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Against the narrative: WNC protests avoid polarization, violence

Three protest leaders (above) rally demonstrators in front of the Haywood county courthouse. Boyd Allsbrook photo Three protest leaders (above) rally demonstrators in front of the Haywood county courthouse. Boyd Allsbrook photo

By Boyd Allsbrook • Contributing writer | Type “George Floyd Protests, Police” into your Google images search bar. What comes up? Picture after picture of menacing police dressed in riot gear facing down angry protestors. Brawling. Calls to abolish the police force. Cruisers engulfed in flames. Police stations graffitied with ACAB — “All Cops Are Bastards.” Riots. Looting. Arson. Tear gas. Rubber bullets. Cops shot in drive-bys. Protestors gone the same way. Storeowners beaten to a pulp. 

What you won’t see is anything resembling what took place in Waynesville on Friday, June 12. 

The signs held aloft looked much the same as elsewhere — “No Justice, No Peace,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “I Can’t Breathe.” Likewise, the chants of Waynesville marchers mirrored those shouted across the country. And of course, the players were the same: the police and Black Lives Matter protestors.

But instead of a face-off between the two factions, protesters were escorted and protected by the Waynesville Police Department. Far from “All cops are bastards,” courthouse rally speakers called for unity with “police who wore their badge with honor.” Appeals for understanding and peace for all were abundant. Protesters prayed together with the police force before and after their march from Walmart to the Haywood County Historic Courthouse. 

Zach Bach, 20, a Waynesville native and protest organizer, said, “I didn’t really know about the Floyd incident until two days before I started this … I saw it and it just disgusted me. And I was watching the news about all these other protests, and how they’re destroying, and doing vandalism and all that; and that’s just not the way to go. That’s just getting the anger out. That’s just gonna last for a short period of time, and it’s gonna hurt the community.” 

Many in Waynesville awaited Friday’s peace walk with suspicion — and not without reason. Tensions are high, and the dominant narrative worldwide is one of fear and conflict. Those fires, looted stores, and killings are really happening, after all. Turn on any major news channel and you see the world on fire. Minneapolis, New York, Atlanta, Seattle — even Asheville. The story has become one of hostility between black and white, right and left, BLM and police. 

It’s no wonder that 80 percent of Americans in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reported feeling that their country was “out of control.” 

 

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People of all ages (below) came to march and listen. Boyd Allsbrook photo

 

Waynesville’s marches, however, have been violence-free. This has largely been the case for all small-town protests in Western North Carolina. The message on Friday was one of justice but mingled with kindness, love and peace. Calls for rebellion and abolition of the American way, there were not. Instead, the overwhelming plea was to get people to vote. There was no partisan shilling either, no demonizing any “other” — be that right, left, white, or black. 

“It’s not about Democrat or Republican, but it’s about who is doing the right thing,” said one rally speaker to thunderous applause. “Just because I have black skin doesn’t mean that I’m for the same thing he is because he has black skin. Just because you have white skin doesn’t mean you’re for the same thing he is because he has white skin.”

It was a call for free thought, to vote wisely regardless of racial or even political identity. 

For their part, Waynesville police acted with grace and understanding. After the protest, many of them warmly shook the hands of departing organizers. They listened while protecting Waynesville citizens’ right to speech and assembly. In return, protestors respected their community too much to cause it harm. Anger and pain, they expressed; but productively, and with grace equal to that of the police. The broadly anti-cop rhetoric common in larger cities’ protests was nowhere to be found. 

“Even the law enforcement, they were there, which was exciting to me. It was a good thing ‘cause it also shows that the cops are willing to work with us and are not all bad,” said Bach.

Waynesville’s march for George Floyd was not remarkable in itself. The turnout was around 130 people, give or take latecomers, and the ideas and message were hardly radical: justice, equality, non-violence and peace between all Americans. 

Bud Howell, a speaker and organizer, summed up the Waynesville protest’s ethos in one sentence: “Really all we want is equality and peace on earth.” 

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