Black leadership, white old guard clash in a changing metro Atlanta city

John Wilson, (center) pastor of the Gillem Community Church, prays with the volunteers before the start of the coat, blanket and gloves giveaway in Forest Park on Saturday, February 27, 2021. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
John Wilson, (center) pastor of the Gillem Community Church, prays with the volunteers before the start of the coat, blanket and gloves giveaway in Forest Park on Saturday, February 27, 2021. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Clayton County, home to the O’Hara family plantation in “Gone with the Wind,” used to be mostly white.

But even as the county went majority-Black, by a lot, officials in Forest Park, the Clayton County city just south of the Atlanta city limits, remained mostly white until recent years. Now the new Black leadership is plotting the city’s path forward, a path that has so far been fraught.

Fights are breaking out on racial lines as officials work to add diversity throughout the police, fire and other departments. Three Forest Park officials current and former, Black and white, have filed suit, saying they were victims of racism. Two Black city councilmembers filed suit against Forest Park and the white former police chief, accusing him and the police department of illegally running “near constant surveillance” on them after they alleged racial profiling by local cops.

Forest Park could offer a preview of things to come in other parts of metro Atlanta as its demographics change. The shift from majority-white to majority-minority is expected to continue in various communities because population growth of minority communities is greatly outpacing that of white residents, said David Sjoquist, a Georgia State University professor who studies urban and regional economics.

“Anytime you have a change in power, there’s some conflict,” Sjoquist said.

Rashawn Ray, a fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said conflict is likely if those who lose power see it as diminishing their status instead of a chance to give everyone a seat at the table. ”Some of those leaders see it as a zero-sum game,” Ray said.

Forest Park City leaders and lawyers have denied all allegations of firing people over their race. Mayor Angelyne Butler, who took office in 2018 as the city’s first Black mayor, has called each of those suits a “farce.”

Recently, she went further.

“I find it disturbingly appalling when people attempt to mask their deficiencies by playing the race/discrimination card,” Butler said in an emailed statement. “Those who chose to do such will ultimately have to answer to an authority higher than the highest court in the land.”

A changing southside

Forest Park is a city of 20,000, home to Fort Gillem, the World War II U.S. Army supply outpost. It now houses a military crime lab, is sometimes used to film movies and is slowly transforming itself into a logistics hub with warehouses for commercial giants such as Kroger and HD Supply. If you look up while in the city of Forest Park, you might see a plane sailing to or from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. If you live on the westside of town, nearest the airport, you might have to get used to the roar of jet engines.

The noise caused people to move away in the 1970s and 1980s, city records say, contributing to the shifting demographics. In 1981, 8.1 percent of the population was non-white. The citizenry of today is 46 percent Black, 33 percent white and 27 percent Hispanic, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Much of southern metro Atlanta, especially Clayton and Henry counties, has already experienced a switch to minority leadership as people of color moved in for more affordable housing. Forest Park is not the only south metro community that has faced leadership struggles along racial lines.

Stockbridge in Henry County was nearly torn apart in 2018. One of the city’s wealthier communities — Eagle’s Landing, a gated golf club community of million dollar homes — sought to break away from Stockbridge and create its own city in a referendum. Detractors said the battle was spurred by white residents displeased by Stockbridge’s all-Black leadership. Cityhood supporters, who ultimately lost at the ballot box, vehemently denied the accusation.

Similar cityhood movements, of which there have been many in the past 15 years in metro Atlanta, have frequently led to charges of racism. The optics, at the very least, could look better: Those cityhood efforts often involved white residents carving out part of a diverse community — with a government to match — and then electing white leaders.

Something else is happening in Forest Park, though: a city founded in 1908 has, in the past few decades, undergone huge demographic changes, and the local government is catching up. The new leadership in the city is pushing an ambitious agenda marked by social justice and police reforms that might not jibe well with what the old guard prefers.

‘All of a sudden’

Over the past nine years, the council has slowly grown less white. Today, three councilmembers are Black, one is Hispanic and one is white.

In 2018, divisions over the city’s new direction grew after various votes by the council. Members voted to let nightclubs stay open until 3:30 a.m. After a contentious debate, they voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, as other cities around metro Atlanta have done.

Police Chief Dwayne Hobbs, who is white, didn’t approve of the marijuana vote, according to The Clayton Crescent. Hobbs, through his attorney, declined a request for an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Hobbs’ and the police department had around the same time faced complaints racial profiling in misdemeanor marijuana arrests and traffic stops.

On Oct. 2, 2018, the council fired Hobbs, who’d been with the department 45 years, in a 3-2 vote. The three Black councilmembers were in favor of the firing; the two white members were against it.

In September 2020, Hobbs sued the city, claiming he was fired because the council wanted a Black chief. The city replaced Hobbs with the city’s first permanent Black chief, Nathaniel Clark, a 34-year veteran of police work. Officials have said his race wasn’t what landed him the job.

Councilman Allan Mears, the panel’s only white member, said in an interview this week the city probably could’ve avoided the some or all of the former police officials’ lawsuits. “I feel like they weren’t given their day in court,” said Mears, who voted against firing Hobbs.

Councilmembers Dabouze Antoine and Latresa Akins-Wells, two of Hobbs’ most vocal critics, filed suit against the city this January, alleging he put them under surveillance because he thought the change to Black leadership was a “threat to his control over the FPPD and his influence over the affairs of Forest Park.”

Hobbs has said the pair was suspected of taking part in voter fraud and drug activity. The new chief has said there’s no evidence they did anything wrong. At the city’s request, the GBI investigated the situation. The Clayton County District Attorney’s Office said it hasn’t finished considering what action, if any, to take in the case.

Representation

Forest Park leaders make no secret of their goals with city departments. They’ve spoken openly about the need for the ranks of city departments to be as diverse as the city.

During a November 2020 city council meeting, Fire Chief Don Horton said the agency was recruiting candidates who would “represent the community.”

“We’re working on that diligently,” Horton said.

Representation in hiring is something governments consider. Seeking diversity can, however, lead even well-meaning officials into tricky legal territory, said Allison Burdette, a professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act makes it unlawful to decline to hire someone on the basis of their race instead of qualifications. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of white Connecticut firefighters who said they’d faced discrimination while seeking promotions. Burdette said the precedent has since made building a more representative workforce so fraught that consulting firms are often hired to ensure plans don’t run afoul of Title VII.

Forest Park officials should’ve been working to attract more diverse employees decades ago as the population changed, said Brandon M. Smith, also of Emory’s business school. The trouble now, Smith said, is that it can take years to accomplish the goals Forest Park leaders have in mind without offending Title VII.

“I understand their hurt and their sensitivity,” Smith said of those who want better representation in Forest Park. “It’s too bad this wasn’t planned for all along.”