From reparations to police reform: Talking with the Racial Justice Coalition

Photo by @overasheville

In tonight’s meeting, Asheville City Council will take up a vote on reparations for Black Ashevillians in recognition of historic and systemic inequity. If passed, the resolution would result in the issuance of a formal apology from the City + other organizations, as well as the creation of a Community Reparations Commission, which would draft a plan for reparations to be implemented by city officials and other community groups. Buncombe County commissioners currently have no plans to take up reparations. 

What are reparations? According to the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, they are a way to repair, restore + heal people injured because of their group identity due to violation of their human rights. Reparations give injured groups the right to obtain “that which they need to repair and heal themselves” from the organizations (i.e. the government, corporations, institutions, or families) responsible.  

The City’s plans for reparations if the resolution is passed include increasing minority homeownership and affordable housing, increasing minority business ownership and career opportunities, creating strategies for growing equity and generational wealth, and closing gaps in healthcare, education, employment and pay, neighborhood safety, and fairness in criminal justice. 

One local organization that has been vocal in calling for reparations is the Racial Justice Coalition (RJC), a group of 14 Asheville area non-profits that joined forces in 2014 (after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner), “in commitment to racial equity and to advocate for the right of People of Color with law enforcement” through education, policy shifts, and building relationships.  

Last week, the RJC reallocated $36,000 in emergency support funding for nine local organizations that support racial equity and sustainable community growth and provide critical services and mutual aid. They’ve also been working to encourage residents involved in local Black Lives Matter protests to report APD use of excessive force if they experienced it. 

We spoke with the RJC’s community liaison, Rob Thomas, about the organization’s priorities, the proposed Asheville Police Department reforms, reparations, and more.  

How has the RJC been activating, or been inspired by, protests in Asheville and across the US? 

The Racial Justice Coalition helped organize the peaceful protest that happened on June 6, 2020. Along with the march and chant from the YMI Cultural Center to the MLK Park, we helped with organizing Black Asheville Demands and aided in mobilizing a security team, ensuring that food and beverages were available during the protest. We continue to organize around holding the City of Asheville accountable to answering our demands.

Can you speak to the current calls to defund the police in Asheville? What would an ideal outcome be regarding this issue for the RJC?

I want to be totally transparent about my stance on defunding the police department. I don’t think the call to defund the police is going to solve all of the issues within law enforcement. What it does do is free up funding so that we can start up alternatives, while keeping law enforcement active. We can create structures that can replace some of their duties, as has been shown in other cities. 

The culture of policing is directly reflective of the culture of America. Structural and institutional racism is embedded in the DNA of America and the only way to change disparities in policing, disparities in the school systems, disparities in government, and disparities in the criminal system is to completely dismantle the systems as they currently stand and restructure them completely. This may sound drastic, but if you look at where we are now in racial equity and where we were 100 years ago, you will see that many systems were completely overhauled. I am looking at where we need to be and measuring it with where we are now. 

Can you speak on Chief David Zack’s proposed police reforms and RJC’s take on them? Have you set up a meeting with Chief Zack, or do you plan to?

I have been and continue to be in conversation with Chief Zack. As I stated in response to the previous question, I don’t think reform is the answer because it is the structure of policing that is toxic. With that being said, my advice to Chief Zack or any police for that matter is to look at what’s necessary, not what’s legal if you truly want to change anything. As we’ve all seen, it is completely legal for an officer to choke a Black man to death in this country as long as that officer is proven justified and more times than not, they will find justification. 

If true change is what is being sought after, the question is, “Is this necessary? Is this level of force necessary? Is this confrontation necessary? Is this shot necessary?” I can almost guarantee that if that is the question that leads interactions between law enforcement and civilians, a shift will happen.

You mentioned defunding was part of a larger goal of reparations for Black residents in Asheville. Can you talk more about this goal and your current efforts to reach it?

In the simplest terms: The APD budget is over $30 million dollars. Urban renewal plans were implemented in this area in 1977 during which time the Black economic floor was destroyed, mainly by the City of Asheville, and that was never reconciled. There is a City building that right now sits on previously Black-owned land with seemingly no mention of its history. 

Black people are deeply impoverished and over policed here, and the lack of economic mobility can be traced back to this city’s negligence and intentional disposal of black wealth. It seems that the most responsible move at this point is to reallocate a lot of the $30 million dollars and directly re-invest it into black neighborhoods. We do not want programs, we aren’t looking for white saviorism; we want land, property, businesses. We want economic mobility and a way to produce generational wealth. 

Are there any other goals you’re working toward now? 

There are a lot of goals that we are laser focused on, but they all fall under the umbrella of reparations. We want the City and the County to set aside a substantial amount for reparations and then we can talk about where, what, and how.

For people who aren’t already familiar with RJC, what’s something you’d want them to know about the organization? 

The Racial Justice Coalition is committed to racial justice and racial equity and all that those things entail. We work with the community, in support of the community, for the community. Our vision has shifted in response to the pandemic. It is much broader, to serve a greater purpose, and we will continue to respond and show up in the way that the community identifies is needed.

Want to support the RJC’s work? You can donate or apply to volunteer

Want to weigh in on reparations or other agenda items? You can call in live to tonight’s meeting, or email up to 24 hours after it ends. Get the directions here.

Catch the City Council meeting tonight beginning at 5 p.m. here.