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Activist rebukes local NAACP head for slamming police

Allegations by the head of the Asheville branch of the NAACP of institutional racism on the Asheville Police Department has prompted a NAACP chief and an expression of surprise and disappointment over the criticism by the APD’s spokeswoman, who is African- American.

John R. Hayes, local NAACP chief, leveled unwarranted criticisms of the APD, H.K. Edgerton, a black Southern heritage activist in Asheville, asserted during an interview Monday night with The Tribune.

Edgerton, 62, a lifelong resident who wa s born and raised in Asheville, said, “I certainly would put this department up against any police department in the nation ... It is my belief and contention that Asheville’s is not a racist police department.”

He added, “I’ve been affiliated with that department all my life,” including his stint as president of the local branch of the NAACP, “and so this thing of indictments of the police department — and claiming they’re racist — sends an erroneous message” that, he said, cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.

To that end, Edgerton asserted, “There’s some very fine men and women on the APD, including black men and women, who are being given a bad name” by Hayes.

Both Hayes, president of Asheville’s NAACP chapter, and Bob Smith, director of the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council, lambasted the APD in a story that appeared in last Thursday’s Asheville Citizen-Times. Hayes did not respond to a request for comment via an e-mail inquiry by The Tribune on Tuesday and a telephone call on Wednesday.

Hayes told the AC-T he found no surprise in allegations that a city police sergeant sent a racist text message to an officer he supervised. “It’s the climate that is tolerated at the Asheville Police Department,” Hayes was quoted as saying in the AC-T. Hayes also is president and chief executive officer of the board of WRESLP (100.7 FM). In addition, he serves as a disk jockey for the radio station billed as offering “The Urban Sounds of Asheville.” He and Smith agreed that the allegations indicate police could have more work to do in ensuring racial sensitivity.

Their reference was to a claim of a racist text message in a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit filed by Officer Cherie Byrd against the city and Sgt. Eric Lauffer, who won a 2008 “officer of the year” award from the city. Lauffer said in a November 2008 text message that “the election is making me sick ” and that “due to recent events: grape soda, red koolaid, fried chicken, malt liquor, menthol cigarettes and gold teeth will be taxexempt,” according to the lawsuit.

Lauffer also sent her sexually explicit text messages, Byrd said in the lawsuit, filed in late March in U.S. District Court. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as per federal law, reviewed Byrd’s complaint and found she had the right to sue. In his interview with the AC-T, Hayes asked, “If he (Lauffer) has this attitude, what about the people under him? I don’t even like grape soda. I don’t drink Kool-Aid. I don’t smoke and I definitely don’t have gold in my mouth.”

The local NAACP chief said he has been a participant in a series of meetings over the years intended to create a better relationship between police and blacks in the community, noting, “We have been part of the ongoing effort to remove the racist attitude that exists here in Asheville with the police department.”

Hayes said he plans to consult with leaders at the state level of the NAACP about the alleged text messages and how copies of them might be obtained. “We will be monitoring this very closely,” he told the AC-T.

Meanwhile, Melissa Williams, APD spokeswoman, told The Tribune on Tuesday that, “specifically, I can’t comment on the lawsuit,” based on department policy and the legal issues involved.

As for Hayes’ comments, she said, “Racism, prejudice and bigotry are not acceptable in this department. Our officers live in this community because of its diversity — and it’s a bonus. They don’t get paid for it, but the quality of life” draws the APD’s employees to Asheville. “Diversity is a plus, in my view, and that’s the view” of the city administration.

“Certainly, racism is still with us,” Williams noted. “Our country is a young country” that still is struggling to get over its racist founding. “I’m an African-American woman. I have my own prejudices I have to deal with.” After a pause, Williams said, “I’d love to meet a totally non-prejudiced person of any race. We all struggle with our prejudices.” As for Hayes’ criticism, she said, “I think it’s disheartening to hear that. I’ve worked here for three years. Previously, I worked as city government reporter and then city editor with the Citizen-Times.” Her experience at the newspaper in working with the APD, while distant, “was positive and professional,” she said. Nonetheless, she said, “Mr. Hayes is an important leader in the community” with an organization, the NAACP, which “serves a purpose in a watchdog capacity … I haven’t talked to him — yet” about his criticisms. However, “I hope to talk to him” about it.

In a separate interview, Edgerton told The Tribune, “I heard some of the comments of John Hayes” and he vehemently disagrees with Hayes’ assessment of the APD. “I certainly would put our police department against any police department in the nation. They put their lives on the line every day. It’s a thankless job.” He added, “I’ve seen them spending time in the (black) community — tutoring, coaching ... And I’ve seen some cases where police come out of volunteering and find their tires cut. It’s time some of these so-called ‘leaders’” take some personal responsibility Hayes is playing, as he contended, “the race card?”

“He may be trying to impress the people in the (black) community that he’s doing some thing,” Edgerton replied. “But you can’t take one individual and say he represents the whole police department.”

To that end, Edgerton said, “I’m on the street with the Confederate flag all the time (around Asheville) — and they (the APD) have come to my defense many times” over the years.” Edgerton, dressed in a Confederate uniform and waving a Confederate battle flag, said his activist efforts are intended to boost recognition of the participation and heritage of black Americans, who served the Confederacy during the War Between the States. So what kind of response has Hayes’ comments elicited in the black community?

“You know, far too many times in the black community, we’ve spent too much time putting the blame on others for our problems,” Edgerton replied. “Most of the people in the community are ‘live and let live.’ I think it’s mixed emotions about the APD. There’ve been no incidents” of conflicts sparked by Hayes’ criticisms, to Edgerton’s knowledge.

“A lot of (black) people want the presence of the police because they’re afraid of our children — and afraid of the things their children are doing,” he said, citing because they knew I was going to put them in jail” for illegalities. He included now-Mayor Terry Bellamy as part of Hayes’ allies. A Wikipedia entry stated that, “in December 1998, Edgerton was suspended from the NAACP after he approached Kirk Lyons, an attorney who represented Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam in a 1988 conspiracy trial, to assist the Asheville NAACP in a lawsuit over housing policy. According to the NAACP, his suspension was due to noncompliance with the organization’s rules when the Asheville chapter fell into debt. In 1999, he was voted out of office.” Edgerton is now chairman of the board of directors of the Southern Legal Resource Center. He also is an associate member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Following a pause, the former local NAACP chief said, “There’s a great deal of profit in non-profit,” alleging that Hayes, through the radio station and affordable housing projects, has made lots of money through the government and other organizations by operating behind a veil of nonprofit projects for the poor and downtrodden.

“We must be careful not to make this very fine police department the scapegoat for the actions of one or several individuals, and must remember that one is innocent until proven guilty,” Edgerton stated in a letter he provided to the Tribone.