BY 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.