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The July 14 vote by Asheville City Council to pass a reparations resolution was “historic.” That’s what the media coverage repeated constantly over the last week. The story is one of a progressive city whose council moved to address a long history of racism by taking extraordinary action (unanimously, no less). National and international media, even left-leaning organizations, have embraced the narrative. 

That story is wrong.

Instead of the changes demanded by Black Ashevillians, the reparations resolution contains a slew of declarations, some apologies, and no firm commitments beyond appointing a committee that maybe, some day, will propose reparations.

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The distance between the reality on the ground in Asheville and the current national media narrative is vast and surreal. While Ashevilleans, especially those fighting for years against dire segregation, are accustomed to misleading narratives about our city,  this reparations narrative has pointedly erased a story of multiracial street demonstrations, abolitionist demands, vicious police crackdowns and growing momentum for real, material reparations. In its place, various media offered a story about the generosity of liberal government officials and major non-profits.

Instead of the changes demanded by Black Ashevillians, the reparations resolution contains a slew of declarations, some apologies, and no firm commitments beyond appointing a committee that maybe, some day, will propose reparations. The previous record of such committees in Asheville does not give much cause for optimism.

See also: Why media outlets cover racial reconciliation but not racism

Instead of widespread acclaim, the hearing preceding the city council’s resolution was packed with locals, including many Black Ashevillians on the front lines of the struggles against racism, expressing harsh skepticism about the resolution, particularly its lack of any actual reparations. They recalled a long history of city hall passing racial justice resolutions to get headlines, then crushing any efforts for real change.

“As a Black woman born and raised in Asheville, I’m tired of the amnesia that’s grown rampant in this city as y’all try your hardest to erase and forget what this city has put Black and Brown people through,” went one telling comment. “I’m honestly growing tired of the lip service, your list of apologies is less than sufficient. That money not only needs to come from the state, it will come from defunding 50 percent of APD’s budget. The local government constantly regurgitates this pathetic attempt at equity and inclusion in this city as they destroy neighborhoods, inflate property taxes and push Black and Brown people out of their homes and neighborhoods.”

The public reiterated grassroots demands for defunding Asheville’s infamously racist police, funds directly for Black communities, the return of lands seized during “urban renewal,” the removal of officials behind the recent attacks on protesters, among other mandates. Even most of those who encouraged council to pass the resolution expressed real doubts about the city’s commitment and pushed them to start meeting those more immediate demands.

See also: No justice in gentrification

These critiques never made it into the national coverage of the resolution. 

Reality checks

Tear gas over downtown after Asheville police fired canisters into a crowd of anti-racist protesters June 1. Special to the Asheville Blade.

The city of Asheville’s reparations resolution contains 18 admissions about racism, ranging from slavery and segregation to schooling, health and housing. It then contains three apologies: for the city’s role in slavery, for its sanctioning of segregation, and for its role in the “urban renewal.” Following that, local organizations and county government are encouraged to follow suit.

Further, there is a directive to the city manager to bring forward policies to address the creation of generational wealth and to boost economic mobility and opportunity in local Black communities, an endorsement of the city’s equity department. The city will create a “community reparations commission” that will supposedly take up the work of actually figuring out what reparations in Asheville might look like. Lastly, they want the city manager to update the city council on the process.

That’s it. What was notable about the resolution wasn’t what it included, but what it didn’t. The city’s apologies, notably, stopped with urban renewal. They didn’t include the police shootings and beatings of recent years or police attacks on anti-racist protests, including tear gassing a crowd with children and attacking a medic station. All the officials responsible for those harms—including the police chief and mayor—still remain in office. Council has largely ignored the demands for immediate defunding of the Asheville police and reallocating the resources directly to Black communities.

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, who ordered a draconian curfew and thanked police after they attacked protesters, faces growing calls to resign. During her time in office, she’s repeatedly pushed pro-gentrification policies and major increases to police budgets. Photo by Max Cooper for the Asheville Blade.

While the city council apologized for urban renewal, they changed not a single policy. They made no promises to return control of any of the Black land or community centers that the local government took over in the wake of urban renewal. City government is still fully behind projects like the Interstate 26 connector, which will level key parts of the historically Black Burton Street neighborhood, and the overhaul of public housing, which many residents see as just an extension of redlining.

Broken promises

Recent history stands in stark contrast to the city council’s resolution.

Asheville remains one of the most segregated cities in the South, and Black household wealth has plummeted even more during its tourism boom. In recent years, the Asheville Police Department (APD) has had the worst racial disparities in traffic stops and searches of any major city in North Carolina. The police department is massive—the largest per-capita in the state—in a city where funds are desperately needed for housing, transit and other dire public needs.

