Taking a stand for racial justice: An activist’s view

Laura Eshelman


July 21 marked a national day of action for the Black Lives Matter and Showing Up for Racial Justice organizations. It was also two days shy of the three-week anniversary of Asheville Police Department Sgt. Tyler Radford’s fatal shooting of Asheville resident Jai “Jerry” Williams. The crowd with whom I found myself that morning at the Asheville Police Department had assembled for a deeply personal purpose: We had come to grieve. Many of us perceived Williams’ death not only as another act of state-sponsored violence against people of color in the U.S., but as a symbol of the suffocating grip of both institutional and interpersonal racism throughout Asheville.

What happened prior to Radford’s decision to open fire multiple times on Williams is the subject of much controversy. What we do know resembles the trappings of too many scenes we as a nation are just now beginning to acknowledge as familiar: a nebulous escalation of events, a lone white officer drawing a gun on a black suspect, multiple shots fired and a life lost. Though police reports contradict those of several eyewitnesses, APD has insisted that it has no video footage to confirm claims one way or another. Another thing we know, if we are being honest with ourselves, is that none of this reflects a reality that white people are taught to fear.

The online commentary I have read on local media coverage of this tragedy tends to reveal far more discourse scrutinizing Williams’ character and criminal background than questions about Radford’s own professional comportment during his tenure as an officer, far more attention on the AR-15 rifle that APD claims to have recovered from the deceased than the department-issued AR-15 Radford possessed (which remains under investigation as to whether it was the weapon used in Jerry’s death), and few discussions of APD’s disproportionately aggressive monitoring of people of color. (For example, N.C. statistics on traffic stops cited by the annual State of Black Asheville report found that 39 percent of men stopped by APD were black, when blacks make up only 13 percent of the city’s population.)

As a social worker, I am bound to a set of core values in the National Association of Social Workers’ code of ethics in my personal and professional behavior. The language therein includes a responsibility to act on behalf of people’s interests to resolve issues within the broader society. It also means openly challenging injustice and addressing social problems to promote positive change. Additionally, I was raised with a belief instilled by my family and faith community that racism has always been this country’s greatest evil (which competed with cultural colorblind conditioning so pervasive that it took me 26 years to begin the process of unlearning it).

Thus, when that crowd on July 21 arrived at the Asheville Police Department and a small group of brave individuals declared their intent to remain there until APD Chief Tammy Hooper responded to two demands — the firing and indictment of Radford and a public apology to the Williams family — and opened an invitation for others to join, my conscience made the choice quickly.

I joined the circle because parents of color have to worry about their kids encountering the wrong officer in a way my parents never did. I joined the circle because I believe it is wrong for law enforcement to protect and serve their institution with more loyalty than to the public. I joined the circle for the children of Deaverview Apartments, whom some residents say were playing outside at the time of the shooting and who might never see the world the same way again. I joined the circle because Williams’ death is only the latest example of Asheville’s disservice to black residents, from the slave auction block where the Vance Monument now stands to the decimation of black economic power and livelihoods through urban renewal, to every statistic in the State of Black Asheville report each year since its annual compilation began a decade ago. This report details our city’s failures — from the criminal justice system, to health care, to education — to achieve equitable outcomes for people of color.

Analogously, if one discovers a single fish floating dead in a lake, it makes sense to examine what went wrong with the individual fish. When one discovers an entire population of fish floating, it makes more sense to test the quality of the water system to which it is attached. Many black voices of Asheville have long cried that Asheville’s lake water is toxic. It is past time to start listening.

As much as the satisfaction of our two demands, we simply wished to take Hooper up on her public offer to speak with citizens about Williams’ death. Instead, the department opted to shut down operations and retreat until almost 30 hours later. By Friday afternoon, the APD captain whom Hooper assigned to address us reduced the discussion to an ultimatum to vacate the premises and remove a hanging banner proclaiming “Black Asheville Matters” or face arrest for disorderly conduct. This did not align with our stated commitment, nor did we feel that it honored the Williams family. In the end, we cooperated as officers removed us in zip ties.

It is an eerie coincidence that our group of seven arrestees may have equaled the number of bullets that Radford discharged. However, the fact that all seven of us identify as white was no accident. Putting our bodies on the line was a demonstration of respect for the courageous groundwork that people of color locally and nationally have already laid for the Black Lives Matter movement (and for many years prior).

