The ACLU of North Carolina sent letters to the cities of Raleigh, Asheville, Greensboro, and Charlotte on June 5 raising legal and constitutional concerns with local officials’ responses to the ongoing protests against police violence and brutality.
The letter, reprinted below, condemns violence by Asheville police against protestors and warns against further use of tear gas, flash bangs, rubber bullets, and other weapons.
Dear Mayor Manheimer, Chief Zack, City Manager Campbell, and City Council Members:
We write concerning the City of Asheville’s response to the ongoing protests over the killing of George Floyd. Over the past week, we have been profoundly disturbed to hear repeated accounts and see numerous images of Asheville police taking violent action against protestors, in blatant violation of state and federal constitutional protections.
The First Amendment guarantees the rights to free speech, peaceful assembly, and petition of the government for redress of grievances. The Supreme Court of the United States “has frequently reaffirmed that speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection.” Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 145 (1983).
The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, which includes the use of excessive force by law enforcement. Any use of force must be objectively reasonable given the circumstances. This rule applies equally to measures that some police departments categorize as “non-lethal,” such as pepper spray, rubber bullets, and tasers. See Estate of Armstrong ex rel. Armstrong v. Vill. of Pinehurst, 810 F.3d 892, 905 (4th Cir. 2016). The power of these devices to inflict serious pain, injury, and even death is well-known.
Over the last two weeks, we have watched with grave concern while protestors across the country—anguished over yet another police killing of an unarmed Black man—have been gassed, beaten, arrested, and shot at by militarized law enforcement.
In Asheville, news reports, protestors, and public officials have confirmed the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against protestors who did not present any threat of imminent harm. On Tuesday, police officers used force against volunteer medics and destroyed their station containing water, food, and emergency medical supplies. Such violence and destruction only compound the tragedies at the heart of the protests. These measures are clearly disproportionate and unreasonable, and threaten to chill the speech of people who wish to be heard on a matter of immense public concern.
This moment calls for empathy and moral leadership from public officials—not a violent crackdown on the exercise of constitutional rights. We demand an end to the use of force, including but not limited to teargas, rubber bullets, and “flash bangs” against protestors. In the days and weeks that follow, we will be monitoring the situation closely to ensure that city officials are held accountable for any constitutional violations.
Sincerely, the ACLU of North Carolina
Kristi Graunke, Legal Director
Robert T. Stephens, Director of Political Strategy and Advocacy
Chantal Stevens, Interim Executive Director