‘I will certainly be armed’: Immigrant advocates rebuke Tea Party email

The leader of a local tea party group sent an email to his members on Sunday that seemingly encouraged them to bring weapons to a public forum being organized by immigrant advocacy groups.

United Tea Party of Georgia leader David Hancock asked his members to attend Wednesday's forum, which is being billed as a discussion of the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office's participation in the controversial 287(g) program that allows deputies to check the immigration status of detainees and hold them for federal authorities.

In the email, Hancock called the event “a place for … the anti-Butch Conway and anti-law groups to speak their mind.”

“NOTE: You can carry a weapon (open or concealed) in the library as long as you have a valid permit,” Hancock wrote at the end of the email. “I will certainly be armed…”

Hancock told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday that he just wanted his members to support Conway, Gwinnett’s longtime sheriff. Hancock said he is not anticipating violence, and that his email was not an attempt to intimidate the forum’s organizers — which include the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and Project South, a social justice organization.

But Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, called Hancock’s email “outrageous” and said the forum will be held as scheduled.

“We are determined to exercise our First Amendment right to speak out against local police collaboration with ICE in Gwinnett and elsewhere in the state,” Shahshahani said. “It is absolutely outrageous that anti-immigrant forces are attempting to intimidate us by using threats of potential violence.

“They shall not succeed in censoring our speech and stopping our organizing work.”

Multiple local Democrats running for office in 2020 — including Gwinnett commission candidates Kirkland Carden and Curt Thompson — also condemned Hancock’s email.

“We should never reach a point where one side of the debate is attempting to intimidate the opposition with weaponry and create a climate of fear where violence could erupt,” Carden’s campaign wrote in an email. “This kind of violent insinuation is neither safe nor productive for our county.”

The 287(g) program is particularly controversial in Gwinnett County, one of the most diverse communities in the Southeast.

Advocates of the program say it helps reduce crime and keeps communities safer; opponents say it diminishes trust between residents and law enforcement and disproportionately targets low-level offenders like those caught driving without a license.

Wednesday’s forum is a reaction to another 287(g) event hosted in earlier this summer by Gwinnett Commissioner Marlene Fosque.

Multiple groups, including the organizers of Wednesday's forum, declined invitations to participate in Fosque's July event after they learned that anti-illegal immigration activist D.A. King would be on the panel.

King is the president of the Marietta-based Dustin Inman Society, which is named for a Woodstock teenager who died in a car crash with an undocumented immigrant in 2000. Opponents have labeled the Dustin Inman Society a hate group; King has describes the organization as merely “pro-enforcement.”

Days after the July forum, Fosque said she regretted King’s participation and described him as “someone known for spewing hatred and bigotry and racism.”

King subsequently filed a formal ethics complaint with Gwinnett County, accusing Fosque of defamation.