Local governments struggle to respond to national unrest

Hundreds of protesters gather outside Lawrenceville City Hall as protests continue for a fourth day around metro Atlanta over the death of George Floyd on Monday, June 1, 2020, in Lawrenceville. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Hundreds of protesters gather outside Lawrenceville City Hall as protests continue for a fourth day around metro Atlanta over the death of George Floyd on Monday, June 1, 2020, in Lawrenceville. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

From Stone Mountain to Acworth, local communities across the metro area are struggling to respond to a moment of national unrest that feels both entirely new and depressingly familiar.

The killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, at the hands of a police officer who has since been charged with his murder sparked a fresh wave of protests demanding an end to police brutality and systemic racism. Some of those demonstrations, including in Atlanta, ended with tear gas, mass arrests, vandalism and looting — prompting a familiar round of debate and recrimination.

“It didn’t start a week or so ago with the killing of George Floyd,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on a recent episode of Pod Save America. “This is 400 years of hurt and pain, and the need for reconciliation in this country.”

But smaller gatherings in places like Lawrenceville and Marietta have attracted less attention, as have gestures by local governments to show residents they are listening in hopes of heading off any backlash before it can escalate.

The city of Smyrna passed a resolution Monday denouncing racism. Doraville is planning to vote on a different resolution in support of a proposed hate crime bill currently in the state Senate. Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul has asked local faith-based organizations and community groups to host gatherings of 10 or less people for conversations on race.

Some officials have also shared their personal experiences to try and draw broader lessens from the confrontations between police and protesters.

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond, who is black, shared a story from his past during a commission meeting about breaking windows and engaging in violence during unrest over the integration of his high school with the white high school in Athens, Georgia. After ending up in legal trouble, he decided to become a lawyer, he said.

“Sometimes, the destruction is really just a cry for help,” he said. “The kids running in the streets today will be CEOs and commissioners tomorrow. Let us not lose sight of that.”

But whether these conversations result in tangible changes remains to be seen, said Jaha Howard, a Cobb County School Board member and one of more than two dozen elected officials, business leaders and activists who participated in a forum on racism and policing hosted by Cobb Commissioner Lisa Cupid Tuesday.

One after another, white officials on the panel spoke about Cobb’s “legacy of being inclusive,” the police department’s commitment to improvement, and the need to eschew politics for brotherly love.

“I am skeptical only because I see that there is a willingness for us to gloss over our current problems,” said Howard, who is black, addressing the forum. “There are people in this room right now who have accused me of being divisive just for bringing up race.”

Last year, the school board split along racial and party lines when a majority voted to end the practice of allowing members to speak freely at the end of its meetings. David Chastain, the school board's chairman, cited concern that comments by Howard and others were too "political" because they spoke about "social justice" matters.

“I understand it’s controversial, but right now it’s seems like the best thing to do with (us) heading into a political year,” Chastain said at the time, referring to upcoming elections in 2020.

Howard’s skepticism echoed by several other participants in Tuesday’s forum, including black lawmakers and activists from the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, lamented that he’s accused of “bringing race into it” when he has tried to discuss the impact of certain policy proposals on minority communities — from school vouchers to gang legislation.

“Race is already in the conversation, you just refuse to acknowledge it,” he said. Nevertheless, he said he felt “cautious optimism” that the forum would lead to “more than talk.”

Ben Williams, head of the Cobb chapter of the SCLC, said he was familiar with most of the panel participants from past “false starts” on similar initiatives.

“I am both intrigued, perplexed, cautious and probably a number of other things that could get in the way, but I do remain encouraged,” he said. “I would invite those who say they want to do something, make yourself available to join in the work.”

Other lawmakers indicated their willingness to listen and find common ground.

“I’m ready to move that to action and I want to join my colleagues and all of you in figuring out what that means,” said Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta.

Cupid said she was pleased with the forum, which she said came together in just two days, but that follow up would be key to achieving results.

“Success to me results in policy changes,” she said. “Some people took a very big step just by listening.”

But Bottoms warned that governments need to move fast in addressing problems. On the podcast, she referred to her firing of two city police officers for excessive use of force the day after their arrest of a young black couple went viral.

“Where we are in America, we don’t have time to wait, so my police officers just got a very real lesson in what our expectations and what our level of tolerance will be in the city of Atlanta,” she said. “I think what we are seeing, especially with our young protesters across the country, they don’t have the patience for the change.”

--Additional reporting by Tyler Estep, Adrianne Murchison, Amanda Coyne, J.D. Capelouto, Kristal Dixon