ASHEVILLE – About a dozen women bared their breasts in a topless rally before several hundred spectators in Pritchard Park in the busy downtown Sunday, with reactions from passersby ranging from disgust to nonchalance.
The annual Go Topless rally from 1-3 p.m. was in its first year at Pritchard Park after a three-year run at nearby Pack Square Park, attracting a crowd of mostly men with cameras and cell phones.
Attendance peaked at about 300, though some spectators were leaving as others were filtering in. By the time the rally ended, attendance had dwindled to a few dozen people. The number of spectators and participants was similar to the turnout for the 2013 event.
Wendy Davenport and Andy Bowers, visitors from Greensboro, were hurrying away shaking their heads after spotting the partially nude women.
"It should be more secluded," Davenport said. "I wouldn't want to be walking down the street with my boys and see boobies everywhere."
"You have kids here," Bowers said, pointing to young children in the crowd.
Organizer Jeff Johnson, of Huntsville, Ala., said he was happy with the event, though parking was more difficult around Pritchard Park than at Pack Square. He said the aim of the rally was to promote women's equality. Under North Carolina law, women can legally bare their breasts in public.
"There's never been any harm from a breast," said Johnson, who plans to return to Asheville again next summer.
Business operators near Pritchard Park, some of whom expressed concern last week, said the event did not hurt business, and most customers seemed unconcerned about the rally.
"It hasn't affected our business at all," said Mary-Kate Hawn, a hostess at Mayfel's, a popular restaurant with outdoor seating across the street from the park. "We still have an hour wait. People just ask what it is. They are just curious. They just say, 'Oh.' No one has really said anything negative."
Rayne Bostrom and Kelly Keogh, of South Asheville, who were sitting at an outside table at Mayfel's, said the display didn't bother them.
"If you want to take it off, take it off," Bostrom said.
"As weird as Asheville people are, it fits," noted Keogh.
For the first time in its four-year history, the rally included a march through the downtown. A group of topless women, hands behind their backs and wearing toy handcuffs, walked along Patton Avenue to the Asheville Police Department. The marchers passed through the jammed Big Love Fest at Pack Square, turning heads as they went, then stood bare-chested in front of the police department in a brief demonstration against what they said was government oppression.
"I think I ought to have the right to choose what I wear, not men in suits and ties with money," said participant Sandra Mears, of Huntsville, Ala.
Several Asheville officers stood nearby observing the women but made no move to intervene. Police said the event was peaceful and there were no arrests.
Longtime downtown resident Sharon Woody said the rally was an affront to God.
"It's not right for the kids to see this," she said. "I just feel for them."
Woody said city leaders should put a stop to the spectacle.
"I feel hurt for my city," she said. "I feel embarrassed."