In early July here in Asheville, North Carolina, police shot and killed a black man in the street in front of a local apartment complex. No dashcam footage or bodycam footage was recorded, despite the fact that the Asheville Police Department was supposed to implement bodycams earlier that week. Only one officer was on the scene at the time of the shooting, and contradictory reports emerged about what had actually happened that day. The shooting occurred during the same week as two other widely publicized shootings of black men by police: Alton Sterling and Philando Castille.
A few weeks later, while scrolling through facebook, I came upon the following status update from my friend Hillary, who happens to be a member of the local chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice:
Friends, I am currently with a group of folks occupying the Asheville Police station. We have two demands: 1) Officer Tyler Radford, who murdered Jerry Williams on July 2nd, be fired and indicted. 2) Police Chief Tammi Hooper apologize to the public and Jerry’s family.
Tammi has refused to speak with us. We have tried to speak with officers who have come through the station. They will not talk to us.
We will be here until the demands are met or we are jailed.
Seven activists occupied the Asheville police station for over 30 hours until they were finally arrested. This week I sat down with one of those activists, Mic Collins, to talk about what happened during those thirty hours, as well as how he came to be involved with SURJ and the fight for racial justice in Asheville.
Brenna: Can you describe the events leading up to the sit-in at the police station?
Mic: Jerry Williams was shot and killed by the Asheville Police Department on July 2nd, 2016. No police body cam footage, dashcam video, or cellphone video of the incident exists. Tyler Radford, the Sergeant that shot Jerry, was the only officer present on the scene and spent a full minute alone with the body before another officer arrived. The APD released an official narrative depicting Jerry as a criminal who had led police on a high-speed car chase and displayed a weapon at officers. However, there were conflicting reports from eyewitnesses and Jerry Williams’ family about what had happened. In response, a core group of community organizers met to begin a discussion about what had happened and how the community could respond. They organized a rally, followed by a press conference with the Williams family. In Asheville, grassroots social justice organizations had recently come together to collaborate in response to Governor Pat McCrory’s signing of the transphobic, racist, and anti-worker House Bill 2 (HB2). That preexisting groundwork for collaboration was used to mobilize a black-led, multiracial response in order to demand accountability from the Asheville Police Department. The efforts were dubbed #Justice4Jerry and #SummerofChange. A counter narrative of facts about Jerry’s case created by eyewitnesses and the Williams family was widely distributed. Activists organized nightly vigils outside of the downtown police headquarters as a place where the entire Asheville community was invited to grieve, learn, and collaborate in discussion about police accountability. On Saturday, July 9th, a march of nearly 200 people took to the streets of downtown Asheville, shutting down four intersections and holding a speak-out in front of the local food co-operative.
B: What was the conception of the idea for the sit-in?
M: The idea was first and foremost to show up as an act of solidarity with the Williams family. Three weeks had passed since Jerry was killed, and his mother had still not seen his body. No one from the Asheville Police Department or the City had reached out to offer condolences to the family. Black organizers in town were being harassed at their homes. Community members attended public meetings to ask questions about the details of the case, but were met by police with a wall of silence. City officials were organizing their own events to call for “healing” and “unity” without including the Williams family in their programming.
Asheville is a small sized city of 80,000 tucked away in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Jerry’s name and case were not getting the same kind of exposure that other high profile police killings were receiving elsewhere in the country. We needed help, which meant we needed to get the story of Jerry’s killing beyond the mountains. The conception for the sit-in was to take escalating, non-violent direct action to demand accountability for the actions and decisions of the Asheville Police Department in hopes of receiving state wide and national media coverage. The tactic worked. Our action was picked up by all the local news networks, and after a report by the associated press, coverage eventually made it to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Each vigil had an open invitation to police officers; they never joined.
B: What happened at the police station?
