“This is a very important job for us, and [demonstrators] feel it’s important to express their First Amendment rights,” said Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher. “We’re here to protect those that want to do that.”
Christopher, along with more than 30 law enforcement officers from several area departments, was in attendance at the demonstration to help avoid a repeat of the last one, where bitter confrontation and ugly incidents at arm’s length from all sides marred the march.
Counterdemonstrators were kept well away from marchers. Garret K. Woodward photo
“What we’re going to attempt to do today is to keep separation between different groups,” Christopher said prior to the 2 p.m. march. “Of course, that’s always a challenge because we’re talking about human beings and most of them have two legs and they get the opportunity to move around quite a bit.”
Workers from the Town of Maggie Valley blocked off the right-hand lane on westbound Soco Road to allow demonstrators a greater distance from counterdemonstrators; police officers escorted the procession of about 100 BLM supporters as they marched east from town hall, and then turned around and marched back.
Pockets of counterdemonstrators probably tripled the BLM crowd still gathered, but most were kept on the opposite side of the road. The drastic uptick in security wasn’t solely due to the increased presence of law enforcement.
During a July 30 special called meeting in response to the July 18 demonstration Maggie Valley Mayor Mike Eveland called “chaotic and grossly confrontational,” aldermen unanimously passed an ordinance regulating various aspects of future demonstrations.
“The events of July 18 showed many of us that Maggie Valley is not isolated,” Eveland told a special called meeting of the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen on July 30. “In fact, these events illustrated how connected the town is to an evolving landscape of ideas and ideals that are being debated throughout our country.”
At that previous demonstration, a small group of about 30 people associated with the Black Lives Matter Movement began their march through Maggie Valley along Soco Road. Twice, they were marched past a large group of counterdemonstrators waving signs and flags and shouting obscenities.
Police officers escorted BLM demonstrators (above) to ensure safety on all sides. BLM demonstrators observe 8 minutes and 48 seconds of silence (below) at the conclusion of the demonstration. Garret K. Woodward photos
As the march concluded at Town Hall, another large group of counterdemonstrators were already there, waiting for the demonstrators to return. From there, an hours-long shouting match between the two groups ensued, with groups separated by more than a dozen law enforcement officers from three separate Haywood County departments.
“The town needs to take a proactive role in ensuring that those wanting to picket have the opportunity to do so peacefully and safely, so they have the ability to convey that message – whatever that happens to be,” Eveland said. “I have heard from some that think the proposed ordinance goes too far in limiting free speech while others I have talked to believe the proposed ordinance does not go far enough in addressing safety concerns.”
For the 18 or so people who showed up to the special meeting — six of whom spoke — the concerns voiced were overwhelmingly slanted toward the latter.
One of them, a man who gave his name as Steven Rich, said his Facebook group came up with a list of enhancements to the proposed ordinance, all of which were unconstitutional and demonstrated an appalling lack of understanding of what, exactly, the First Amendment is and what it does.
Rich said that there should be a limit on how many times the group should be allowed to demonstrate in the town, and that only residents should be allowed to organize a demonstration. He also called for onerous fees that would have a chilling effect on protected speech, according to attorney Brian Gulden.
Gulden, who said the ordinance was drafted in consultation with Town Attorney Craig Justus and the UNC School of Government, put on a clinic in constitutional law for Rich, as well as others who proposed other authoritarian measures like banning demonstrations on busy tourism weekends, forcing demonstrators to remain in one place, or implementing a blanket ban on demonstrations within the town.
“Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because that government does not like that idea,” Gulden said, shooting down the legality of each of the propositions.
To that end, people wishing to demonstrate must now notify police at least 72 hours in advance. Picketing may be conducted on various tracts of town property, including sidewalks, and poles or staffs upon which are mounted signs, flags or banners must be made of “corrugated material, plastic or wood,” may not exceed 36 inches in length and must be blunted at each end.
Kitty Curran, a local business owner who took a prominent role in the July 18 BLM demonstration, spoke in support of the ordinance while lauding Maggie Valley Police for keeping what could have been a very violent situation in check.
“They need tools to keep the peace, and this is a tool to help them keep the peace,” Curran told aldermen.