Before a Friday afternoon protest in Atlanta against recent high-profile killings of black men, a small gathering in nearby Decatur challenged the usually peaceful city’s reputation for progressive politics and cordial race relations after a high school student’s video roiled the community.
Black student leaders at Decatur High School say the white student who made a video about shooting black people should be expelled.
The five-second video, which inspired an angry online reaction from the local school superintendent early Thursday, shows the boy holding what looks to be a toy gun that he says he uses to kill black people. He utters an incendiary racial epithet to describe them, then imitates the sound of three gunshots. It was at least the third racist video to emerge online in a month from the city of 25,000 at the edge of Atlanta.
The group of nearly 100 gathered around the steps of Decatur City Hall watched speakers characterize it as further evidence of corruption within the soul of the city.
White residents must rectify this, said Marjorie “Iman” Ellis, a 1983 Decatur High graduate who took a turn at the microphone in front of a bank of television news cameras. “Do you all really want a race war?”
But in a reflection of the nuance around race, black student leaders hope the student’s action does not jeopardize his mother’s job at the school.
They describe Cheryl Nahmias, a school administrator who promotes the Black Student Union and often sits in their meetings offering guidance, as a thoughtful, caring and “sweet” woman. Daxton Pettus, 16, co-president of the group, said the video angered him “but also it made me hurt for Mrs. Nahmias because I know this is going to hurt her.”
Black students who know the boy, the nephew of a Georgia Supreme Court justice, worry he is dangerous and that the school is now a dangerous place for him, given the outrage over his video.
It was reportedly made a year ago, when the student was 14. A Decatur mother, who is black, said she posted it online just after midnight Thursday after her daughter showed it to her Wednesday night. It happened amid a spike in racial tension nationally after the deaths of two black men, one, George Floyd, who died earlier this week in Minneapolis, after being pinned for minutes beneath a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, the other on the Georgia coast, where a white former detective, his son and another man were implicated in the vigilante-style death of Ahmaud Arbery. His family says was he jogging when they confronted him. In each case, a video surfaced and prompted protests, including the Atlanta march on the Capitol.
The Decatur rally was organized by the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, a local group that has pushed the schools to address unequal treatment of black students. A report two years ago showed they were being disciplined in far higher proportion than white students.
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David Dude, the city schools superintendent who had posted a rebuke of the video on Facebook soon after it appeared online, spoke of the harm it had caused and of the schools’ responsibility to address the racial attitude it revealed. He said in an interview afterward with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the district has been training teachers and administrators to examine the biases that drive their own behavior and has hired staffers at each school to address discipline, academics and other issues.
He said he could not discuss any potential disciplinary actions for Nahmias or her son. The district is still investigating, as are the city police.
The video was placed online by Deejai Speller, the Decatur mom whose daughter came across a copy.
Speller, who is black, said she emailed Nahmias to ask for an explanation. “I didn’t think the apology was enough,” said Speller, who said she works in public safety for the surrounding DeKalb County School District and believes the boy should be arrested for terroristic threatening.
The racial epithet in the video has roots in slavery and is associated with lynchings and other acts meant to degrade black people and assert white supremacy. The AJC reported Thursday that Nahmias said her son was not making a racist threat but was inexcusably trying to parody people who do. The word he used in that video, Speller said, "It brings back a lot of hurt."
That racial epithet is heard frequently in the schools.
Daxton, the co-president of the high school black students group, said he first heard it in fourth grade. Another member of the group said she started hearing it in sixth grade. And Genesis Reddicks, 17, also a member, started hearing it in seventh grade. When she confronted a white boy for uttering it, he told her to shut up, following those words with the same caustic racial epithet and, to drive home the insult, paired it with a pejorative used to demean women. The white boys around him laughed, she said.
“I think that this video that just came out exposed the hidden racism that Decatur likes to cover up,” she said. These kids doubted Nahmias would utter the word and speculated that her son was influenced by white friends whose own parents do.
“Maybe Mrs. Nahmias wasn’t raising him to think that way,” Daxton said, “but she wasn’t raising him not to think that way.”
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