Somebody sent a few not-so-subtle messages in Asheville in recent days.
Namely, that they don’t like the police much. Or politicians who take a stand on public safety.
And that they think violence and destruction is an effective tool in changing minds, which it patently is not.
It’s hard to take away much else from the Aug. 14 torching of two Asheville Police cars parked in a West Asheville lot on Lynndale Avenue, just off Haywood Road. Or from the vandalism a few days before of an Asheville City Councilwoman’s vehicle at her home, not long after she signed an open letter promoting more public safety, under a multi-faceted approach.
The police vehicles were destroyed, to the tune of more than $100,000, according to Asheville Police Chief David Zack. As of Friday, the case remained under investigation, and the Asheville Police Department had brought in the FBI to help.
While APD headquarters is downtown, the department parks a fair number of vehicles at the Lynndale lot, which is not monitored by video cameras.
Three days earlier, on Aug. 11, Asheville City Councilmember Maggie Ullman posted on Facebook that someone slashed the tires and broke windows of her vehicle the preceding night. Ullman, who was one of five council members who signed the letter, called the vandalism an “act of intimidation.”
APD looking at anarchists, other groups
In an interview Friday, Zack said the timing of the letter, the vandalism of Ullman’s car, the police vehicle arson, and an anarchist book fair that was held in Asheville the weekend of Aug. 11-13, is suspicious. Firestorm Books, a West Asheville bookstore and cooperative that promotes anarchy on its website, hosted the book fair.
“We’d be foolish not to follow that as the lead,” Zack said. “That would be ‘Police 101.’ We’re not going to ignore that. Does that mean there’s a direct tie? No, but it’s certainly a lead that we’re going to explore. We’d be foolish not to. We’d be negligent not to, to use a better word.”
I reached out to Firestorm employee Libertie Valance for comment via phone and then sent an email with some of Zack’s previous comments, asking for a response, and a response to my questions. I did not hear back by deadline.
I asked Zack if APD is looking at the bookstore specifically.
“We’re looking at a number of (groups),” Zack said. “This is where we’re seeking the assistance of the FBI — because the FBI does monitor extremist groups throughout the nation on the far left and the far right. We’re not ruling out either, and we’re exploring both.
“We’re looking at all groups that express anti-government views and have resorted to violence in the past or promoted violence in the past. And the FBI has far more intelligence on these groups than we do.”
Later in the conversation, Zack added more about Firestorm.
“I understand Firestorm thinks they’re being targeted. They’re not,” Zack said. “What we’re doing is we’re exploring and investigating groups and individuals that we know exist and live in our community that engage in acts that are violent.”
Zack said APD is also working “very closely” with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s task force that is investigating damaging protests around the “Cop City” training area being built in suburban Atlanta.
The investigation here is in the “very, very early stages,” he added.
At the Leadership Asheville Buzz Breakfast forum Aug. 15 at the Crowne Plaza Resort, which I moderated, Zack clearly was irate about the incidents.
“Burning out police cars is an act of anarchy, plain and simple,” the chief said. “And while we have that element in our community, we as a community have to reject it. It serves no purpose. It makes no point. It does no good. Nor does attacking our public officials and going to their homes.”
Zack also addressed the attack on Ullman’s property.
“What is that? That kind of behavior has got to be eliminated and not accepted on any level,” Zack said. “It is not right. It is not productive. And people who engage in that sort of activity, who live in this community, need to be held accountable for it.”
A history of incidents in Asheville
As most are probably aware, Asheville has been something of a hotbed for anti-government, anti-police activity for years now. When I was with the Citizen Times, I wrote a news story in February 2015 about arsonists destroying two armored vehicles at the local Armed Forces National Guard Armory. That was a $1.7 million loss.
And in the spring of 2020 we certainly had more than our fair share of anti-police protesting after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. The demonstrations devolved into near-riots a couple of nights, with shots fired and store windows broken.
That September, someone left a casket full of dirt and manure at the APD’s downtown building.
“There’s been a steady stream of incidents, increasing in violence and intensity in these attacks,” Zack said, noting people are becoming more brazen. “So we’re not just looking at a single incident, but the obvious escalation of extremist-type behaviors that are against the law.”
The destruction of police cars or army equipment, while it certainly sends a message, seems pointless. It’s not like the army or the APD are just going to say, “Welp, I guess we’re going to be down two vehicles from now on out.”
They’re going to replace them, and the replacements are probably going to cost even more. You and I as taxpayers are going to foot the bill.
