This is the story of how a city lost compassion for its people.
Sarah Norris described some of the items she and her friends handed out in Aston Park over the past couple of years: tents, coffee, diapers, cleaning supplies. With her young daughter in tow, she brought along a little shelf stocked with books on all kinds of topics, including religious history and philosophy. People need nourishment of the mind and spirit, as well as the body, Norris said. Others who joined her included fellow moms, an 80-year-old Rotarian and homeless outreach workers, she added.
As the covid pandemic lockdown took hold in the spring and summer of 2020, these “picnics” became a regular feature of life in the city park in the South French Broad Avenue neighborhood just west of Asheville’s central business district. They were sweet food and gear distributions, Norris says, where unhoused people could find critical support and human connection.
It all ended in late December 2021 when Asheville Police Department officers swept in and cleared several tents that had been staked out in the park. Police also cleared a hodgepodge of material – tires, old furniture, tires, banners telling cops to fuck off – that a group of activists had carried in during five straight days of what they termed an “art party” to highlight the fact that they wanted Asheville city officials to leave the park campers alone.
During an ensuing six-month investigation, police charged 16 people with felony littering and/or aiding and abetting felony littering. Police said activists dumped more than 2,000 pounds of litter and refuse in Aston Park last December. The defendants dispute that claim, and note that they established a clear track record of cleaning up parks when they were there. The clean-up cost taxpayers $2,700, police said. Their cases are pending in Buncombe County Superior Court.
The Asheville Parks and Recreation Department also imposed a three-year city park visitation ban on most of the defendants following individual hearings last month. For Sarah Norris, it was yet another blow to know that she and her daughter will no longer have access to play in any city park while the ban is in effect. How could the department even consider taking such action before the cases against her and her fellow defendants were decided in court, she wondered. The situation is ripe for a lawsuit on the grounds that the defendants’ First Amendment rights have been infringed.
The felony charges, which Asheville police have rarely ever used, have shocked and scared those who stand accused. And that’s clearly the point. There’s rarely been a more clearcut case of local police intimidation.
The felony littering arrests marked a boiling point in the ham-handed way Asheville City Council dealt with homeless camps as they popped up along highways and city parks during the pandemic. As I reported a year ago, city officials felt the need to offer a detailed explanation last February of what many residents considered the mishandling of the removal of campers under an interstate overpass along North Lexington Avenue. In April, city officials appeared to be taking a hands-off approach to camps that began popping up in city parks as they followed Centers for Disease Control guidance advising that unsheltered populations be allowed to remain in place during the pandemic to help slow Covid-19 transmission. But when neighbors said they were observing criminal and aggressive behavior, the city moved to evict those experiencing homelessness, stating that safety concerns outweighed the CDC guidance.
The city stressed that it had worked with partner organizations to find other shelter options. City officials also moved to spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars to create new shelters for unhoused residents.
There are other powerful dynamics at play.
Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams and Asheville Police Chief David Zack have been openly feuding about the number of misdemeanor charges – charges that often involve unhoused people – that are being dismissed. Zack wrote Williams a letter expressing his frustration, a letter that hit the press just months before the May primary elections, where Williams faced a challenger calling him weak on crime. (Speaking of elections, three Asheville City Council seats and the mayor’s seat are up for election in November.)
Williams responded by calling Zack’s characterization of the numbers misleading. In addition, Williams announced a new program in February aimed at allowing unhoused people charged with nonviolent crimes to be diverted from the usual path of prosecution.
And there’s an uneasy public, observing a spike in crime rates in cities around the U.S., that wants any agitators prosecuted. In what amounted to a serving of red meat to that angry public hungry for justice, the Asheville Police Department published a press release Friday, June 3, at 5 p.m., that it called an “update” to the Aston Park case.
The past six months have been hurtful emotionally and financially to Norris and the others accused (some have said they lost their jobs when police showed up at their workplaces to notify them they had been charged.) The city has spent too much time and money to prosecute these cases, she says, time and money better spent on addressing the actual problem – people with no housing.
“It makes me so angry as a person in this city, which doesn’t properly care for its people,” she says.
Meantime, the number of homeless people in the city of Asheville sharply increased this past year. And spending to address the issue continues, with the city recently hiring a consultant to help it get a handle on the issue.
The whole affair lays bare the complete and utter failure of Asheville city government to show care and compassion for its people, those housed and unhoused, those in need and those trying to help.
Note: Many thanks to the Asheville Free Press, which has led the way on reporting this issue. Follow them and their excellent reporting for regular updates.