Asheville City Council to establish Community Reparations Commission, reassess police investigation

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Asheville City Council made national headlines during its July 14 meeting after unanimously approving a resolution calling for community reparations for Asheville’s Black residents.

“The blood capital that we have banked to spend today to fight for significant change came predominantly not from our allies, but from Black men, women and children who died to get to this very moment,” said Council member Keith Young who, along with Asheville’s Racial Justice Coalition, proposed the agenda item. “Hundreds of years of Black blood spilled that basically fills the cup that we drink from today.”

The vote follows weeks of protests and national conversations around systemic racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police in May. The July 14 consent agenda also included a resolution authorizing the Asheville Area Arts Council to install a Black Lives Matter mural around Pack Square Plaza. In June, Council also voted in favor of a joint resolution with the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to remove two downtown Confederate monuments, and shrouded the Vance monument earlier this month.

The reparations initiative directs City Manager Debra Campbell to establish a Community Reparations Commission within the next year. That commission will be tasked with developing short, medium and long term recommendations aimed at addressing generational wealth disparities, increasing minority home and business ownership, closing the gaps in health care and education and increasing fairness in regards to criminal justice within Asheville’s Black community. Campbell will be required to provide a twice-yearly update to the Council on the progress of the commission. 

The resolution also acknowledged the city’s history of displacing Black residents, who according to census data make up nearly 12% of the city’s population, and apologized for its participation in and sanctioning of slavery, the enforcement of racial segregation and other harms aimed at Asheville’s Black community.

The measure stopped short, however, of providing direct payments to Asheville’s Black residents. While the move was overwhelmingly supported by residents who called, emailed and spoke via live-call during public comment, it was also criticized by some residents that disagreed with the concept of paying or otherwise making amends to Black people for the wrongs of slavery and racial injustice, and by people that support reparations but felt as though the measure did not go far enough.

(Jason —I’m basing this last section on these emails and  these comments but admittedly, I didn’t watch all of the live caller comments. Maggie Burelson said that as far as the live callers, there were 19 in support and 3 in opposition. Feel free to change this if you feel like this didn’t reflect the live callers comments.)

Council rejects third-party investigation contract 

Council also voted to table a nearly $83,000 contract with a consulting firm recommended by City Attorney Brad Branham to investigate the actions of the Asheville Police Department during protests that lasted from late May into mid-June. 

A June 14 letter signed by all seven Council members directed Branham to locate an independent third-party firm to provide an analysis of whether the strategies and tactics employed by local police during the recent protests were consistent with the best practices of law enforcement agencies. The investigation’s aim would focus on APD’s use of riot gear, pepperballs and tear gas on demonstrators, as well as the destruction of supplies at a medic station.

Branham told Council members in the July 14 meeting that he recommended Hillard Heintze, a Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in security risk management, to undertake the probe. The four-person team who would lead the investigation in Asheville would be a mix of law enforcement professionals and attorneys with experience in the areas of criminal justice, civil rights and criminal and constitutional law. He said that investigation would only focus on police action during May 30-June 6. The entire investigation process would take roughly 3-4 months to complete and cost the city almost $83,000. 

Council member and Public Safety Committee Chair Brian Haynes, who, along with committee member and Council member Sheneika Smith first called for an investigation after the city received numerous complaints from residents regarding the actions of police. During the July 14 meeting, Haynes pushed back against hiring the team citing both the cost and narrow scope of the investigation, which he said should also examine the actions of police toward counter-protesters, some of whom pointed assault-style rifles at demonstrators. 

Haynes, who during the June 23 Council meeting asked that Council add a vote on whether to issue a temporary ban on the use of tear gas to the July 14 agenda, also questioned the benefits of the investigation.

“What can we expect to see in these findings? They may conclude that some of the actions taken by APD during the protests were inappropriate under the circumstances but they will almost certainly conclude that no laws were broken,” said Haynes, reading from a prepared statement. “They will likely provide information showing these so-called nonlethal uses of force to be widely accepted methods of crowd control, leaving it up to us Council and the community to decide whether or not it was or is the right thing to do.”

After an hour of public comment in which the majority of speakers opposed the contract, the motion to table the issue passed 6-1 with Council member Vijay Kapoor voting in opposition. Haynes, Smith and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, who make up the city’s Public Safety Committee, will determine the city’s next steps in how to move forward with an investigation. 

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