February 9, 2017 (Fault Lines) – Pop Quiz, Question 1: which American city would you expect to be described as a “war zone”?
- One with the highest per capita murder rate?
- One with a nickname incorporating an actual war zone?
- One known for its bucolic mountain setting, local university, and “weirdness”?
Question 2: in which city do local police patrol daily with openly brandished AR-15s?
- The city with so much vacant property it could be a set piece for The Walking Dead?
- The city with so much gang violence it inspired the HBO hit series The Wire?
- The city with so much art and craft beer it attracts tourists and a disproportionate population of stoners?
If you guessed “C” on either of those questions, congratulations on reading the headline before you started reading this piece. Welcome to Asheville, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the western part of North Carolina.
Or, as the Asheville Police Department apparently prefers it be known, “Hippie Mogadishu.”
A 22-second-long video showing an Asheville Police officer approaching a group of teens while holding an assault-style rifle has sparked community protests, with critics citing it as an example of police intimidation.
The video is embedded at the top of the news story. Posted just over a week ago, it features Asheville police officer Shalin Oza (with officers Jessica McCoy and Brandon Shope right behind) choosing to randomly approach three black boys with his AR-15 out.
The video shows Officer Shalin Oza holding the AR-15 in both hands as he steps toward the teens, with the rifle pointed downward.
For the non-Facebook-inclined in Asheville, they found out about the video at a meeting of the city’s Citizens Police Advisory Committee, a group similar to other such boards nationwide and created to theoretically work on improving relations between law enforcement and the community:
Asheville Police Chief Tammy Hooper addressed the video at a Citizens Police Advisory Committee attended by about 75 people Wednesday night. Most of the 15 speakers during a public comment period criticized police.
And when the reporter says the Police Chief “addressed” the video, what he really means is that the Chief unflinchingly defended her officer for something that used to be considered outrageous. One of the attendees at the CPAC provided a personal account of the meeting, noting that Oza had been involved in a “high profile incident” the year before, the Chief herself describe Asheville’s housing project as a “war zone,” and that Officer Oza’s rationale for carrying the AR-15 out in the open is that it’s “kind of my thing.”
That “high profile incident” was this case last September with Officer Oza, also featuring a viral video posted to Facebook, showing Oza violently shoving 16-year-old black girl, Kacee Fleming.
Despite its laidback reputation and strongly Democrat political leanings, it turns out Asheville has been on the front lines of unchecked police violence against minorities. In addition to Officer Oza’s repeated abuse of black teens, Asheville PD recently killed 35-year-old Jerry Williams in an incident that prompted the department to begin rewriting its Use-of-Force policy (the officers involved in the extrajudicial summary execution of Williams were not charged).
On that Use of Force policy, two of the CPAC meeting attendees demonstrated how painfully disconnected regular taxpayers have become from modern law enforcement practices:
“I humbly submit my gun is bigger than your gun is no solution to de-escalate. It makes me feel scared for the African-Americans and for the soul of our community,” said Melissa Hyman, a teacher and West Asheville resident.
After viewing the video recorded by one of the teens at the meeting Wednesday, resident Laurie Newman said she questioned why the officer was displaying the weapon.
“What in the world is he doing with that type of gun with these children in my city where I live and have a son? It is completely unacceptable. It is horrific,” she said.
Showing greater savvy in damage control than in actually correcting problems with policing, the Police Department reached out to the family of the teen boys to convince them to watch the full bodycam video and “talk it out”:
The department has also contacted and invited the mother and her children to view the body camera footage and talk about the confrontation, [department spokesperson Christina] Hallingse said.
But that footage will not be released to the public, thanks to North Carolina’s legislation known as H972, adopted with a nearly-unanimous bipartisan supermajority last June to remove all police video from that state’s Public Records Act:
The department would not release the body camera footage to the Citizen-Times Thursday. North Carolina does not require that police body camera footage be made public.
So if you happen to be a teenager or a person of color (or both) in a “war zone” tourist town, make sure to keep your mobile phone handy and your Facebook Live app ready to stream. Especially if you live in any neighborhood patrolled by Asheville Warrior Cop Shalin Oza.