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Apr 18, 21

Asheville, NC: Autonomous Group Defends Tent Encampment

The City of Asheville, NC is evicting unhoused people. What follows is a direct response from one group to Ashheville’s assistant city manager’s statement regarding the eviction to the houseless community following an autonomous defense action at Aston Park this past week.

On the evening of Friday, April 16th, the City of Asheville evicted the last residents from campsites in Aston Park (the south side of downtown). A week prior, similar evictions were carried out north of downtown at a campsite on Cherry St, opposite the highway. Many displaced residents at Cherry St were vaguely instructed to relocate to Aston Park, among a small number of other camps already slated for eviction.

The eviction of the Aston Park camp is particular in the cruelty of it’s timing, and the first to be resisted by a coalition of unhoused residents and their allies. It is increasingly clear that the Asheville Police Department is pursuing a campaign of social cleansing at the order of the City Manager, Debra Campbell. The Assistant City Manager’s official statement is a deliberate and dishonest attempt to hide the magnitude and intensity of this eviction.

One of the first things to establish is the political motivation behind the city’s actions, something that they clearly want to hide. As the consumer restrictions of the pandemic year begin to relax, mass evictions like the one as Aston Park form a part of a national pattern. State and municipal governments eager for renewed economic development are using police sweeps to disappear unhoused people from the rest of society, especially white middle-class tourists and potential investors. The recent mass-eviction of unhoused people from Echo Lake park in Los Angeles and Moss Park in Toronto were both done in the interest of “public safety”. That is, safety for capital accumulation — dispossession and increased COVID exposure for unhoused poor people.

Officers “knocking” on Friday morning, when the eviction was scheduled to take place. The residents were able to remain through the evening.

Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball, thinking out loud, cannot conceive of unhoused people defending themselves like they did this past week: “… It’s important to note there were two distinct groups of people who had tents erected on City property…” Ah, can you hear it? That’s the spring song of a useless bureaucrat trying to delegitimize autonomously organized resistance. Nature is healing!

We’re so used to hearing the cops lie to our faces by now, what Cathy is attempting to do here seems like a wholly uninventive. Crafting PR statements to provoke suspicion of “protestors” is a well-studied tactic. Employing an artificial division, her narrative first denies agency to the unhoused residents who chose to fight back, blaming resistance on outside agitators. Like any good propaganda, the state will naturally minimize its own violence and intimidation, portraying itself as a neutral or benevolent, rather than self-interested and political. We have to refuse this false narrative of benevolence.

They claim to be acting in the interest of the unhoused people, and in opposition to the protestors. According to the official statement, “city staff along with Homeward Bound [a nonprofit] has been continuously working with these individuals to provide support and shelter options since safety concerns were identified at the camp.” The “support” was provided in the form of suggestions for where to relocate to temporarily after being evicted. The City’s “support” shouldn’t be misconstrued as an attempt at improving the living conditions of unhoused people – they just wanted them out of the park.

Who cares about that CDC recommendation that unhoused people not stay in shelters during the COVID pandemic? What does Cathy say about that? “Whatever, fuck the CDC, they’re a bunch of hacks,” I suppose.

Even putting aside pandemic safety concerns, it should be absolutely clear that shelter simply isn’t the same thing as housing, even in the form of self-furnished campsites. Limited, temporary shelter beds simply cannot fulfill the same housing needs. Even “low barrier” shelters can’t guarantee a person access to all their personal property and animals, freedom to choose their relationships, express their gender and sexuality, drink, use drugs, locate themselves within walking distance of amenities and resources, et cetera. Unhoused people have the right to refuse the “support” offered by NGOs, the city, and it’s police. All people deserve the freedom to determine the conditions of their own existence.

Notice of the evictions like this are still being distributed at other camp sites around the city.

The figures provided by the official statement give the false impression that the Aston Park camp was mostly occupied by “protestors”. It would be more accurate for them to say the camp was entirely occupied by “protestors”, since the residents who remained were also “protesting” by taking direct action in defense of their own camps. The official statement counted “6 people still on site who did not have a place to shelter” – these were only residents who stayed in the face of massive police escalations. No doubt, some residents left a week earlier when notice of eviction was distributed. When supporters met with residents on Wednesday, there were easily 20 people staying at Aston Park. Early on Friday morning, the first 8 APD officers arrived to “knock,” waking up each of the residents and filming the camp. Several residents packed up or abandoned their belongings when the cops arrived. The police presence was felt on and off throughout the day, escalating immensely in the evening after Debra Campbell ordered the encampment be dispersed the end of the day. When the last six unhoused residents “consented” to move to rooms at the Red Roof Inn it was in the presence of nearly 40 officers, over a dozen squad cars, and a paddy wagon.

The official story doesn’t attempt to describe the disproportionate force required to disperse the camp and evict these final residents. At the eviction itself, police presence was nearly one officer for every two residents and defenders. Police crowded around the remaining residents and their belongings all day, compelling them to leave the park. Beside the three arrests the city mentioned, Police Captain Jackie Stepp ordered officers to detain an unhoused black 18-year old who was pregnant and who had been evicted from a different camp just seven days earlier. After being falsely accused of wielding a knife, she was kidnapped by police who took her to the emergency room in handcuffs.

Camping in public parks is not a surprising or unforeseeable tragedy. It is a rational choice made in the face of inhumane conditions, in response to the unaffordable rent prices and pitiful wages. In the midst of a pandemic, we see the frequency of evictions for unhoused people camping in Asheville increasing rather than decreasing. Some have been displaced more than ten times in a year. This is police terrorism. This is social cleansing. This isn’t the place to mince words: the United States is still fascist, even under a Democratic administration, even in a city lauded for its progressivism.

Asheville’s unhoused residents deserve better support than the NGOs and City offer them. The autonomous resistance of unhoused people will always be supported by anarchists and other allies in Asheville. We will not allow our neighbors to be swept into dark corners. We will continue distributing food, medical aid, clothes, camping supplies and other resources, offering assistance with relocating people and their belongings, and defending encampments with words, deeds and bodies – until we win a moratorium on evictions and universal housing.

Cover photo: Banner at the Aston Park Camp. Approximately 20 unhoused residents were living there prior to the eviction order.

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