Leadership Atlanta forum sparks ‘tough conversation’ on race

More than 250 people showed up Wednesday night at an East Point forum to express concern, frustration and anger over mounting tensions around the country between the black community and law enforcement officers.

The two-hour gathering at the Impact United Methodist Church was in response to national protests that erupted across the country after the deaths last week of two black men, in Louisiana and in Minnesota, at the hands of police.

Those killings — caught on camera, along with a recent litany of others involving police and African American — were followed by the retaliatory shooting deaths of five police officers in Dallas.

Wednesday’s forum, organized by alumni of Leadership Atlanta and its affiliate group LEAD, was contentious at time when audience members questioned a panel of community leaders that included Atlanta police chief George Turner. Many of the questions dealt with deadly police force that many deemed unnecessary and what some described as glacially slow efforts to address the issue.

Turner told those gathered that society is asking more of police and for a different way of policing than in the past. He added officers are under the closest scrutiny he has ever seen. He also expressed frustration that the current social unrest and distrust of law enforcement in the country has made it tough for his department to recruit new officers.

“Our intent was to hire 300. We’ve hired so far 90 this year. We won’t get to our goal,” Turner said.

Natosha Reid Rice, an associate pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, served as moderator. In addition to Turner, other panelists included Kevin Gooch, a partner at Alston & Bird’s Finance Group; retired CNN executive Susan Grant; David Spinrad, rabbi of The Temple; and Al Vivian, president and chief executive of Basic Diversity.

“We got a groundswell of calls about last week’s events from people wanting to know what we were going to do about it. I want to talk about how we start solving the divide,” said Delta Air Lines Global Services President Cyril Turner, Leadership Atlanta’s board chairman. He noted that even the choice of venue — a church in a predominately black area of metro Atlanta — was by design.

Vivian, son of famed civil rights activist and minister C.T. Vivian, said people he’s talked to over the last week say the current mood of the country reminds them of 1968, a time of social unrest and the year Martin Luther King was assassinated. He hoped Wednesday’s dialogue would give people a “peek into life for the other — that’s on both side.”

One audience member suggested elder civil rights statesmen, such as former U.S Ambassador Andy Young and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, work with the young people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement to teach them about organizing and civil disobedience to create change.

“The young people just need some direction,” Kelli Stewart said.

Much of the unrest “boils down to fear on both sides,” said Gooch. “Race is a persistent issue that we’re making progress on, but we need to be more intentional in trying to address it. It’s an uncomfortable and difficult conversation that I don’t know if we can really address unless we attack it head-on.”

Last week, as Dallas was hunting for the killer of the police officers, real estate investor Lee Kolber, a white classmate of Gooch’s in the LEAD program, called saying he also wanted to address the issue.

Gooch and other alumni of Leadership Atlanta tried to spark that tough conversation Wednesday night.

“I saw a bunch of anger, anxiety and frustration with the events of last week,” said Gooch, who mentors young black men at an inner-city, all-male school in West Atlanta. “I saw a lot of people in the African-American community running off in different directions trying to do something to address the issue. I wanted to try to do something to address the issue.”

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