Asheville’s Aston Park, where Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit were arrested for covering police sweeping a homeless encampment on Christmas night 2021.
Shortly after Aston Park had closed on Christmas night 2021, several Asheville Police officers surveyed the tents on the park grounds and strategized how they were going to get everyone off city property.
“Why don’t we deal with the standing first, since they’re videotaping?” one officer asked.
The people who were standing were Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit, reporters with the Asheville Blade, a leftist news co-op that has closely covered the city’s response to homelessness.
Bliss and Coit were there to cover the police sweep Aston Park and clear it of homeless people and their supporters. Both Coit and Bliss had identified themselves as press as police entered the park just after it closed at 10 p.m. Officers arrested an incredulous Coit first — “woah, woah, are you serious?” the reporter asked — and then arrested Bliss.
“I’m just covering the event as press,” Bliss said.
“Clearly, you’re trespassing,” the officer said. “At this point you are under arrest.”
The exchange is captured in police body camera footage released Monday. The city released a dozen recordings from that night after the Freedom of the Press Foundation, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the ACLU of North Carolina petitioned the court to release the videos.
Aston Park closes at 10 p.m., a point the officers pressed repeatedly that night. The police warned that those who didn’t leave would be charged with trespassing. At one point an officer asked if the people assembled were protestors or members of the homeless population. Another officer said that one of the men there is homeless, but “he got conned into coming.
“He was told they were allowed to be here,” the officer said.
The people in the park told the police the officers didn’t care about homeless people and encouraged them to go home and spend Christmas with their families. Officers told them they had to leave the park.
“Give us a resource. There’s nowhere to go,” one of the people told the officers.
Coit and Bliss were both charged with trespassing, a misdemeanor that could carry up to 20 days in jail and a $200 fine. The reporters are currently slated for a bench trial on April 19.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion holding that a North Carolina trespassing law could not be used to restrict newsgathering efforts “without first ensuring the First Amendment would allow it.”
It’s not clear whether the release of the body cam footage or the Fourth Circuit ruling will affect the reporters’ charges. At a hearing on Jan. 25 at the Buncombe County Courthouse, Ben Scales, Coit and Bliss’ attorney, told the judge he had seen the body cam footage but had tried to review it before court that morning and found he could not.
“Mysteriously I no longer have access to that footage,” he said, noting that the ACLU and the Freedom of the Press Foundation had filed their petition the day before.
Assistant District Attorney Katie Kurdys told the judge there had been a time limit on the link shared with Scales. She said prosecutors had not revoked his access to the videos, and that they weren’t even required to share the footage with him but did so “in the interests of justice.”
Now Scales, as well as anyone with an internet connection, has access to the footage, as the dozen videos were all uploaded to the city’s YouTube channel.
For more on the arrests and the broader issue of homelessness in Asheville, see this NC Policy Watch story.
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