Editorial from the Firestorm Bookstore and Co-op in so-called Asheville, North Carolina about police surveillance of the space’s grand re-opening.
The opening of our bookstore on Sunday had unexpected guests. Throughout the afternoon, a police drone hovered conspicuously over Haywood Road, directly in front of our shop. Occasionally it flew back to the nearby APD substation, only to be replaced a few minutes later. As we handed out homemade popsicles to celebrate our big day, some community members were alarmed. People wanted to know if the drone was ours. A neighbor arriving with her family asked if she and her children were being filmed.
It seemed that our shop and the hundreds of people who visited it were being surveilled. While the quadcopter sat in the sky and stared creepily down at us, police cars drove by slowly. Sometimes the drivers appeared to be filming with their cellphones. One officer hollered unintelligibly at folks sitting on our patio. This wasn’t a covert operation—Asheville cops wanted to make sure our customers knew they were being watched.
This bizarre abuse of power is worth talking about, not because it’s exceptional but because it’s increasingly normal. We live in a city where the surveillance capabilities of the police have greatly outpaced restraints, and elected officials ostensibly tasked with oversight are eager to appease a tough-on-crime audience. That’s an Asheville story, but it’s also a national story, with cities across the US being reshaped by a conservative backlash to the George Floyd Uprising and its call for a reckoning with the white supremacist roots of policing.
It’s only been three months since the Asheville Police Department announced the launch of a new Drone Unit. Speaking with the Mountain Xpress, an APD Captain assured the community that the technology would not be used for “surveillance on the unknowing public.” But that’s exactly what is happening, and in a recent letter to the editor, David Pudlo highlighted numerous instances of APD drones deployed to monitor peaceful political rallies and public gatherings.
It’s not just drones. In January, Asheville City Council approved an agreement that gave APD access to a huge network of real-time surveillance cameras. Of those 1,800 cameras, a majority are located in county schools and public housing, two places where the right to privacy has long been subordinate to police power. Others are owned by businesses downtown and will inevitably support the further criminalization of unhoused and marginalized folks.
Members of our community should be able to enjoy their homes, attend school, walk down a public street, or browse books at an LGBTQ bookstore without being subject to arbitrary surveillance by the state.
The presence of drones at our opening was conspicuous enough that by late afternoon it had become fodder for online discussion. Some folks on Reddit speculated that the surveillance could be linked to an investigation into vandalism of police property. That’s not a bad guess considering a recent statement from Police Chief David Zack, who claimed it would be “foolish” not to investigate a bookstore that has known anti-police views. Well, we think it’s foolish to publicly cast suspicion on a bookstore without evidence, based only on the political views of its staff. Police behavior like this isn’t going to stop us from promoting the abolitionist vision of a world without police, but it will further erode public trust in a fundamentally untrustworthy institution. Harassing bookstore patrons is not a criminal investigation tactic—it’s a shameful form of bullying by a government agency that has too much funding, too much political power, and too much time on its hands.
photo: Goh Rhy Yan via Unsplash