More than changing hearts and minds, the destruction mostly just irritates regular citizens, who are out there working every day, paying taxes, and hoping a cop will show up if someone is trying to break into their home or smash their car windows. It is, as the chief says, pointless.
But it does contribute to poor morale in a department down about 40% in sworn officers.
“Law enforcement is suffering all across the country — people leaving the profession, people refusing to join the profession,” Zack said at the forum. “But what we also have to remember, while that is a nationwide problem, it’s been a bigger problem here in Asheville than almost any city in the country. We lost more officers per capita than just about every agency in the United States.”
In 2020 and 2021, the APD had an exodus of officers, some retiring but many leaving because of poor morale and what they felt was denigration of the police. A variety of factors play into this, but Zack said the appreciation issue is very real here.
“What it ultimately comes down to is a lot of the officers — I did a lot of exit interviews — a lot of the officers in this community left because they did not feel supported,” he said. “(They felt) that their work was being taken for granted.”
While those with anti-police sentiment have made themselves known, so have those who support the police, and the chief said morale has improved. The Asheville Coalition for Public Safety, a group that includes people from all walks of life, formed last fall to support local police and call for better public safety, including in downtown.
An attack on democracy
Ullman’s situation, while not nearly as costly financially, is even more troubling to me, because it smacks of attempted intimidation. I’ve not endured vandalism of this nature, but I’ve certainly had people threaten me about stories and try to intimidate me.
It doesn’t work.
In an Aug. 11 Facebook post, Ullman described what happened:
“Someone came to my family’s home last night and used a knife and hammer to slash my car tires and smash my car windows. This act of intimidation came just hours after I cosigned a letter requesting an open dialogue on violence, poverty, addiction, fear, and hope for Asheville.”
Ullman thanked neighbors who confronted the person, and the police for investigating.
I don’t know Ullman well, but having talked with her a couple of times, I get the distinct impression that she is a strong person who does not shrink from a threat. Her post validated that take.
“This experience has deepened my resolve. We must ensure open dialogue about issues that matter to us,” Ullman wrote. “We deserve a community that is inclusive, safe, and compassionate. Targeting people with malicious acts is never the way.”
Resorting to malicious acts is never the way for several reasons. First, do you really think you’re going to change anyone’s mind by destroying property and assaulting someone’s sense of security? Do you think that by committing a criminal act you’re going to persuade someone to back off a public safety stance in a city struggling with crime?
With the police car arson, do you believe that destroying the public’s property and trying to intimidate those charged with enforcing our laws is going to go over well with the general public that relies on those police for their safety? And has to pay for the cars?
I wonder what the ultimate goal here is, other than chaos. If you want to defund police, this will have the opposite effect. If you want to prevent politicians from addressing public safety, this will have the opposite effect.
In a word, it’s foolhardy. It’s also anti-democratic, and it will likely have the opposite effect of what’s intended.
With Ullman, the attempted intimidation also is ludicrous because the letter that five of seven council members signed suggests taking a holistic approach to improving the city. Yes, one of the bullet points is “Invest in Police” and notes that police pay will increase 6 percent this year, but the plan also includes commitments to invest in health, inclusiveness and more funding for affordable housing.
If anything, it’s a little heavy on politically correct buzzwords, but it also makes a lot of sense.
I suppose some folks just don’t want any support for police. Or any police at all.
Or maybe even a democratic system.
“It’s jeopardizing the democratic process,” Chief Zack said. “We should be able to discuss issues affecting our city without the fear of having people attacked or having the police attacked. We should be able to have those discussions without threats.”
I agree 100 percent.
I’ve long been a believer in pragmatism, in seeking solutions that actually have a good chance of succeeding. In realizing that people come in an array of political stripes, and that sometimes the far left and the far right actually come around full circle and, strangely enough, meet in the back.
If you’re interested in real progress, in better services for the vulnerable, poor, and marginalized, you’ve got to start with having a society in which people feel safe, and in which they feel they can speak their minds without having their car windows smashed. It’s simply the bedrock of a civil society.
This requires actually talking to people, to your elected representatives, your city manager, your police chief in an adult manner. Think about this: How often have you responded well or changed your mind from someone screaming at you? Or destroying your property?
That’s essentially what lighting police cars on fire and smashing windows equals: an incoherent scream. Sure, it expresses outrage, but it’s not going to accomplish anything, other than making the giant corporate conglomerates who produce windshield glass and cop cars a nice chunk of money.
Or maybe encouraging more people to join the Asheville Coalition on Public Safety.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at email@example.com. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.