How I got arrested at a Racial Equity Institute Training

By Sharon "Star" Smith

This is a story about how so-called progressive anti-racist white people and their “well behaved Negroes” conspired to shut down constructive criticism from an elder woman of color, with more knowledge, experience and insight into how white supremacy works than anyone in Asheville NC.  It is my response to an Invitation to attend an Asheville REI "debriefing” session.

  “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”    ~James Baldwin

You have got to be kidding me? Why would I attend an REI "debriefing" for any reason? It is clear to all who read your statement that you aim to justify your seriously poor judgement and choice of actions.  You called security to remove an elder woman of color with more knowledge and experience regarding systemic white supremacy than any of y'all--over a difference of opinion about a questionable policy! Who does that!? 

FYI: Now that everybody knows my age, due to the story in the Asheville Citizen Times, I can say, I was born out of my parent's rebellion against anti-miscegenation and jim crow laws, in 1954, a few months before Brown v. Board of Education. My mother is a white New England Quaker and my father was Black, Blackfoot-Saponi and Mohawk.  They lived in Harlem, on East 127th Street, when I was born, because there was nowhere else they could live together at that time.  I was raised in the Civil Rights Movement, specifically to challenge the narrative around racism and white power, which Carol Rogoff Hallstrom likes to say she is a veteran of.  In fact, Malcolm X was murdered on my 11th birthday, at the Audubon Ballroom, which I walked past every school day, on my way to PS 168 Manhattan.  In addition to that, I have been studying Critical Race Theory at least 40 years, beginning with workshops by Dr. Beverly Tatum ("Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria") and  Andrea Avasian, at Mount Holyoke College. In those days, I was invited to attend, for free, because I was president of the Indian Student Association at UMass Amherst.  In the last 40 years, I have attended many trainings by various organizations, read more books on the topic than most academics, facilitated many organizing meetings, conducted workshops myself, been on the front lines of struggle against colonialism, aka white supremacy, and I have never before encountered the F'd up policy REI tried to force me to obey. WTF!  

I learned about this ridiculous policy, when I saw people I knew from the Asheville so-called progressive community, sitting in the back row, silently not participating, at my first REI training.  There was no announcement about it, nor was there a conversation in which participants could agree or disagree with it.  I signed no papers.  And, I said I did not approve of the policy and would not comply with it then, but apparently no one was listening.  I had other issues with my first REI training, which none of the core team took seriously. Like the fact that an elder white man was the lead trainer that weekend.  I had never seen that before, either. Then I saw him mislead people, out of his ignorance, and in the spirit of academic inquiry, I challenged his premise, which was totally appropriate.  I should have seen, by the way the Asheville core team mismanaged that situation, that it was not a good idea to attend another REI training as an alumna.  

I arrived, already triggered by the lack of support Asheville Black Lives Matter received at the City Council meeting three days before. Triggered by paintings in the City Council chamber which celebrate the genocide of my people and the colonial settlement of Asheville. I was triggered by armed police officers at all the doors.  Then, I was triggered, that morning, by an announcement that Asheville Friends Meeting was hosting a Non-Violent Communication workshop with the Ethical Humanist Society that week--as if there is such a thing as violent communication.  

