearing, public comment or Council vote. The legal basis for such an action is unclear.