Asheville activists reclaim the streets - 22 May 2001

ASHEVILLE, North Carolina Nearly 100 people gathered in Aston Park on Monday afternoon to participate in a festive Reclaim the Streets parade that ended with members of the Asheville community subjected to arrest and threats at gunpoint.

"We want this to be a completely non-violent and peaceful thing and just throw a party in Pack Square and let everyone know that they can come hang out, join in and have a really good time bask in the community and everything it has to offer", said one person in the park before the march began.

Reclaim the Streets originated in London in 1995. Largely spontaneous street parties caught on, inspiring what has become a global tradition with nearly a hundred having followed since, around the world.

The parade, loosely organized and without a permit, began to move into the streets of downtown Asheville with people marching, skipping, skateboarding, and riding bikes freely. Accompanied by whistles, drums, and an accordion, the procession moved towards Vance Monument carrying large banners emphasizing the ideals of life beyond consumption.

All along the route people in cars honked, waved, and gave the thumbs up to show support.

A handbill passed out to participants and passersby read: Reclaim the Streets is a festival in our streets to reclaim public places and rejoice as a community&This is our time to come together as a community to promote creativity, understanding and preservation of our environment.

From the start, police followed the march on horseback and in squad cars, urging the spirited people to move out of the road and onto the sidewalk. The crowd proceeded on, most still walking in the street.

Soon after, in an attempt at poking fun at the phallic nature of Vance monument, the street revelers placed large, papier mache testicles on either of its sides. People walking down the street joined the parade, with the total number of participants having reaching around 120. Throughout the day, police kept the situation under surveillance methodically videotaping all present.

Sensing an increase in police ire, the parade continued north on Broadway as large numbers of police began to converge on the area.

At the top of Haywood and Walnut, the procession was met by a police blockade. Officers soon flooded the area, brandishing dozens of zip-tie handcuffs.

Fearing mass arrests, the crowd reversed direction, backing away from the police blockade. Police advanced, making menacing gestures with large, red canisters of pepper spray.

Asheville city police (APD) followed, finally catching up with the march as it neared the intersection of College St. and Lexington Ave.

Moving swiftly, the APD began arbitrarily arresting people on the scene, knocking one woman from a moving bicycle with a forceful blow to the throat.

Participants were herded towards the sidewalks through verbal and physical intimidation as police continued to make arrests. Concerned bystanders on both sidewalks and in cars, appeared to be frozen in shock while they observed. Several cried as they witnessed people being arrested; many present felt the degree of force used by police was completely unnecessary. What was intended to be and had been until the police arrived in force a joyful, peaceful people s festival on the streets had become a tense confrontation between police and the people marching in the parade.

During this incident, five arrests were made. Asheville Global Report editor Kendra Sarvadi, on assignment to cover the event, was arrested during the confusion and now faces misdemeanor charges.

Complying with police orders, the crowd proceeded on the sidewalk, regrouping at the Vance monument and continuing their celebration as fire trucks stood by to disperse the crowd. For over an hour the gathering remained as people danced and played music under the watchful eye of the APD.

Later, up to 50 local citizens concerned about the fate of those arrested held vigil outside of the Buncombe County Jail. They remained there peacefully assembled, sitting on the sidewalk and talking about the day s events.

At roughly 6:30pm, Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford arrived in an unmarked car on the scene, visibly angered. Removing a shotgun from his trunk, Medford, dressed in civilian garb, charged through the crowd, aiming the gun at several of those assembled.

"I'll fucking kill you, I don't give a fuck! Move off the sidewalk or you'll be shot", shouted Medford, ordering deputies to use deadly force if necessary.

Arrests began after Bill Gorz of Candler, North Carolina criticized Medford, suggesting he was overreacting. When Medford ordered him to be arrested, APD and Sheriff s deputies swarmed the man, dragging him into prison.

As the crowd dispersed across the streets, five others were grabbed and detained.

Noticeably agitated by the escalation, the remainder of those gathered left in compliance with police orders. Many people there continued to criticize police behavior as they dispersed.

Medford asserts that the situation represented a jail break though people, many seated, had been gathered non-violently for some time.

By the day's end, police had made eleven arrests, all on misdemeanor charges. Charges included failure to disperse, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, and riding a bicycle on the wrong side of the road.

At arraignment hearings in county court Tuesday morning, most of those arrested in the incident were charged and assigned trial dates, as over twenty concerned community members watched through five hours of proceedings.

Tensions were high as up to seven police watched on from the back row. One person was removed from the court room for disruptive behavior after raising a hand to greet a defendant. Sheriff Medford appeared at one point to talk to officers, reportedly asking them to investigate the identities and names of those gathered to bear witness.

Wednesday evening the last of those charged with crimes were released and await court hearing late next month.

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Updated 5 July 2001