A group of protesters stands by their “Defund The Police” mural on Spruce Street on Monday morning, June 22. The activists said that in the early morning hours, a group of armed counter-protesters showed up and tried to intimidate them and paint over their yellow-lettered message with blue paint. A city of Asheville crew arrived later Monday to wash away the mural./ photo by Jason Sandford

During the June 23 meeting of Asheville City Council, Council member Brian Haynes called on his fellow members to vote on whether to issue a temporary ban on the use of tear gas for all circumstances, including during protests.

“It’s quite clear that protests in Asheville are not going away, and the fact that we used tear gas so indiscriminately is wrong in my view,” Haynes said during the meeting.

“I know that some cities have banned the use of tear gas at this point and I don’t know if it’s legally within our right to do so. But if it is, I think that it needs to come to the agenda for a vote.”

Asheville police officers used tear gas numerous times during the protests that erupted the week of June 1 in reaction to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Asheville police also fired rubber bullets at protesters. That action, as well as the move by Asheville police to break up a medic station set up during one evening of protests, has triggered a flood of calls and emails from upset local residents, who have been calling for the resignation of Asheville Police Chief David Zack as well as Mayor Esther Manheimer.

Manheimer said that she agreed with the proposal. She suggested that other types of weapons used by the Asheville Police Department during the ongoing protests should also be examined  by the city’s Public Safety Committee, but did not specify what type of weapons she was referring to. 

City Attorney Brad Branham said he would provide Council with a legal analysis into the ban during the next City Council meeting, which is slated for Tuesday, July 14. Councilman Vijay Kapoor suggested that Chief Zack and City Manager Debra Campbell also weigh in on the issue. 

Branham also addressed whether people demonstrating were legally allowed to openly carry firearms after clashes between protesters and counter-protesters over the weekend. On June 21, a group of people calling for racial justice and police reform painted “Defund the Police” in yellow paint along Spruce Street in downtown. Within hours, counter-protesters arrived at the scene to pour blue paint on some of the lettering. Some of those counter-protesters were openly carrying assault-style rifles. 

Councilman Haynes noted that following the incident, he heard from individuals who reportedly had guns pointed at them during the demonstrations and that members of the Asheville Police Department did not take action against those brandishing the weapons. 

“Some directive needs to be made to APD to crack down on this. This is unacceptable and it’s liable to turn extremely wrong,” he said. “We have to be proactive on this before anything does go wrong.”

During the meeting, Branham told Council members that North Carolina is an open-carry state, meaning those who obtain a license to own firearms are permitted to carry guns in public places. However, he cited a limitation to the law which prohibits people from openly carrying the weapons if the gun owner is “participating in a demonstration” or “present as a participant at a demonstration.” 

He also pointed to a city ordinance which states that people are prohibited from carrying a firearm within Asheville’s public parks, public grounds or within public buildings. 

Both limitations apply regardless of whether the person has a license to own a firearm. Branham explained that the law is intended to limit gatherings of people who are openly carrying in the form of a mass demonstration, or who are participating or viewing a protest.

“A group of white people standing in the middle of downtown with guns is a statement and a demonstration of their power and their desire to continue to divide our community,” said Council member Julie Mayfield. “These demonstrations are fundamentally different than the kind that we have seen people in support of Black Lives Matter, which have been primarily peaceful, which are about building community, about building conversation. Demonstrations by people who are coming downtown with guns is only meant to sow division, and that is unacceptable.”

Branham said that his office has provided legal counsel to the police department and plans to continue advising APD on how to navigate the state and local open-carry laws. 

In a June 24 email to Ashvegas, APD spokesperson Christina Hallingse said the police department is currently investigating violations of all laws that occurred during the protests and counter-protests on June 21.

We are reviewing body-worn camera footage, photos that have been sent by community members, and social media footage to identify all individuals who were in violation of the law and charge them accordingly, the statement read. As a result of the current climate, and in an effort to maintain peace and prevent escalation during these demonstrations, APD did not make any arrests for any violations of the law.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:55 p.m. on June 24 to include a statement from the Asheville Police Department.

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