Furthermore, our collective analysis of how white supremacy functions to support white privilege led us to believe that we were ultimately in a safer position to conduct a sit-in than our brothers and sisters of color. We will never know conclusively whether APD would have relinquished control of the building to a similar number of black protesters for two days, nor whether communication would have been as close to cordial. But intuition, stories of lived experiences and a glance at daily headlines can suggest how the result might have been different.

Certainty of the outcome and consequences for the sit-in were among the least of my reasons for joining that circle, much as the need for taking a risk as a white person for racial justice was at the top. However, after we were processed and released, Williams’ mother awaited us just outside the detention center doors. At that moment, I had to recall the words of Cornel West: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

Jerry’s life mattered. Black lives matter. As social and political systems continue to fall short of dignifying these statements, radical, risk-taking love will be the most critical resource that we, the united, have to move toward justice for all.

Laura Eshelman is a 31-year-old social worker and has lived in Asheville for 10 years.


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16 thoughts on “Taking a stand for racial justice: An activist’s view

  1. boatrocker

    Yes, nice work. I don’t see much evidence of the anarchist perspective, I just see common sense. I suppose police accountability now is considered ‘anarchy’ in this Patriot Act-infused America?

  2. Lulz

    LOL, blah, blah, blah lulz. Oh America is bad. White men must be eradicated. But first pay taxes so I can live off of them and also I can attest to racial and gender injustice to JUSTIFY my job. Problem with you lady is that you live in a bubble. BLM doesn’t want to work to get ahead. They just want money to be what every other leftist piece of crap is. A cancer on the rest.

    • bsummers

      White men must be eradicated.

      Maybe you’re exaggerating the young lady’s point of view, ever so slightly.

    • boatrocker

      I sincerely hope for the sake of your posts’ ‘logic’ that you do not receive Veteran’s Assistance or Social Security, as both of those are evil commie plots to fleece hardworking taxpayers out of their money in order to reward others.

      Last I checked, white people (mainly single unwed mothers) are the largest draw on gob’ment assistance.

      • must have been a while since you checked

        http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/ops/Mississippi.pdf page 4

        love how the liberal media plays with stats.

        Whites get 48 percent of snap, blacks get 49.9 percent.

        but damn, the liberal news forgot to look at this little conundrum

        77 percent of white households DO NOT get snap.

        Only 20 percent of black households DO NOT get snap.

        SO, up to 80 percent of black households get snap, WOW, that is the Democrat promise

        Damn, the only reason the same number of white people get snap, as blacks,
        is because 8 times more whites than blacks.

  3. Fin

    Jai Williams was banned from every housing complex or just most of them? They usually only do that to upstanding citizens with respect for human life. Considering he was beating a girl he must of been a peaceful loving guy. I bet the cop should of waited till he or someone else was hit by a bullet from the gun the cops planted, I mean he was carrying.
    Again these activists remind me of toddlers sitting on the floor screaming until they get what they want. I can understand there are issues with discrimination but when you use this as an example of your cause it doesn’t gain you anysupporters, at least any who have the capacity of critical thinking.

    • The Real World

      Yes Fin, I have the same impression — quite often. My specific term is “shrieking toddlers” because that is the behavior they emulate. Truly amazing.

  4. Quasi

    What I fear is that people who think there taking a stand, but instead they are just wasting air. Poster Child for clueless millennials.

    • boatrocker

      Yea, I agree. Why can’t those shrieking toddlers act more like the Baby Boomers who carried signs during Vietnam, but when it came to the bank account became Gordon Geckos during the Reagan years.

  5. Hmmm, back in the 70’s, I had encounters with all the “wrong” cops. Never got hit. Several of my white buddies got the crap beat out of them. They could not keep their mouths shut. I could. And that was the difference.
    Kind of like today, in most of the cop encounters.
    My problem with bad cops, and they are few, is that the good cops will not speak up when they watch their buddies murder people.

  6. Negrodamus

    Social Justice Worriers are narcissistic attention whores who major in the minors. No perceived offense is too small that it can’t be magnified into mortal sin in order to maximize imagined social relevance. Useful idiots, that is all.

    • Deplorable Infidel

      great analysis of these ‘social justice’ people…they are liberal elitists usually.

  7. We need fewer city police and thus more money for more social programs that prevent crime, like methadone and wet housing. The good fight is the budget fight. It’s far easier to lay off bad cops during budget cuts than to fire them.

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