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Nation & World

Divisive Sign Ignites Bitter Fight Over Police Reform In Appalachian Town

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Maggie Valley, N.C., seems an unlikely place for the national conversation over police conduct to play out. The tiny Appalachian town is better known for its mountains and tourism. But when a vulgar message critical of police popped up on a motel marquee - and we will tell you what it said in a minute - death threats, anger and rallies roiled the quaint community. Blue Ridge Public Radio's Cory Vaillancourt has this report.

CORY VAILLANCOURT, BYLINE: Kitty and Cody Currin own a small motor lodge, the Our Place Inn, a few miles outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After a year of national police protests, in particular brutality against Black people, the Currans made their opinions known with four simple letters on a sign outside their motel - ACAB.

KITTY CURRIN: ACAB referring to the slogan all cops are bastards.

VAILLANCOURT: Maggie Valley, population 7,500, is 96% white and mostly Republican. Kitty Currin didn't mind shaking up her community with the provocative sign. She thought it would be good to begin a conversation.

K CURRIN: We may not be able to address everything at a national level, but we sure thought that we could start here in our small little town.

VAILLANCOURT: There's not been one particular incident with police in Maggie Valley, but the Currins one a public discussion about police reform, including better training, education and resources for officers, as well as greater transparency into misconduct. A year ago, their motel served as a makeshift headquarters for local Black Lives Matter marchers. There were two tense demonstrations when police were all that stood between 30 BLM marchers and hundreds of counterdemonstrators. Cody Currin says the ACAB sign is ignited a complex discussion about law enforcement

CODY CURRIN: When one police officer abuses authority or misuses the trust of the community and 99 other police officers don't stick up or say anything about it, then, in my opinion, all 100 are responsible for the misuse of authority.

VAILLANCOURT: What the Currins didn't expect were death threats on social media and anger from residents. The FBI visited the motel a few weeks ago to discuss the threats. The controversial sign spawned a pro-law enforcement rally in Maggie Valley earlier this month. It was at the town hall and held just days before the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Retired Asheville police officer Bill Wilke was at the rally where they had some ACAB signs of their own, but he had a different interpretation.

BILL WILKE: All cops are brave.

VAILLANCOURT: Wilke was one of about a hundred people at the all-day event. He thinks the conversation about policing is off to a bad start.

WILKE: When you refer to them as bastards, you instantly lose the argument in the arena of ideas. And it makes it very difficult to come together. When so much attention is given to someone who opens what they refer to as a conversation using a profane word like bastard, there's no ability to have a conversation if that's how we open it.

VAILLANCOURT: These discussions have been difficult and tense, but the Reverend Chris Westmoreland is encouraged. He's the lead pastor at Long's Chapel, one of the biggest churches. He didn't like the motel sign, but says it allows the community to open a deeper dialogue.

CHRIS WESTMORELAND: In this culture, In this time, where things are so politicized, people actually want to - they want to be problem solvers. They actually want to rise to the occasion of being part of the solution.

VAILLANCOURT: The sign at Our Place Inn is still up, as are the pro-law enforcement ones at businesses across town. But in what could be a sign of things to come, the conversation hasn't brought anyone any closer to a solution. For NPR News, I'm Cory Vaillancourt in Maggie Valley, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.