The assault on constitutional rights has impacted many different kinds of Americans, while also degrading our democracy and leaving us all less free. While Washington continues to ignore mass surveillance and militarized policing, however, concerned residents of Asheville, North Carolina, demonstrated how a community can come together to restore constitutional rights at the local level.
A year ago this month, the Asheville City Council unanimously adopted a Civil Liberties Resolution that remains among the country’s most expansive attempts to limit constitutional violations by police officers. It states Asheville’s policy against profiling individuals based not only on their race, skin color, nation of origin, and religion, but also their gender expression, sexual orientation, disability status, political opinion or activity, and housing or immigration status.
While securing these reforms required years of active event organizing and ongoing coalition outreach, the story of the Asheville resolution is one that can be replicated in any city.
In 2009, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee launched its Local Civil Rights Restoration campaign, providing organizing and policy resources to communities interested in raising rights above the sinking federal floor. That same year, radio host Cecil Bothwell joined the City Council after winning a hotly contested election. Soon after gaining office, Bothwell reached out to community members about drafting a civil liberties resolution together. He met with homeless advocates, interfaith discussion groups, representatives of Asheville’s Latino community, and other local leaders.
BORDC’s Executive Director, Shahid Buttar, met with Bothwell in November 2010, along with BORDC National Field Organizer George Friday, who went on to work closely with community leaders over the course of three years. The coalition’s overarching goal was to unify community members around a single, ambitious cause: ending profiling in Asheville, whomever at any given moment might be targeted by police on the basis of an illegitimate group characteristic – rather than a basis for individual suspicion required by the Constitution.
In recounting her experience, Friday particularly spoke about the need, challenge, and opportunity to bring together undocumented immigrants and African-American residents. She recalled an early meeting with representatives from diverse local groups, and their exposure to each other’s respective struggles. She said, “The idea that there’s a whole community who has to work through their days while knowing they might get sent away from the people they love is nothing close to justice.”
After meeting with various individuals and organizations, Bothwell and others expanded their outreach to the University of North Carolina campus and high schools in the area. Coalition members developed ingenious methods of engaging, educating, and mobilizing their neighbors. In short, the Asheville coalition moved smoothly from private meetings among coalition partners to hosting public events to educate their communities.
Where many coalitions falter—and where Asheville’s succeeded brilliantly—is in getting the community invested in new ideas and goals. In 2011, new Council members were elected, and coalition members spent significant time and effort contacting them and reaching out to explore their perspectives of constitutional rights and policing issues. By February 2012, activists in Asheville were making learning about civil rights fun and exciting, by hosting a series of trivia nights in a community hot spot called the Firestorm Café. Later, these trivia nights became regular Civil Rights Nights, with documentary film screenings and public discussions each month.
By July 2012, the Asheville coalition had reached out to and engaged the community’s new police chief, and after several days of door-to-door outreach, hosted a community Civil Rights Picnic. The picnic, in particular, brought together community members alongside their children and pets, enabling more social integration within the coalition while also expanding it to include residents of the diverse neighborhood where the coalition hosted the picnic. All of these efforts primed the community for the announcement of the resolution.
The coalition continued to promote their aims through neighborhood events, like holding Black History Month events at historic locales, met interfaith and immigrant community leaders, and identified coalition partners. To drive support in favor of proposed reforms beyond their established partners, the coalition crafted a petition. They canvassed neighborhoods to collect signatures, and then presented them to the City Council.
Prior to the City Council vote in October 2013, the coalition secured endorsements from leaders and representatives of several civil liberties organizations including: Stand Against Racism; Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality; Sarah Nunez and the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council; the Western NC ACLU; representatives of Coalicion de Organizaciones Latino-Americanas; Rev. Amy Cantrell of the Beloved Community; Rabbi Rob Cabello, formerly of Beth Israel Synagogue; Occupy Asheville; Executive Director Lael Gray of the Jewish Community Center; Rev. Tyrone Greenlee of Christians for a United Community; and the Asheville Homeless Network.
Such broad support from diverse community groups prompted the Council to unanimously adopt the Resolution. Friday recalls, “The night of the vote, the place was packed. The room was full. Even the overflow room was full. The level of enthusiasm when the vote was passed lifted me out of my chair. Lots of people put many, many hours into this work and that was one of those moments when you feel so happy that everything paid off.” Are you interested in affecting change in your community and building the movement to restore constitutional rights where you live? Anyone can start a grassroots coalition. Residents of Asheville made it happen and so can you.