White supremacy, the failures of Asheville liberalism and one activist’s journey through grassroots organizing during a revealing summer in our city
Above: Protesters, including the author, try to pry a plaque lauding Robert E. Lee off a monument in the middle of downtown. Photo by Micah Mackenzie
“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” – Audre Lorde
The elephant in the room
On Aug. 12 the world watched as white supremacists enacted violence in Charlottesville. I cannot bring myself to follow in the footsteps of many others and write a play-by-play detailing the events that took place – but, I can bring myself to say that I am completely disgusted with many who call themselves allies to the Black community. Within hours of the horrific events in Charlottesville, cities across the U.S. began to organize solidarity rallies. Many of the organizers who organized these rallies named white supremacy as an evil that just “popped up” on the day that President Trump was elected. As a Black woman, I know this to be false. White supremacy is not just a Trump supporter tightly clenching a confederate flag — it is a culture that is so heavily ingrained into the fabric of our society that even those who are the most progressive operate in ways that allow white supremacy culture to thrive.
When agreeing to write this op-ed, I had no intention to write about the culture of white supremacy, however, I believe it would be irresponsible to not name the elephant in the room. By definition, white supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to those of all races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society. I am sure that many folks who read the definition of white supremacy shake their head and condemn such beliefs.
Great, but white supremacy culture is much larger than the individual, which may be why grasping its concept can be difficult for those who “are not racist.”
Dismantling Racism lays it out, in easily digestible form, as such:
“White supremacy culture is reproduced by all institutions of our society. In particular the media, the education system, western science (which played a major role in reinforcing the idea of race as a biological truth with the white race as the “ideal” top of the hierarchy), and the Christian church have played central role in reproducing the idea of white supremacy (i.e. that white is “normal”, “better”, “smarter”, “holy”, in contrast to Black and other People and Communities of Color).”
For a more in-depth analysis on white supremacy culture, Paul Kivel’s Why Black Lives Haven’t Mattered: The Origins of Western Racism in Christian Hegemony is a must read.
This is where we are
Asheville, North Carolina has been deemed as a “southern utopia” by many. I mean with articles like 8 Reasons to Move to Asheville, NC, who wouldn’t want to live here, right? Rainbow flags fly high. Gluten free, organic, locally-grown food is sold at most markets. Environmental sustainability is high on the priority list for local leaders. Everyone has a Black friend; a Latinx friend; a Trans friend; a Gay friend; a Lesbian friend; a Queer friend; a Poly friend; a musician friend; a bar owner friend; an anarchist friend; and a friend who sells weed.
The blanket of liberalism has fooled many into believing that the deemed “southern utopia” is operating in a post-racial paradigm. Desegregation, Black History celebrations, and the funneling of money to that of which is deemed “respectable” seems to be equated to the reparations long due for slavery, redlining, urban renewal, and gentrification.
What exactly is liberalism? In a political context, liberalism is based on the belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically: such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration (to make better) of social inequities (such as those involving race, gender, or class).
On the surface, liberalism sounds nice. However, as I continue to grow my own political analysis I’m often curious as to how one could trust the government to be a pillar for “making social inequities” better, when it is a major force in those inequities.
The first thing that comes to mind is the Civil Rights Act signed by President Johnson in 1964. The federal government did not intervene because they actually cared about the livelihood of Black Americans; they did so because they were afraid. Do we really think that a President who referred to the bill as the “nigger bill” genuinely cared about the government being a “crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities”?
You’ll pardon my heavy sigh and killer side-eye here. Johnson did the right thing when he had to and not a minute before.
In April 2015, Western Carolina University student Steven Nickollof published a thesis entitled Urban Renewal in Asheville: A History of Racial Segregation and Black Activism. This thesis is one of the several sources that answer the some of the question as to why Asheville’s Black residents are disproportionately affected when it comes to economics, housing, education, transportation, health care, and quality food access. What exactly does it mean to be disproportionately affected by the decisions made by city leadership in Asheville? Dr. Dwight Mullen told us what it means in the reports of the State of Black Asheville project:
• 11.1 percent of Black students in the eighth grade at Asheville Middle reached proficient or advanced reading levels
•Black students accounted for 57.1 percent of retained students as opposed to 17.1 percent for white students, 9.5 percent for Hispanic students, and 14.3 percent for students identified as being mixed race
•In 2012, Black mothers were three times more likely to deliver a stillborn fetus than white mothers
29 percent of Black households have no access to a vehicle, whereas only 7% of white households have no access to a vehicle
• In 2012, 23.1 percent of Black people in Buncombe County had no health coverage
• 63 percent of Black families rent their homes, whereas 48 percent of white families rent their homes
• 71.8 percent of the 3,100 public housing residents are Black
In 2010, the median income for a Black woman in Asheville was $14,843, 39 percent of Black women live below the poverty line in Asheville. And 61 percent of single Black mothers live below the poverty line in Asheville.
