The Jonas Phillips case: an open letter to the mayor of Asheville, NC

The Honorable Terry M. Bellamy
Mayor, Asheville NC
P.O. Box 7148
Asheville NC, 28802

Dear Mayor Bellamy:

As you no doubt realize by now, you have something of a PR nightmare on your hands. One of your police officers, Russell Crisp, recently arrested a resident named Jonas Phillips for obstructing a sidewalk. Since people were apparently having no trouble walking past him, and since the police department is reportedly trying to decide whether or not he ought instead be charged with some sort of state violation for “endangering motorists,” you can see how people like me (a North Carolina native who loves your wonderful city, has vacationed there, and who has recommended it highly to friends and family contemplating where to spend their tourism dollars) might suspect that the real reason he was arrested had something to do with the “Impeach Bush-Cheney” sign he was holding at the time.

Especially since the officer reportedly said things like “I’m sick of this shit!” and “Here’s your fifteen minutes of fame, buddy.” As I’m sure you’re aware, it’s almost impossible not to read these reports in an ugly political context and to wonder whether the officer was abusing his authority by harassing a man whose political views he didn’t like.

Your Honor, Asheville is the budding jewel of the Carolina Blue Ridge. It’s a city that has worked hard to establish itself as a center for the arts and culture, and it has begun to reap the rewards of those efforts. In some ways, Asheville has done a model job of developing the kinds of “human capital” that researcher Richard Florida says are essential to attracting top-flight talent and economic development. I noted this on my last visit, and others I’ve talked to as well nod in agreement when I say that Asheville is becoming the “Boulder of the South.”

The key to this equation is talent. In order for a smaller city to thrive, as yours clearly wants to, it must attract certain kinds of young professionals (and by all means, please read Florida if you aren’t already familiar with him, although I strongly suspect you or some of your people probably are). This has overtly political implications. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the core culture you need tends to be strongly progressive.

The actions of Officer Crisp, and the city’s failure to quickly remedy what can’t help but look like a heavy-handed crackdown by a conservative law enforcement officer who didn’t like the way a citizen was exercising his Constitutional guarantee of free speech – Your Honor, these events are the sorts of things that cause vibrant young professionals and artists, some of who are considering a future in Asheville, to step back and take a harder look at their other options.

Not only that, a lot of people who are doing vacation planning are reading about this story, as well.

These developments are bad for Asheville and its citizens, Your Honor. I’ll go further and argue that they’re bad for America, too – if we can’t agree on a citizen’s right to public expression of a perfectly legal viewpoint (and a viewpoint that has strong support nationwide, to boot), then economic development and tourism dollars are the least of our worries. You and your police officers don’t have to agree with me or Mr. Phillips, but if your fine city is to thrive, you and they must share a commitment to the rights to speak and disagree, which are the very foundation of our Republic.

I’ll be watching as this case develops, Ms. Mayor, and rest assured that my opinion of Asheville, along with how I choose to spend future vacations and the advice I give my friends and readers, will depend on the statement you make about free speech in your city. I strongly encourage you to exercise your influence in making sure the charges against Mr. Phillips are dropped. After all, this one doesn’t look that complicated. If an officer can’t decide what a man holding a sign is doing wrong at a glance, then perhaps the officer and his colleagues in the Asheville Police Department aren’t competent for their jobs.

Or – and this seems more likely to me – perhaps Mr. Phillips wasn’t doing anything wrong at all, and now the police have convinced themselves that rigging a charge they can make stick will somehow save the city further embarrassment. If so, they’re tragically mistaken, and your office will likely find itself wasting a lot of productive time answering for their misjudgment.

I thank you for your time and wish you and your staff the best as you work to set this unfortunate situation aright.


Samuel Smith, PhD
Editor, Scholars & Rogues
Boulder, Colorado

26 replies »

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  2. As a graduate of the UNC university system, I find this type of behavior appaling. I work in the hospitality industry in New York City now, and cannot but feel ashamed of my former home state and very hesistant to recommend Ashville to people who ask my about North Carolina. I think that I will be advising people to visit Wilmington instead.

