On December 25, 2021, journalists in Asheville were arrested by the Asheville Police Department while gathering and attempting to share news on the eviction of unhoused people from a city park near downtown. Just days before, community members were also peacefully protesting the eviction.
At least 15 of these protesting community members were charged with felonies and banned from public parks without due process. Some have yet to be formally notified of this ban which increases the likelihood that they would face further criminal charges. And indeed, the city’s disruption of the protests and reporters covering the state-sanctioned evictions squashed important public discourse and engagement regarding a controversial decision to remove unhoused people from public space.
On January 19, 2023, ACLU of North Carolina sent a letter to the City of Asheville demanding that the city rescind the park bans it has issued to protesters and revise the policy that allowed the APD to issue those bans. We are still waiting for the city to take action. On January 24, 2023 the ACLU of North Carolina, Freedom of the Press Foundation, and Committee to Protect Journalists filed a request in Buncombe Superior Court seeking the public release of the body camera footage of police officers who arrested the journalists on December 25, 2021. After a hearing on Monday, February 20th in Buncombe County Superior Court, Judge Marvin Pope asked that the city and ACLU of NC enter into a consent order for the release of the footage. On February 24, 2023, Judge Pope signed that order. On February 27, the city released the footage.
The curtailing of protest, restriction of the press, and retaliatory banning from public spaces in Asheville fly in the face of public demands for more transparency and accountability from authorities. These incidents expose a far-reaching investment by those in power to keep vital information in the shadows. Authoritarian responses to fundamental exercises of civil rights are sweeping the nation, and the globe. North Carolina is no exception.
These recent events demonstrate a pattern of authorities limiting protest, infringing on freedom of the press, and restricting public access to information. Police and other government officials must take better care to protect the civil liberties of those who are exercising their constitutionally protected right to protest. The overreach of police is manifesting swiftly, violently, and in many cases, without recourse. In concert with legislators, district attorneys, and other state actors, the police are radically restricting fundamental constitutional rights, often targeting unhoused or otherwise economically vulnerable Black and Brown people.
Until we are all free to exercise our rights and enjoy the full protections set out by our constitution, none of us are free. The targeting of information, the press, protests and peaceful assemblies is misinforming, restricting, and polarizing our communities. Those making these decisions are invested in control and authoritarianism, not freedom, justice, and democracy.
We remain vigilant in our pursuit of a more perfect union and urge you to stay with us and stay informed, even when there are concerted efforts to stifle protest and freedom of the press. The public should be able to speak, learn, and protest in service of our various communities --- any effort to stop us from speaking, telling our stories, and living in our truths is an affront to the founding pillars of our nation.
Together we will ensure that what is done in the dark will be brought to the light.