Gassed

Inside Monday’s protest in downtown Asheville

June 1st.  Night.

A few minutes before the first explosion a black woman stopped to say,  “It’s nice to see another older person.” She patted my arm. “You too,” I replied. Such kind eyes, I thought and reached out to touch back but she was gone.  I was standing just up from the police station, under the sign that reads, “Young Men’s Institution. Established 1892 as center of social, moral, religious influence for blacks working at Biltmore.”

The crowd was closely packed, but not a mob, which must always carry on its back its twin brother, lynch.  Altogether, the faces were mostly white, college looking, no one over 30, plenty of voyeurs, no apparent flower children, street people, drunkos or wackos, and only the rare person not wearing a virus mask, but of course you’re thinking, how many new cases are going to come out of this? Isn’t there an uptik in the number of deaths lately? “Self,” you say, “was this really a good idea?”  

I saw somebody with Antifa printed on a sweatshirt; I saw somebody with a sign denouncing international banks. But no black-clad squads of super antiheroes. Other signs read, “All police are complicit” and “white silence is violence.” There was the customary scent of dope and the mood was loud in places but there was no center of gravity. Anybody with a loud voice drew a following.

Of course, people are feeding off each other though not in a sustained way.  The energy starts up and cuts off.  The crowd has a bad battery. Then suddenly, there’s a scare, a rumor, shouting, “Get back.” People rush back, away from the cordon of police, who you can’t see because they’re on the down slope of the street and because you’re separated by maybe a thousand protesters.  But what was the scare? At one point, there’s a headlight coming through the crowd from the direction of the police. First thought: a submarine and then, a speeding car. The broadcast news has taught you well: Panic. People scatter like minnows. “What was that?” people say and roll their eyes, like that was close, whatever it was.  “A scooter,” someone explains authoritatively.  Who knows? 

The power cuts off again. People shift from one foot to the other. What’s next? Will there be more excitement? See those three girls over there — three coeds whose mothers and fathers would be so relieved to think that at least their girls are not here tonight — they’re saying it’s probably time to go home. They kiss cheeks like Europeans and pro forma hug a young man who takes their protest signs and they head away. Elsewhere, two guys are talking about their dropped phone.  A lot of people on their screens, not on the protest.

The mitigating factor throughout the evening seems to be that a slight majority of the  protesters are women.  I keep thinking of that Facebook meme a few months ago.  “I need Fiona Hill, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Rachel Maddow, and Stacey Abrams … to just be in charge of everything so we can all go about our lives and stop watching stupid, greedy men F everything up.”

Some of the women are clearly in charge, and move around like correctional officers with their kids: one tells a couple of snarks to cool it and don’t, DO NOT throw anything at police.  These women seem to know some of the who’s who. And over and over, the appeal is, this is peaceful. Don’t provoke. One woman picks up empty plastic water bottles and puts them in her backpack; another holds to a lamp post leading chants, which include the now popular call and response, “Hands up,” “Don’t shoot.” A man who tries to start a mantra with “F*** the police” is shouted down and in the next minute he’s holding a woman in his arms and everybody’s laughing.  A little forced maybe, but a micro torch blows out.  I count three or four thrown water bottles, one very close by, but strange because they’re coming from behind the crowd and they’re well short of the police, as though the real target is not the police.  But of course there’s no telling.

And then BANG.  Just in the middle of a lull, no warning, no voice on a bullhorn. Nothing. And again, BANG.  Along with something like firecrackers lighting up about chest high.  But from what direction? Are they gonna shoot rubber bullets? And then another BANG and then or before that, tear gas.  No wind, no breeze, the gas just hangs.  As the crowd clears you see that the police are much closer than you realized. Add the sound of people down on all fours, vomiting; shouts and real screams; I’m thinking I’m lucky with mask and glasses but then suddenly it’s all suffocating, and there’s a few seconds of panic.  You don’t want to take a deep breath. And so the whole  drama rings true: I can’t breathe.  Now you understand what George was feeling.

Out of nowhere a black woman all in black, only her eyes visible, takes my arm and leads me away, steadily, quickly, and in a very calm voice asks, “Okay, can you see now?”   More or less, I can.  Someone behind us screams, as though in real distress.  The Samaritan spins me ahead. “It’ll be all right. Just keep going,” she says, instructions for the era, like something John Lewis said the other day. She disappears. As I make my way back to my car, others see my condition and apply water and milk to my eyes.  The people are young and courteous, and effective.  If you think this generation doesn’t care, doesn’t respect, try again.

Mark MacNamara

A stranger poured milk on Mark MacNamara to soothe the effects of tear gas.

And then you think of those people who come to Asheville in search of “shelter from the blast,” from urban and environmental havoc, including corruption, and find themselves just where they thought they’d left.  

AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Mark MacNamara is an Asheville-based journalist who has written for Nautilus, Salon and Vanity Fair. Contact us at avlwatchdog@gmail.com.

One thought on “Gassed

  1. “ You don’t want to take a deep breath. And so the whole drama rings true: I can’t breathe. Now you understand what George was feeling… If you think this generation doesn’t care, doesn’t respect, try again.” Thank you Mark for standing in the frontlines alongside many protesters, knowing the risks. ✊🏾 💕

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