Power of the people
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” ― Assata Shakur
In 2010, I slowly made my way into Asheville’s social justice scene. My entrance was meek. It was there that I fell into the trap of respectability. A few years later in 2012, I made a film entitled “Color ME Brown: Conversations with unmuted voices.” The film posed the question, “how does it feel to be Brown in Asheville.” At that time, folks were talking about the eraser of Black history, the destruction of The Block, and the “slave mentality.”Overall, the film was “pretty”, and while it started some dialogue about race it did not allow for the conversations of systematic and systemic oppression to be fully brought to the table, at no fault to anyone, we just weren’t there yet. In 2012 through 2016 I spent a lot of time connected to small grassroots efforts in Asheville, as well as using my employment in the nonprofit sector as a way to try and bring about social change.
Not only is Asheville “Beer City USA”, we are also “non-profit USA”. This isn’t a jab at non-profits; I’m still working in this sector full-time. However, sometimes I feel stuck as I navigate the nonprofit world. There are times when we are not able to name things at the roots and we find ourselves in this continuous cycle of treating the symptoms of things such as poverty, addiction, and homelessness.
I find that instead of cutting things off at the root, nonprofits often find themselves teaching their target demographics how to cope and assimilate. After all, dismantling white supremacy is much harder than telling poor Black folks that this world would respect us more if we had college degrees and lived in upper-middle class neighborhoods. For a long time, I believed this too.
After the death of Jerry Williams on July 2, 2016 my entire being felt numb; I did not have an active role in the organizing that was happening, but I found myself sitting in many conversations that shattered my rose-colored glasses. I dove deeper into writing attempting to alleviate the darkness that I was engulfed in. A few months had past and I found myself lying on my couch scrolling through social media when I scrolled across a live video of the outcry that was happening in Charlotte after the death of Keith Lamont Scott.
A few days later I piled into a car with four other people and made my way to Charlotte, where I spent a total of three days. I can’t even recall the amount of hours we spend on the ground marching. But, I can recall the moment where I broke down. It was as if I was mourning my faith in those who hold positions of power. I came back to Asheville numb. Many folks thanked me for going to Charlotte, and it felt so nasty – I suppose this feeling came from knowing that my hours on the ground meant nothing if I were to go home to my liberal city and find another pair of rose colored glasses to put on.
The months between the death of Keith Lamont Scott and the beginning of 2017 were possibly some of the darkest months I’ve ever seen, even darker than the months that followed my own personal traumas. In January of 2017, I joined the North Carolina Black Lives Matter Cohort, which is held by Southerners On New Ground (SONG) – it is here that I found my political home, as well as Black, Queer radicals that would help me continue to shed my fear, and my respectability.
There are many reasons as to why I felt at home. I had found a cohort of people who share a similar ideology as I do. My older brother spent thirteen years in federal prison, and during that time we became close through our letters. As I entered my teenage years, he introduced me to books and radicals that would change my life. I spent many years suppressing my radical identity in hopes that respectability would save me, and it didn’t. SONG does an incredible job providing organizers with the space to not just develop as a leaders but to also work collectively across the SouthEast to build a coalition that is actively working to dismantle white supremacy. I believe there is a genuine love that is shared throughout SONG that allows us to teach one another, learn from one another, and show up for one another. I don’t feel comfortable getting into the weeds of what a cohort gathering “looks like”, but, I will say that it is quite beautiful to share space with fellow Black Queers who are all down to “Squad Up, Skill Up, and Slay”.
Many of us in Asheville are tired. We are tired of democratic processes that don’t work. We are tired of respectability politics that tell us to lower our voices and just show up to the polls. We are tired of pretending that everything is rainbows and butterflies. If you ask some organizers in Asheville, they will tell you that organizing here is difficult. There is much truth to that. Are we supposed to give up because it is difficult? Or are suppose to keep going? I think it is safe to say that many of us made the choice to keep going.
Building a movement takes time. A lot of time. We can’t expect change if we don’t mobilize people. I am all for direct action and taking to the streets, but I also believe that there has to be other work that is coexisting with direct action.
This year Asheville Police Department Police Chief Tammy Hooper requested a $1 million dollar budget increase to massively ramp up downtown patrols. I believe it was unethical for her to request such a thing, especially at such a time in our country and given the APD’s own massive problems. Police have always been problematic when it comes to marginalized communities. In fact, our Southern police institutions started as slave catchers. Due to the double-edged sword of the media, we witness on an almost everyday basis an altercation where an officer uses excessive or lethal force on someone who is unarmed.
We needed to hit the ground hard. Did we need to take to the streets or did we need to form a people’s forum? We went with the latter and gathered over sixty people together at the Packs Memorial Library on May 17. During our three hours together we spent time brainstorming around community resources, community safety, affordable housing, law enforcement, poverty, transportation, and the city budget.