I got there at about 9AM, a few minutes late because I was looking for a parking space at the MAHEC facility, where the parking lot was torn up for some construction project.  I got there, just as the facilitators were finishing up their introductions. Marta Alcala Williams offered me her seat, as the Black male facilitator, whom I've been told, used to be a chief of police in Greensboro...red flag...was warming the group up. He mentioned Brian Stevenson's (Equal Justice Initiative) Four Principles, and I began taking notes.  He had just finished saying: 2. Change the narrative, and 3. Be willing to be uncomfortable.  Then he did a quick overview of current events in Asheville, mentioned the Rush case, and asked,"What year is it?" I answered, "Feels like 1676 to me."  It was right then that Carol Rogoff Hallstrom, who thinks she is the poster child for undoing racism in Asheville, reached over another white woman, touched me on the knee and said, "You need to be quiet."  Seriously.  What TF was she thinking? Naturally, I looked at her and said 'NO." And she kept on bothering me, while I was trying to hear the trainer do his thing.  So I said, something like, "You need to be quiet and stop bothering me." That's when Jacqueline Hallum (A Black employee of MAHEC) stood up and said, "Oh NO, not today! We are not doing this today with you, Sharon." (not an exact quote) She told me I needed to leave, if I was not willing to be quiet. Since I already have issues with folks trying to dominate me, I said "I'm not leaving." Then she said she would call security, if I refused to obey, and I said "Go right ahead." Which is not exactly a demand, in spite of what your Asheville REI statement says. 

The trainer, whose lecture was interrupted by Carol and Jacqueline--not by me--went on with his lecture, and I was focused on what he was saying when the police showed up.  They cleared the row I was sitting in to get to me, except the white woman between me and Carol refused to move.   An officer asked me to leave and I said, "No." While the police were still trying to be nice about it, another white woman, from the Netherlands, who was attending her first REI training, stood and asked the group if we could poll the room to see whether folks wanted me to stay.  But Phyllis Utley (A Black employee of Asheville Boncomb County Community College) stood and announced, "Oh no, we have a policy."  Ya can't make this stuff up!

At that moment, all the good REI alumni in the room, including Elizabeth Schell, of Asheville SURJ's core team, the Asheville REI core team and the erstwhile experts--the REI trainers--could have put a stop to a travesty of racial justice going down right in front of them, but they said and did absolutely nothing.  As the police situation was about to escalate,  the only person who showed up for racial justice that day was Adrianne Weir, my Quaker friend from the Asheville Friends' Racial Justice Committee. Everybody else sat there and watched while the police used excessive force to drag me out of the room and out of the building.  Based on what Adrianne told me later, she started to leave, and Jacqueline, said to her, "you don't need to leave." Adrianne responded, "Sharon is my Friend; if she leaves, I'm leaving." Then Jackie said to Adrianne, "Well if you are her friend, then you need to leave too."  

Nothing that happened that day speaks well of REI, the parent organization or the Asheville core team. The fact that they were more intent on enforcing a questionable policy than facilitating a learning experience speaks volumes.  That a white woman thought it was OK to silence an elder woman of color with more knowledge and experience related to the subject of systemic racism than anyone there, and that every so-called anti-racist in the room, including SURJ, Building Bridges, and REI alumni, supported her doing so, tells me that all y'all have yet to integrate the theory you are learning into practice.  You cannot blame me, MAHEC security or the police for this one.

Furthermore, it is not lost on me, that the Asheville Police Chief, the Mayor, the City Manager, the DA, City Council members, the Asheville Police Department, the Board of Education, etc. are all alumni of REI and Building Bridges.  Aren't they the ones who engaged in a criminal conspiracy to cover up a racial hate crime perpetrated by an Asheville Police Training Officer and his gang of trainees? Isn't that called criminal negligence?  Which is exactly why Asheville BLM called for all of them to be fired or resign and be criminally charged.  It's not lost on me that some of the same people, from ASURJ and REI support forgiving Tammy Hooper, the police chief, even though she had to be aware Chris Hick-man (Creator really does have a sense of humor) her Training Officer, had a proclivity for racial violence. 

Proving that basically, all y'all ain't sh*t.   

What you need to do to fix this is, 1. learn the lesson, 2. publicly apologize, and 3. pay restitution.  And, last but not least, would somebody please explain to Marta Alcala Williams that it is possible to be both Black and Native American. The silly twit, had the nerve to question whether I know who I am because I identify as both. These are the people facilitating the Asheville REI core team, y'all.  Handle yo business!

In the Light of Racial Justice, 

Sharon Smith

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