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‘We have a race problem’: Gwinnett board hears from protesters

Tuesday afternoon’s meeting of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners followed a familiar routine: a little bit of county business, an early departure from a certain embattled official and an hour or so of protests.

Like they have for months, most of the protesters addressed controversial Facebook comments from Commissioner Tommy Hunter. A few, however, addressed he recent brutality scandal that led to the termination of two Gwinnett police officers.

“Commissioners, we have a race problem here in Gwinnett County,” one protester, Lawrenceville resident Maxine Wheatley, said. 

Hunter — the District 3 commissioner who’s been under fire since calling U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig” on Facebook  in mid-January — left the board meeting just prior to the open public comment period that protesters like Wheatley used to voice their concerns. It’s a tactic he’s used at nearly every meeting since Feb. 21.

His spokesman has said the protests distract from other county business.

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Before Hunter departed, the board approved millions of dollars in county contracts,  including about $13.5 million for various projects and purchases by the water resources department. 

It also voted to move ahead with an agreement that would increase the number of state inmates that can be held at Gwinnett’s county prison by about 40 percent. The current agreement caps the number of state inmates at 158; the new agreement would put the limit at 222.

Commissioners also voted to accept the donation of the Hudson-Nash House, a home built circa 1840 on Five Forks-Trickum Road near Lilburn. The historical home was bequeathed to the county by late owner Ray Nash. Specific plans for the home were unclear.

MORE: Firing of Gwinnett cops: Decisive justice or rush to judgement?

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MORE: Two Gwinnett cops fired after stomping, punching motorist

During the public comment period that followed all that, many of the 20 or so protesters gathered in the auditorium took turns addressing the board. Even in Hunter’s absence, they repeated their calls for him to step down and for his commission colleagues to do something to force him out. 

A few made a direct connection to the Hunter situation and the one roiling the Gwinnett County Police Department. Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni and Master Officer Robert McDonald were fired last week after cellphone videos surfaced of them striking and kicking a black motorist at different times during the same traffic stop

“For some reason, the officers thought their actions were OK,” regular Hunter protester Pat Lark said. “ ... I think there’s an underlying problem within the government of Gwinnett County. And you’ve got to face it. It is racism.”

A video posted to social media appears to show a Gwinnett County police officer kicking a man in the head as he lies on the ground during a traffic stop. Video credit: Kent Jones. (www.accessatlanta.com)

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