Police snatch Lady Passion and twist her arms during a peaceful anti-war march.
A Day of Infamy
by Dixie Deerman and Steve Rasmussen
The day the Bush Administration began bombing Iraq, we attended a protest in downtown Asheville to peaceably deplore the "shock and awe" attack on innocent civilians — and were ourselves brutalized in a "shock and awe" attack by the Asheville Police Department.
Disregarding Asheville citizens' history of vocal but polite and peaceful demonstrations, the police treated the nonviolent marchers like a lawless horde — calling in off-duty cops to close off traffic and executing what we later learned was a prearranged plan for making mass arrests. By traumatizing hundreds of civic-minded taxpayers (including children), the police tainted Asheville's reputation for tolerance.
Multiple video cameras recorded the indiscriminate brutality that day. The films show a paddy wagon and loudspeaker-blaring cruisers driving threateningly by when the march began; dozens of cop cars blocking traffic; phalanxes of police standing in the middle of streets (some in full riot gear, one carrying pepper spray in a large canister); cops excitedly distributing hundreds of plastic handcuffs among themselves; and "peace officers" repeatedly lunging onto the sidewalk to arbitrarily tackle and arrest young and old alike. Without provocation, the police tore up banners, aggressively jostled marchers, and pushed a pregnant woman onto the pavement as she held her child's hand.
Having disrupted the order the crowd had been trying to maintain, the police barricaded three streets. Herding everyone onto Walnut Street between Haywood and Rankin — out of public view — they began twisting arms and dragging bodies over asphalt, terrorizing bystanders and protesters alike.
Lt. Jon Kirkpatrick, the Downtown Divison supervisor, inexplicably and randomly targeted individuals, pointing deep within standing crowds; officers then yanked them off the sidewalk, threw them atop their cruiser hoods or down onto the pavement, and handcuffed them. They arrested three journalists (including Steve), plus an elderly deaf man who didn't respond fast enough to their commands. They manhandled and arrested a young woman for playing a drum, and an older woman who tried to safeguard the instrument. Kirkpatrick himself was filmed dragging one arrestee by his hair.
A policewoman seems to grin in fiendish glee as she forces another person to remain lying on the pavement. (Shortly after the arrests, someone stenciled this stretch of sidewalk on the corner of Rankin and Walnut Streets with graffiti: "You can beat us up, but you can't beat us down." It remained visible for years.)
Nearly 30 people were violently arrested for jaywalking — which normally elicits a ticket. Perhaps aware of how ridiculous that could appear in court, police tacked on the charge of resisting arrest. We were detained for six hours — many of us with our hands painfully bound with plastic ties — and kept outdoors in the cold night air. A male officer repeatedly denied restroom access to a tearful, pregnant arrestee. Another officer, told that a woman needed anti-seizure medicine, mocked her unconventional name but never gave her the medicine. Yet another officer threw a woman who had unhealed burns into solitary because she was unable to obey his command to sit down. Several officers joked about the terrible physical effects caused by their new kind of pepper spray. Others ridiculed protesters' political beliefs to their faces. Many arrestees overheard officers discussing plans to arrest anti-war protesters in two groups of 30.
Before a week had passed, Asheville's finest had not only denied — in the face of filmed evidence — that they'd acted brutally, but had also unilaterally declared the Vance Monument off limits to all free speech and assembly, arresting 10 members of the Women In Black, who'd been silently holding one-hour vigils there every Friday for the past 18 months. Worse yet, police and Parks and Recreation officials had the gall to lie about why they were closing the public monument, citing alleged "safety issues" related to the protests. Yet the sole proven threat to anyone's safety at Vance so far is out-of-control police, who've been responsible for the only injuries anyone's known to have suffered in the recent peace protests.
But law-enforcement officials weren't the only ones displaying an undemocratic eagerness to punish anyone who seemed out of sync with America's march toward military empire. Brandon Smith, the first person arrested on March 20, wasn't a protester and didn't even oppose the war — he was simply trying to get to his ride when he was swept up in the cop-induced melee on Walnut Street. Nonetheless, the next day he was fired from his night job as a dishwasher at Bennie's Little Dog House on Haywood Road in West Asheville. Owner Bennie Hall later told Steve that "others are saying" Smith was an anti-war protester. And while Hall declined to identify those "others," he said he was proud to have fired Smith.