  3. Thanks for bringing the charms of Asheville to our attention, Sam. Let’s hope they learn to rein in — I almost said their rogue policemen, but I don’t want to disgrace the good name of rogues elsewhere.

    Your letter should give the mayor pause. Or a more reasonable pause than all the people screaming about it.

    Did you send it to the local newspaper, too?

  4. No, but that’s a thought.

    I can’t blame the city for having a cop or two who need a trip to the woodshed. But the failure to address the issue before it starts hurting them in the pocketbook – THAT I can criticize.

  5. It’s not enough to simply drop the charges against Mr. Phillips.

    Russell Crisp is the one who has committed the crime. At a minimum, Mr. Crisp should lose his job over this and personally be sued for false arrest and false imprisonment. At the very most, Mr. Crisp should spend a year and a day behind jail for felonious assault and battery.

    I’m sick of this shit.

  6. Hmmm, I am working on my medical degree, and was originally thinking of moving to NC to proactice. I think I have changed my mind. Think I will go back to considering moving overseas. This sort of thing is just the tip of the iceberg.

  7. Agree. Asheville may lose some $$$ and good feeling but this doesn’t hold a candle to our little towns ruckus. There never was an apology from our mayor or city council. Amazing what the powers that be can get away with. Tip of the iceberg is right.

    This from New York Times;

    “The fight began in January, when the City Council unanimously passed a resolution voicing its support for “the natural family,” with a mother, father and “a full quiver of children.” The nonbinding resolution, formulated by the Sutherland Institute, a conservative advocacy group in Salt Lake City, said that the marriage of a “woman to a man and a man to woman,” was “ordained of God,” and that protection of that natural family was the “first responsibility,” of local government.

    “A natural family is a fundamental part of our infrastructure that we need to protect and promote,” Mr. Lawson said in an interview.

    The whole article can be seen here;

  8. Yow! I guess I’d always thought Kanab was sort of an oasis in the deseret of Mormonism. Guess not, huh?

    Part of me hates that I’ve gotten so committed to shopping blue, but then I recall that it was the social reactionaries who started it and perfected it.

    Punish the guilty, I always say….

  9. This is Jonas Phillips, the Asheville Freeway Blogger referred to in the article. If you would like to follow my story, view our blog,

    Thank you for all your support. We are all in this together.

  10. Great letter. Thanks, from a fellow Boulderite.

    I’ve seen pretty much nothing but friendly open-minded folks when I’ve traveled in NC. Sorry to hear about this episode.

  11. It’s a shame it had to go that way. I know what you mean about the lost innocence thing – I’ve gotten to the point where I figure I can avoid the disappointment by just assuming the worst from the git-go… 🙂

  12. This kind of thing is insane. Ashville has always been a very cool place (I fly fish so I usually stay and fish in Brevard though).

    I didn’t realise the tenor of the city had changed that much, since I agree it did seem boulder-ish.

  13. Here is the Press Release from the Asheville Police Department:

    The Asheville Police Department is a professional, well trained, and accredited agency that is committed to protecting individuals

  14. A couple issues jump out at me. First, if the issue was so obviously that he was endangering motorists by walking back and forth across lanes of traffic, then why was he initially charged with obstructing a sidewalk?

    Second, there are some rather specific allegations as to the arresting officer’s comments and behavior that go unaddressed. If the officer is accused of making comments that strongly suggest political motivations, then why wouldn’t the official response deny it if it weren’t true?

  15. This is Jonas Phillips, and I want to say that Mike Stark has not done a good job. Please be sure to scroll down below his article mentioned above to see MY RESPONSE.
    I appreciate the deal Mike has tried to work out, but he posted some things without getting the full story from me. He also promised that he would only post that I was not wanting to sue the city. I am disappointed and please don’t let his story reflect MY words.