Photos by Max Cooper
Pick a measure: 2008 Presidential election, the A-B Tech sales tax referendum, the vote on Amendment One, and look at a map of the results in Buncombe County.
What you’ll see is the city of Asheville, especially its core, as the deepest of Democratic blue. Meanwhile, areas like Leicester and Biltmore Forest are conservative strongholds colored Republican red. In Asheville’s political culture, being a liberal Democrat doesn’t even put someone that far on the left.
And it’s rare that the two sides collide beyond the individual level. So when thousands of Mitt Romney supporters came to the middle of downtown Asheville — the line stretched around the Civic Center deck and people were parking in Montford — there were a few hours of contact.
On the median across from the Asheville Civic Center were an assortment of protesters — numbers peaked around 60 — from different causes: supporters of President Barack Obama, libertarians, Occupy types and the occasional person dressed as Big Bird, a popular theme (Romney has said he’ll de-fund public-broadcasting; and a local showing of Sesame Street, scheduled for the same week, was canceled due to lack of ticket sales).
Timothy Sadler, wearing a costume of the Sesame Street character, said he chose to come out and protest because he’s worried about the effect Romney’s election will have on Pell Grants and other benefits that have helped him survive the economic downturn.
“I feel personally threatened by Mitt Romney and when I heard him put Sesame Street on notice, that was the last straw for me,” Sadler told Xpress
A group of veterans were also protesting Romney’s idea for a voucher system at the Veteran’s Administration and his deferments during the Vietnam War.
“We’ve got men and women coming back from over there, missing limbs, psychologically messed up: a country that doesn’t take care of its veterans isn’t much of a country,” Asheville resident Larry Sorrells said.
“We’re pro-Obama,” Abby McDonough said, holding up a campaign sign, adding that she’s supporting the president for a second term based “mostly on Obamacare and women’s health issues. I’m pro-choice.”
Overall, things were fairly low-key. It would be tough to replicate the priceless moment when Sarah Palin’s 2008 appearance in the same building collided with the annual zombie walk. Most of the crowd ignored the protesters and most of the protesters made their demonstration without direct confrontation. The line of police officers between the two — by this point long-used to dealing with protest in the city’s core — leaned on their bikes and watched.
There were exceptions, however, and the abiding animosity was clear. Some of the Republican supporters displayed “Buck Ofama” buttons, and one of the protesters waved a “Mitt 4 Brains” sign. Other activists chanted, “You’re evil!”
At the same time, there were moments of courtesy. One woman going into the Civic Center thanked one of the protesters for the information, adding that she had issues with both candidates but was still supporting Romney. A libertarian and an Obama supporter had a friendly debate about state’s rights, women’s rights, and the president’s record. They ended up agreeing on little, but shook hands and thanked each other for their perspectives.
Natalie Nicolae held one half of a “Vote for Nobody” banner, and said she’s not supporting either candidate.
“We’re campaigning for nobody, because we know nobody cares about the economy, and nobody cares about their children’s futures, and nobody knows how to guarantee us a job,” she asserted.
The Libertarian contingent too made it clear they weren’t Obama supporters, focusing on raising awareness of the detention provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act.
“This approach never works,” a local teacher (who declined to give his name) said, shaking his head at the “Vote for Nobody” contingent as he held up his own anti-Romney sign. “But mine doesn’t either.”
Then why was he there?
“Simply to let loose with like-minded individuals a bit in civic life. Every so often you need to recharge your batteries in a democracy.”
The vendors set up in the parking lot across at the end of Haywood Street selling Republican merchandise reported that business was “alright,” though T-shirt vendors working the crowd seemed to be doing fairly well. One asked another if they had any more “Buck Ofama” buttons left.
As the streamed out of the rally, things got a little more heated. Cries of “get a job!” got cheers from the crowd, as did a “four more weeks!” chant and “we just met our next president!” Pro-Obama and Romney veterans briefly shouted back and forth at each other. A shout of “release the transcripts!” got the reply of “release the tax returns!”
In the middle of all this, one of the vendors had a seizure and collapsed. As police rushed over and called in medical assistance, both protesters and Romney supporters shouted for a doctor and moved barriers out of the way so an ambulance could get through. For a few minutes, anyway, they said the same words and worked together for the same purpose.
Election season isn’t over, after all, and their long fight would still be there tomorrow.