This is not the first time we have seen the city respond to public outrage with resolutions and committees. In 2016, after APD Sgt. Tyler Radford shot and killed Jerry Williams, city council promised a more representative police committee and reformed policies. In 2017, as traffic stop disparities made headlines and locals packed city meetings to oppose a massive police budget hike, city government appointed a “blue ribbon commission” to tackle racial inequity.

In 2018, after a video leaked of police brutally beating Johnnie Rush, a Black local walking home from work, council promised an independent investigation, a new human relations commission and committed to NAACP-backed traffic stop reforms. Last year, as public outrage over local officials’ complicity in a GOP-drawn racist gerrymandering scheme grew, council passed a “racial trauma” resolution.

But Asheville stayed as segregated as ever. The city kept centrist and right-wing police commission members on, the blue ribbon committee left policy largely unchanged, and city hall ensured the human relations commission would have little sway and no investigative power. In every case, city government, not the community, decides who is on these committees. The “independent investigation” into the Rush attack was conducted by ex-cops who praised the APD and condemned a Black council member for even mentioning structural racism. The NAACP reforms were delayed for well over a year, then gutted by city staff and police officials behind the scenes.  

No wonder many Black locals are skeptical of yet another committee.

The demands [by Black residents] are in the tradition of real reparations: land, resources, funds, community space and power, the end of the structures directly causing violence. None of these are in the reparations resolution.

This year, as city officials pushed re-opening despite rising COVID-19 cases, locals took to the streets starting on May 31, after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Night after night, they showed up and were met with tear gas and arrests but multiracial crowds kept showing up. After the windows of Mayor Esther Manheimer’s law office got smashed, she imposed a draconian curfew that notably exempted tourists and business. The ACLU later wrote the measure was clearly just intended to crush protests. Over 60 people still face charges.

Black locals made their will known most loudly not through traditional non-profits (who are often pretty closely aligned with city hall), but in demands from new collectives like Black Avl Demands and the avowedly abolitionist Boots on the Ground.

These demands called for an immediate defunding of Asheville’s police by 50 percent or more, the immediate removal of all confederate regime monuments (officials have shrouded the vance monument, dedicated to Zebulon Vance, one of the architects of Jim Crow, but have so far refused to outright remove it), reallocating resources directly to Black communities and removing the police officers most directly responsible for racist violence. There are also demands for an end to the occupation of Black neighborhoods and the return of land and community centers—much of it still owned by the city—taken during segregation and urban renewal.

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On June 21 locals painted a large “Defund the Police” mural in front of Asheville’s main police station, city hall and courthouse. Local Black collectives are demanding at least a 50 percent cut to the department’s budget. Special to the Asheville Blade.

The demands are in the tradition of real reparations: land, resources, funds, community space and power, the end of the structures directly causing violence. None of these are in the reparations resolution. A resolution and yet another committee weren’t on the list of demands. Given the record of the police committee, the human resources commission and an array of city resolutions in recent years, it’s easy to see why.

Notably, the reparations resolution contained not even a thin apology for any police violence. The resolution didn’t emerge from the collectives that crafted demands for change, but from council members and the Racial Justice Coalition (RJC), a coalition of local non-profits that has includes some anti-racist activists but has generally refused, as a whole, to back any efforts that challenge city hall.

The voices erased

Media accounts of the reparations resolution ignored not just these recent events, but also the many locals loudly trying to make sure they were not ignored. The public comments on the reparations resolution are almost entirely excluded, except for a quote from the RJC’s representative or one of the few outright racists that called in to oppose the resolution.

Left out were the many voices that night who wanted real reparations, but were skeptical of a gesture lacking immediate action, especially given the history of city committees and resolutions as a way to crush challenges to the status quo.

“There is no separation between reparations and defunding the police for me as a Black woman,” said one resident. She also called on them to oppose rampant gentrification and criticized local governments’ decision to reopen hotels and airbnbs in the middle of a pandemic. “You are actively causing harm to Black and Latinx communities by opening the city back up. While we’re talking about reparations remember you’re still actively doing harm.”

In the days afterwards, Megan Clay, one local involved in Black Avl Demands, expressed frustration with the emerging narrative in a social media post, asserting that until the city defunded police, returned stolen land, put funds directly in the hands of Black communities “and much much more” they had no business talking about reparations.

“They are clearly not interested in doing anything, they are all talk,” they wrote of city government. “Drawn out processes continue when we need immediate structural change.”

The media story about the reparations resolution erases the reality of Black grassroots collectives, multiracial protests and demands for real change, replacing it with a neat narrative of orderly progress, sympathetic institutions and benevolent government leaders. If the tactics the status quo is using in Asheville work to erase that reality here, they will spread to other cities whose liberal officials want the appearance of change while keeping things exactly the same. Asheville will stay as segregated as ever. We won’t be the only ones.

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David Forbes

David Forbes is a writer and journalist based in Asheville, N.C. She has covered city hall and social justice struggles for 15 years. She is the editor of the Asheville Blade, a leftist, reader-supported news organization.