M: An event rally was organized the morning of Thursday, July 21st at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. We wanted to connect the economic violence perpetuated on communities of color in Asheville (documented in the State of Black Asheville report) with the state sanctioned police violence that lead to Jerry’s death. A group of about 40 people marched from the Chamber of Commerce through downtown Asheville to APD’s downtown headquarters. Some of us who first entered the police station had been leading the nightly vigils outside its doors the previous few weeks. Each vigil had an open invitation to police officers; they never joined. We had become comfortable in that space and therefore felt good about entering the station that morning. Chief Tammy Hooper had made a public invitation to open the avenues of communication. Seven of us entered the police headquarters with the intention of delivering a set of demands to Chief Hooper and were prepared to sit-in until those demands were met. To our surprise, the entire APD abandoned their posts as we entered the building. Inside the lobby, we were never able to speak with any representative of the APD. They simply receded behind locked doors requiring authorized access and we never saw them again. So we decided to open up space inside the lobby for community members to enter and speak out about why they had attended the rally and march that morning. We sang songs and shared stories. We attempted to call Chief Hooper and only received her voicemail. We sat and waited to hear from someone, anyone who would listen to our concerns and pleas for accountability. The Police stopped offering services to anyone who came into the building, claiming that the we were dangerous and therefore the building had to be shut down. The building was scheduled to close at 6:00 pm. The seven of us were prepared to hold our ground and risk arrest, but 6:00 pm came and went without anyone from the APD showing up. The community responded by sending us food, water, blankets, and bedding so that we could spend the night until we received our face time with Chief Hooper. By 10:00 am the next morning we had still not heard from any city officials. A representative from the APD finally contacted us and suggested we relocate our protest to a free speech zone outside of the police station. We informed the negotiator that we would not leave the station until we had a chance to deliver our demands to Chief Hooper. We were informed that that was not going to happen, and after again refusing to leave, the officers on duty began the process of arresting us.
The New Jim Crow, stop and frisk, mass incarceration, prisons for profit, the war on drugs, and the criminalization and dehumanization of black and brown youth are all national issues which are reflected in Asheville.
B: How do these local events tie in with what’s happening nationally? (in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, etc.)
M: Jerry Williams was shot and killed by Tyler Radford in the same two day span that graphic video depicting the extrajudicial and unwarranted killings of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling at the hands of police went viral on social media. The national movement erupted in a wave of protest. In Asheville, community members were challenged to hold the tension of witnessing what was happening nationally while trying to make sense of what had happened locally. Because of the lack of video evidence, the safest approach for community members and City Officials was to remain silent. After all, we simply could not know what happened. Yet, at the same time, there is so much we do know about the circumstances that lead to the meeting between Jerry Williams and Tyler Radford. The New Jim Crow, stop and frisk, mass incarceration, prisons for profit, the war on drugs, and the criminalization and dehumanization of black and brown youth are all national issues which are reflected in Asheville.
The National network of Showing Up for Racial Justice operates from a framework of accountability. SURJ sees accountability to people of color as a core principle central to the work for racial justice and transformative change. As white people both benefiting from and pushing against racism and white privilege, we recognize that taking responsibility for our work with other White people and being accountable to people of color is an ongoing process of learning and acting. In Asheville, our sit-in action took place in coordination with a national day of actions called for by the Movement for Black Lives. The Movement for Black Lives was founded to end all forms of state violence against Black people. M4BL leaders continue to push for the transformation of policing and an end to violence using nonviolent methods. As co-conspirators in the fight against state sanctioned racial violence, SURJ chapters around the country were asked to take escalating action demanding accountability from local police departments and challenge the power of police unions. We responded to that call by using non-violent direct action to raise awareness of what had happened to Jerry and to put white bodies on the line for black lives.
B: You spend a lot of time doing activist work. What projects are you currently working on, and how do you balance your activist projects with a need to do paid work?
M: My current circumstance is possible due to a confluence of intentional decision making and chance opportunity. After college, I spent two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer where I learned how to survive with others off a minimal amount of income and resources. After AmeriCorps, I worked seasonal positions for land conservation organizations that offered room and board and allowed me to save a good bit of cash. My experience working these kinds of low-pay service orientated jobs challenged me to consider what kinds of material possessions and comforts I actually need in order to survive and feel content. I eventually landed in Asheville and decided I wanted to commit to serious community organizing. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but I felt willing to embrace the risk of not knowing in order to follow my deep seated passions that were calling me in the moment. In order to establish myself in town, I worked some odd jobs and crashed in temporary housing situations before finding something affordable and permanent. This is where good luck came into play. I ended up in a community house geared towards social activism. The landlord does his best to avoid being a slumlord and charges extremely affordable rent in exchange for some type of commitment towards building supportive and welcoming community. I cannot express just how much opportunity opened up when I stopped paying astronomical amounts of my paycheck in rent. Without this arrangement I would not be able to do what I do. I am very fortunate and grateful; I feel inspired to earn my stay. At the same time, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. The situation is far from stable, and there are a whole set of sacrifices that come along with living in community. Constant compromise is required, and often personal space and privacy are difficult to come by. I still struggle to make ends meet and have to hold to a tight budget. My lifestyle requires a dedicated discipline and constant reevaluation of what comforts and pleasures are really needed and necessary.
