Last Saturday, May Day, a vandalism spree in downtown Asheville left several buildings damaged, including a number of local businesses. The ensuing reaction from just about every faction of the community was anger and confusion. That’s justified; the hysteria some are spreading is not.
In connection with the crime, the police have arrested 11 people, most from out of town. Two of those arrested have connections to anarchist groups, and anarchist Web sites have rallied to find bail money for “The Asheville 11,” a predictable dubbing if ever there was one. Interestingly, the comment threads filled up with locals — including anarchists — condemning the vandalism, which hit mostly independent, locally-owned businesses (as well as an RBC Centura ATM and the Asheville Citizen-Times).
Then there’s A few questions for the Anarchists in Asheville by Citizen-Times writer John Boyle, which begins “I’m trying to think of a stupider, more illogical movement than anarchy, but I’ve come up dry.”
The title of Boyle’s piece is particularly ironic, as the majority of the accused rioters aren’t from Asheville. He proceeds to up the vitriol to 11:
“To protest capitalism and government, every year on May 1 a bunch of these self-important fools get together. Sometimes they throw a party or stage legitimate protests, but this time they opted to randomly destroy stuff, the end result being a bunch of business owners and the city now having to waste money to fix it back up.”
There were indeed a number of May 1 gatherings in Asheville — it’s a traditional day for leftist political protest — some involving issues such as immigration reform. One, in Aston Park, was a party with an anti-capitalist bent (“Cause capitalism dies a little bit every time we have fun without it,” according to its Facebook page). While police are looking into the event, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, there’s absolutely no indication that a singular “they” went from there to rioting. By all indications, the vast majority of the people in Aston Park threw a party of the non-glass-shattering variety.
Now, anarchism isn’t remotely my creed, and it probably isn’t yours either, but there’s a massive difference between someone whose beliefs drive them to such nefarious actions as running a community garden or free book exchange and the beliefs of the thug busting up a local business. Such distinctions are, apparently, lost to Boyle. Here there’s just “they.”
Funny, when sports fans rampage, I never see media mavens calling for a crackdown on athletics, or issuing angry condemnations about how dangerous hockey or basketball devotees are. The rioters are just idiots, and viewed as a violent exception among the larger number of people who enjoyed the game peacefully. Nor do people confuse snake handlers, for example, as representing all Christians. An anarchist breaks a window, and suddenly they’re all vandals in our midst. Right.
Boyle also forgets something journalists must maintain, no matter how much we are angered by a crime: the presumption of innocence. The police have arrested 11 people and charged them for the destruction of that night. At the coming trial, the state will have to present its evidence and prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the 11 were not simply anarchists or in the wrong place at the wrong time, but rioters. That’s how it should work.
And that’s what we should all push for. The greatest possible rebuke this vandalism spree can receive is an open, fair trial. If some or all of the 11 are proven guilty, in court, with the full chance to defend themselves, they should be justly and harshly punished. But they should be punished because of their actions, not their beliefs. Angered by a lawless rampage? Show the law at its best.
Media storms have a way of spiraling out of control. Some vandals run amok, columns come out that paint them as representative of all people of a certain type (anarchists, in this case), the inevitable distortion occurs as people talk amongst themselves. Soon enough, the cops get called every time people spot someone that fits their particular view of the latest bogeyman. Everyone’s time gets wasted and a bunch of innocent people get hassled for no good reason.
There is absolutely nothing illegal about being an anarchist and what everyone, from the authorities to those of us in the media, must remember is that law, to have any justice to it, must punish crimes, not identities.
That’s why broad-brushstroke rage like that in Boyle’s column is so foolish. One of Asheville’s strengths, perhaps its greatest, is the fact that people of a wide variety of creeds — conservative Christians, the LGBT community, hippies, retirees and yes, anarchists — all rub shoulders in relative peace, despite their multitude of disagreements. I hope that’s strong enough to survive a few vandals.
After all, glass can be fixed, damage can be repaired. The loss of that strength to hysteria and suspicion would be far worse.