Letters to the editor

Asheville police lost it at Bele Chere

I am having trouble going to sleep tonight due to an unfortunate event I witnessed at the [recent] Bele Chere festival. First, I would like to state that I do not know any of the people involved in this incident — and will, most likely, not ever meet any of them (at least, I hope not). It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday, July 25, and I was waiting by the Vance Monument for some friends.

Several children had climbed onto the monument, as they usually do each Bele Chere. A police officer came to the fence and asked them to get down — nothing unusual. Approximately two minutes later, I witnessed the same police officer approach two people who were standing on the edge of the memorial, playing drums. They were not bothering anyone, and no crowd had gathered. If you are a resident of Asheville, I am sure that you know it is quite common for people to gather around the Vance monument and play musical instruments, whether it’s Bele Chere or not. After arguing with the people for approximately one minute, the police officer moved on, and the musicians stopped playing.

Here’s where it started getting ugly. Approximately five minutes passed. Then, over the crowd noise, I could hear drums, cymbals and singing. I looked up Patton Avenue, and I saw a paper dragon — commonly seen at street festivals — being carried by a small group of people. They were singing and playing drums, and just walking up the street past the Vance monument. The crowd was actually delighted at the spontaneous outburst of good-natured celebrating. It’s what a street festival is for — right? Wrong!

Suddenly, the same police officer I had witnessed unnecessarily harassing people only a few minutes before appeared from out of the crowd, and he began what I can only describe as angrily snatching some of the banners away from the group. One individual, who I am sure was surprised by this officer’s aggressive acts, held onto his banner a second too long. The officer instantly drew his pepper spray and nearly sprayed the boy. … Simultaneously, a group of Asheville Police officers tackled the people carrying the paper dragon and knocked several innocent bystanders to the ground. The crowd, shocked by our Police Department’s actions, quickly gathered around the group, many of whom were still on the ground. Immediately, a chant started from the crowd: “Let them go. Let them go!” More officers gathered — and the crowd grew, continuing the chant. The situation was very tense.

I would like to reiterate that I was not involved in the incident, but was only an objective witness. I saw one passer-by trip over one of the many cables strung across the street and accidentally stumble against one of the police officers. Three officers turned on the boy and began shouting at him. He could only meekly say, over their shouting, that it was an accident.

After approximately 10 minutes of the crowd unrelentingly chanting, “Let them go! Let them go!” the police officers relented and let the group proceed with the front half of the paper dragon. The rear half had been torn away when the officers had tackled the people carrying it. A group of police officers picked up the rear part … and quite rudely began shoving their way through the crowd, yelling at bystanders to get out of the way.

It would have been bad enough if it ended here, but it doesn’t, and that is what is keeping me awake tonight.

After the group carrying the paper dragon was allowed to proceed, the crowd and the police officers disbanded. Approximately two minutes went by. Then, I saw the same police officer (the one who had been acting so aggressively) get involved in an argument with one of the festivalgoers. I am not sure what was said, but I did hear the police officer say, quite loudly, “OK, that’s it!” At that point, the person he was arguing with put both hands above his head, in a complacent manner. With one hand, the police officer reached out and grabbed the boy by the neck. The officer’s right hand went directly to [the boy’s] trachea, as if he were trying to choke him. He then picked the boy up by his neck, slammed him backwards onto a table, dragged him off the table onto the asphalt, then jumped on top of him. … The person he was attacking was small and thin in stature, and weighed maybe 140 pounds. No other police officers were present to witness the incident. As the officer was on top of the boy, handcuffing him, other police officers arrived, and began indiscriminately shoving people in the crowd. The boy never gave any resistance whatsoever. The police then carted the poor boy off to jail, in a police transport.

I could only be both frightened and angered by what I witnessed: If this police officer was so unnecessarily brutal in front of a hundred witnesses, what would he be capable of on a dark road, with no witnesses? What I witnessed was unquestionably assault and battery.

After the incident, I saw a police captain sitting in a golf cart. The offending officer was standing close by. I walked up to the police captain and asked politely if he had kids. He responded that he did. I told him that I hoped that no one ever treated his children the way I had seen that officer treat that boy. The police captain responded, quite sarcastically, “Thank you for your input.” …

I knew then why the police officer could commit assault and battery and get away with it: The disrespect for the people they are employed to serve and protect apparently starts at the top.

— Jay S. Marlow

The shameful need for a national health-care plan

The crises created by health-management organizations dropping coverage of state employees in western North Carolina again brings home the issue that the state of available and affordable health care in this country is in shameful condition.

Insurance and managed-care companies, hospitals, doctors and pharmaceutical companies are engaged in a high-dollar extortion enterprise, with the health of the American people held hostage.

It is time to break out of our collective frightened, manipulated mind-set and insist on a national, single-payer health-care plan that efficiently and affordably provides comprehensive health care for all citizens. Fortunes being made in the health-care industry — while the general citizenry is inadequately served and kept in a high state of anxiety over health — is inexcusable, even criminal.

All the arguments about the loss of choice, inefficiency and bureaucracy of a national plan have been rendered mute by the very same sins being committed on a vast scale by managed-care and monopolistic health-care-provider corporations.

We, as a nation, have to grapple with the problem of bureaucracy that strangles service and government. Let us engage that issue, acknowledge that in the case of health care, creating whole industries that siphon off health-care dollars and place health-care decisions in the hands of marketers, accountants and business executives is a very bad idea. Let us join the rest of the democratic, industrialized world in creating a national health-care plan, and do it in a way that truly meets our people’s needs.

— Bill Walz

Address police concerns to …

I read with interest two recent letters in your paper [Aug. 5 and 12] regarding the actions of Asheville Police officers during Bele Chere.

The Citizens/Police Advisory Committee, appointed by City Council, is charged with (among other things) the following responsibilities: to serve as liaison between the police and the community over concerns; to mediate problems or conflicts.

The committee can be reached by writing c/o Asheville Police Department, P.O. Box 7148, Asheville, NC 28802.

I encourage those in conflict with actions of the Asheville Police Department to address them to this board.

— Fairfax Arnold

[Arnold is a member of the Citizens/Police Advisory Committee.]

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