At least one APD officer seems to have felt qualms of conscience about participating in this orgy of excessive force. As a riot-helmeted cop helped arrest a protester, he laid a hand on the young man's shoulder and said, "Hang in there — a lot of us support you, and we're proud of you."
On the day when these police turned Asheville into Ashcroftville, their behavior reflected the very same anti-democratic agenda that we were there to protest. And when they banged our heads on their cruiser hoods to silence our voices, these "officers of the peace" irresponsibly abused the trust citizens place in them when we allow them to carry guns and handcuffs.
This Asheville Citizen-Times photo of Lady Passion screaming in pain as a policeman coolly twists her arm was picked up nationally, and ran on the home page of the Washington Post's website as it reported on the massive worldwide protests that erupted at the start of the Iraq War.
They also embarrassed Asheville: The Washington Post published a Citizen-Times photo of an APD officer sneering as he cruelly twisted and sprained Dixie's arm behind her back. (By contrast, Raleigh-area police — faced with a streets-filling peace march of comparable size that same day — responded by escorting it to its destination without incident.)
"At the very least, a heavy hand was laid on folks," conceded Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower (who, like the rest of City Council, had received many calls and letters from appalled and angry citizens) when Steve spoke with him a few days later. "It's not OK for them [police] to be bullying," added Mumpower.
Chief Will Annarino claims it's all the marchers' fault for not having gotten permits, which he has long been urging the city to require for all gatherings. According to the First Amendment, however, no official permission is required for "the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Asheville law enforcement suffers from systemic problems that only the checks and balances of grassroots democracy can rectify. What happened March 20 was merely the latest instance of the APD's well-documented pattern of abuse — not just toward political dissenters and street artists, but also toward racial minorities, young people, the homeless, and anyone else whose appearance or beliefs provoke a cop's prejudices. Like any governmental entity, police tend to get out of control whenever they're not accountable to the citizenry they're supposed to be serving.
At present, Asheville's police chief is appointed by and answers to only one public official: City Manager Jim Westbrook, who isn't elected either. And citizen complaints about excessive use of force are addressed by the APD's own Internal Affairs Section.
But faced with a clear pattern of police brutality, we must pressure city leaders to institute an independent citizens' review board — an oversight committee that can effectively investigate complaints of police misbehavior, objectively sorting out the bad cops and brutal policies from the good, fair ones. We, the citizens of Asheville, need to ensure that our police protect us from violence — not inflict it on us.
Dixie Deerman and Steve Rasmussen, the High Priestess and Priest of Coven Oldenwilde, are firm believers in the Wiccan Rede: "An it harm none, do what you will."
Know your rights. Citizens are allowed to peaceably assemble without a permit. Carrying ID is not mandatory in North Carolina
Consider your stance in advance. Compose "sound bite synopses" of your opinions in case you're interviewed or get arrested and have to explain your actions to an employer.
Adequately prepare. If you're a protest organizer, protect
attendees by notifying police of your plans and route.
If you plan to attend a demonstration, contact organizers to ensure the protest will have experienced speakers, and if a march is scheduled, it'll be on a highly visible route (like by College Street), with a goal (such as to the Federal Building).
Notify friends that you plan to attend. Plan together that if you're not home by a certain time, they should consider you arrested and call your mate, lawyer, and the jail to check on your status.
Write a legal assistance phone number on your palm with indelible ink. (Similarly, prevent loss of your eye-glasses by writing your contact info inside its frames.)
Dress for chilly and inclement weather. Wear a vinegar-soaked bandana around your neck; if police deploy tear-gas or pepper spray, cover your nose and mouth with it bandit-style.
Carry a card listing your rights available via www.freeassembly.org.
Carry bottled water and/or hard candy to prevent dehydration and falling blood sugar.
Carry a video camcorder, camera, or micro-cassette recorder for documentation purposes.
Don't carry anything that could be construed as a weapon.
During the demonstration, have friends that attend agree
to care for your child/ren should you get arrested.
Voice opposition to any rights infringement you see. If you witness brutality, alert the media on your cell phone (and let arrestees use it).
Don't curse or make aggressive physical movements towards police or counter-protestors. Such erodes public support and legal recourse.
Afterward, if you were brutalized by police, take photos
of your injuries, get medical attention, and/or file a complaint
at their Internal Affairs Department.
If you were falsely arrested, consult an attorney or the ACLU.
If you witnessed police brutality, testify for victims on their court date.
Write an account of your experience for local newspapers; when published, pervade it over the Internet.
Latest update: 30 Jan. 2011