The people’s forum along with over one hundred responses gathered from canvassing allowed us to generate questions for an Asheville City Council candidate forum on policing which took place four days later. We gathered in a jam-packed room in the Edington Center along with all but one of the Council candidates who had declared at that time. I am by no means a moderator, but, when my fellow organizers asked me to take on the task, I said “yes.”
Between March and June, a collective of organizers and community members came together in solidarity regarding the city budget. It was the solidarity of the people that birthed “One Million for the People”, a phrase coined by a local organizer. The proposed APD increase was arguably one of the most controversial line items that the city has had in many years.
Community members spoke against the increase, calling it unjust and morally irresponsible. According to the killed by police database, 1,162 people were killed by the police in the U.S. during 2016. One of which was Jerry Williams, an Asheville man. APD Chief Tammy Hooper made mention that a budget increase would allow the department to be more effective when it came to dealing with crime, particularly in the downtown area. In-depth information regarding the breakdown of the proposed APD increase — and how Hooper’s statistics didn’t add up while the city ignored its own process — can be found in the Blade articles Shaky numbers and The tale of two budget expansions.
Community members took the mic at numerous City Council meetings urging for the city to invest $1 million into communities of color, housing, and policing alternatives. Community members also repeatedly made mentions of the over-policing that happens in communities of color in our town. As a result of the grassroots organizing around the proposed APD budget increase, City Council did not fund the entire $1 million for the APD immediately and delayed some parts of the expansion, but they did vote 5-2 to initiate the expansion and started providing some funding for it. Also, following public pressure from the campaign, Council create a Blue Ribbon Committee task force that will serve approximately three months in an advisory capacity to define the mission, scope, and duties concerning a newly created Human Relations Commission in an attempt to better address the city’s equity issues. Those serving on the Blue Ribbon Committee include some of the most well-known leaders in the area, including many with a history fighting for civil rights, such as commissioners, educators, and nonprofit directors.
The formation of the Human Relations Commission and the passing of the city budget was not the end. Community organizers refused to take this as a win, but moreso just a very small step in the right direction. On Aug. 18, four community organizers were arrested in downtown Asheville while attempting to remove the controversial Robert E. Lee monument that sits in front of the Vance Monument. Organizers released the following statement to contextualize their action:
Saturday will mark a week since Heather Heyer was murdered in Charlottesville while resisting white supremacists who came to defend the Robert E. Lee monument. Heather’s death comes after years of black people being slaughtered by the police and white silence in the face of institutionalized violence. One of the calls to action made by Charlottesville organizers was to remove all confederate monuments. Today, organizers in Asheville made the decision to answer that call by attempting to remove our Robert E. Lee monument. We understand that the removal of this monument would be symbolic of removing white supremacy from the very center of our city. We know that this must be connected to the deep work of ending systemic racism and white supremacy culture here.
Little did the Buncombe County Detention Center know that two weeks later, those same organizers would once again be in the building. Except this time they were there to bail folks out of jail. On Sept. 1, a group of 35+ community organizers and community members gathered to bail out out Black women, Black queer folks, and Black trans folks from local jails in honor of Black August. This work is being done in partnership with Southerners On New Ground and National Bail Out, a coalition of organizations that are fighting to end cash bail.
Black August is a month of resistance. Originating at the San Quentin prison in California, it was created to honor the lives of Khatari Gaulden, Jonathan Jackson, James McClain, George Jackson, and William Christmas. All of whom were Freedom Fighters who lost their lives. During the month of August, Black folks across the country come together to honor movement ancestors as well as to host skill shares that include: political education and physical training. This also serves as a time for a celebration of Black culture.
Bail outs are “an ongoing tactic to build a base, to expose the crisis of cash bail and the beast that is the criminal-legal system, to change hearts and minds, to make real and material impacts on the lives of our people, and to build power.”
Asheville’s People’s Forum, the Council candidate forum, the fight against the APD budget increase, the Sanctuary Movement, Answering Charlottesville’s Call to Action, and Black August – six major actions/ongoing actions that have been heavily criticized by folks on many ends of the political spectrum. Despite criticism, all have been used to as ways to educate and further the work that was started by those who came before us.
How does one conclude everything that was just spilled onto paper? Do I talk about the future? Do I apologize for not being a great writer outside of the realm of poetry? Concluding this is difficult, because the work is still ongoing. This year has taught me that power does indeed rest in the hands of the people. It has taught me that many of those in positions of power are not there to serve the people, but to tuck their tails beneath their legs and refrain from challenging those who are responsible for the atrocities against people of color, poor people, undocumented people, and LGBTQIA+ people.
The people of Asheville are strong, resilient, beautiful, and powerful. We are the children of the ones who did not die. We are the children of people who could fly. We are the children of the ones who persevered. We are fearless, we are strong, and we’re ready to carry on.
Nicole Townsend is a community organizer and poet currently living in Asheville.