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