BY RACHAEL BLISS
Until recently, many community members believed that Buncombe County and even the state of North Carolina valued peace in all its forms. But Oct. 22, 2020, changed all that. Just one month after Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman signed an International Day of Peace proclamation, we learned that the county and state were awarding millions of incentive dollars to a company that will produce airfoils for F-35 bomber engines.
For years, a coalition of local activist groups has given out annual awards recognizing one or more individuals who have demonstrated a dedication to peace. We asked a number of our recent Peacemaker of the Year award winners how they felt about the news that Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of Raytheon Technologies, plans to open a 1 million-square-foot facility on 100 acres of land given to them by Biltmore Farms for one penny an acre.
A dangerous precedent
Said Abdallah, a 2019 winner, grew up in occupied Palestine. “I was disappointed by the decision of the Buncombe County commissioners to approve the P&W project here,” he said. “Products from P&W, Raytheon and other defense industries are responsible for the widespread destruction of farmland and innocent people in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Libya and Yemen.”
Brian Haynes, a 2020 Peacemaker, was an Asheville City Council member until last November. “While I’m sure the county commissioners rationalized their decision based on the number of jobs created and the above-average wages being offered, we are now casting our lot with a morally corrupt corporation that is ravaging both humanity and our planet,” he said.
Although many of those Peacemakers lamented the decisions by both the Buncombe County commissioners and North Carolina’s Economic Investment Committee to welcome a war profiteer into our community, some have gone a step further by creating RejectRaytheon AVL, a coalition of young environmentalists as well as activists for peace and social change.
“Just when we should be taxing large corporations and wealth more heavily to sustain essential services and help small businesses weather the pandemic, our Buncombe County leaders secretly promised even higher public subsidies for one of the most murderous, environmentally destructive megacorporations on the planet,” said Roger Ehrlich, NC Peace Action’s statewide 2019 award winner. “It only adds insult to injury that they pretend this is for the benefit of the most economically vulnerable. Increased development may eventually swell the county budget but will also come with long-term costs, reduced quality of life and increased cost of living. Job gains are dubious when one considers the P&W union workers being laid off in Connecticut.
“If the deal isn’t killed, more military-industrial development may follow and the power of these corporations locally will increase, but our freedom and future prospects will be compromised. It’s too late for the riparian forest they destroyed, but not too late for Asheville to live up to its vaunted reputation as a vortex of spirituality and activism.”
Jobs yes, war no
Many of the Peacemakers I reached out to agreed that Asheville-Buncombe needs more jobs. But Robert Thomas of the Racial Justice Coalition, a 2020 winner, made the following point:
“Being a Black man born and raised in Asheville, it’s hard for me to take a stance on the Raytheon project. You may say it is an easy decision for someone in social/racial justice work, but that is not true. Growing up in post-urban renewal Asheville, opportunities for people of color were rapidly diminished by the destruction of our economic floor as a result of policies and intentional disenfranchisement, the school-to-prison pipeline, divestment in impoverished communities, forced residence within food deserts, implicit and explicit biases, predatory lending, blockbusting, the social determinants of health, racial profiling and so much more. When you add all these things up, it equals a situation where many of us have been forced into illegal activities to survive because gainful employment seemed to be only an illusion. It seems we’re always forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.
“You must ask yourself, ‘Can we not do better?’ It is wrong to have us choose between harming our environment and fellow human beings in a factory to survive, or doing the same thing in the streets. I may not have all the solutions, but I know that we need to do better than this. When will we learn the lesson of reaping what we sow?”
Longtime local activist Anne Craig, a 2017 Peacemaker, offered an example of the kinds of employers Buncombe County should be recruiting. “In a recent issue of Mountain Xpress, I learned that the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development is working to bring Low Impact Technologies, an Australian producer of solar distillation equipment, to Fletcher. Sixty new jobs with an average wage of $65,000 will be created there by 2025. Buncombe County and Asheville should be looking to bring similar visionary companies to our beautiful area, not a company that profits from selling equipment that results in death and destruction.”
The Buncombe County commissioners, she continued, displayed an “overall lack of transparency until the deal was done and precluded our community from having real input about our economic development goals and shared strategies to achieve them. The secrecy of this project until it was virtually a done deal shows again how power and money influence our elected representatives.”
Another 2017 Peacemaker, the Rev. Amy Cantrell, summed up these folks’ disappointment at bringing an affiliate of the world’s third largest-weapons manufacturer into our neighborhood. “As a person who has lived in this community for more than 20 years, as a person who daily seeks to love and serve my neighbors in our mountain home, as a Peacemaker and as a mother, I plead with our commissioners to reverse their decision about Raytheon,” said Cantrell, who founded the local nonprofit BeLoved Asheville.
“We must ask ourselves, ‘What are we sowing in our community and in our world for generations to come?’ Will we build our economy on poison? Will we build our lives upon the pain and death of others?
“It is not too late to do the right thing,” she urged. “Sow not suffering but peace. Let us build a local economy, using the collective skills and gifts of our people, that benefits our people and makes for a healthy and happy humanity and planet. In this time when the world has been so battered, it has never been more apparent that we don’t want to choose still more suffering. Let us instead make healing choices in this urgent hour.”
To learn more about the other side of the Pratt & Whitney deal, visit RejectRaytheonAVL.com or its Facebook page, RejectRaytheonAVL.
Longtime Asheville activist Rachael Bliss, co-founder of WNC 4 Peace and associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 099, first ventured into this region as a VISTA worker at the Western North Carolina Alliance (now MountainTrue) and later worked at ABCCM. She retired eight years ago to devote herself to making “good trouble,” as civil rights icon John Lewis suggested.