I now work part time at a local nonprofit for a slightly-above minimum wage job. The decision to be part-time is intentional, as it affords equal time throughout the week to dedicate towards community organizing. I view the time I spend doing paid work as a means in which to be able to participate in my real work: grassroots community organizing. My central role in the community is as a member of our local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national network of individuals and organizations working to mobilize more white folks into the multiracial movement for racial justice.
The process of stepping out of my comfort zone to learn how to live a lifestyle more authentic and true to my values has been a mixture of stress, anxiety, excitement, and growth. I feel a sense of fulfillment with how I spend my time that was previously missing in my life, even if my circumstances are not secure. Sacrifice and risk taking are necessary to achieve transformational social change, and in my experience are made easier with the support of community and authentic relationships. I am happy to have both.
B: You’ve done activist work for other issues in the past. What made you decide to pick racial justice issues to focus on now?
M: A succession of significant realizations about my own internalized racism led me to my current work with Showing Up For Racial Justice. My upbringing was middle class, suburban, and white. That bubble followed me through four years at public university, where my activism revolved around environmental and climate change issues. It wasn’t until post-college as an AmeriCorps volunteer that I began to challenge my inherent assumptions about the societal structures of the world around me. In AmeriCorps, I was trained in disaster relief and land conservation management. Through different aspects of the program, I worked hand and hand with activists in inner city Washington DC and Baltimore, I responded to devastating tornado damage in rural Alabama, and I collaborated with native communities on the Pine Ridge and Northern Cheyenne Reservations in South Dakota and Montana. My awareness of the realities of inequality, poverty, and racism expanded dramatically. In my shared experience of working on the ground with an array of activists from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, I began to realize just how much the myths and deceptions of racial and class bias had affected my perception of the world. Before AmeriCorps, I never considered myself to be racist, but as I began to build authentic relationships with folks outside of my racial and economic class, I could not help but feel unsettled by the way my own assumptions, fears, and anxieties about communities of color and poor communities mirrored those of the bigots I despised. I came into consciousness about the ways in which white supremacy had shaped my prejudices through an outlook of internalized supremacy. A committed reeducation followed. I learned how racism is used as a divide and conquer tactic to keep folks with similar economic and liberatory interest separated and at odds with one another. I began to understand the intersections of systemic racism with my previous environmental and climate justice work. My work with SURJ is a result of my belief that the social transformation necessary in order to address global crisis issues cannot be achieved without the complete dismantling of racism.
I realized then that the world I wanted to live in was the one that the folks in the streets of Ferguson were fighting for.
The events in Ferguson MO in August 2014 brought me into full consciousness about the depth of systemic racial violence in our country and activated me into action. Ironically, it wasn’t the actual killing of Mike Brown by Darren Wilson that catalyzed me. At that point, I was still susceptible to the “thug” narrative propagated by the mainstream media and the police. I chose to abstain from holding an opinion about what had happened; I thought I could stay safe by staying neutral. Everything changed a few weeks later while watching the footage of protests in the streets of Ferguson. It was the movement built by queer black women, like Alexis Templeton and Brittany Farrell, who courageously led street resistance in the face of a militarized police force willing to deploy tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets that actually served to activate me. Watching video after video on Facebook and Twitter of poor folks of color coming together to stand in their power and declare their lives mattered was life changing. I realized then that the world I wanted to live in was the one that the folks in the streets of Ferguson were fighting for. I watched as they took immense risk and decided then that I would do whatever I could to make sure that their risk was not in vain.
B: How can readers most effectively get involved to support the fight for racial justice?
M: My advice: settle your internal tensions and decide your level of commitment. What kind of skills do you have? Who do you have the potential to influence? How does racial justice relate to your workplace? Your faith community? Your family relationships and friendships? Are you willing to be uncomfortable? Are you willing to make mistakes, learn, and keep going? What is your mutual interest in ending systemic and institutional racism? Find your learning edge and push it. Break your isolation and reach out to others in your community who feel the pain and urgency of the moment in order to live into your collective power.
Other actions you can take:
-If you haven’t yet, Sign and share the MBL pledge and the Vision for Black Lives.
-Offer financial support to Black-led racial justice organizing. A list of organization compiled by the Movement for Black Lives can be found here.
–Join a SURJ chapter- across the country moving into action. Connect with these groups- over 100 on the web, over 100 in formation. Form a group if there isn’t one.