Without a power source for their PA system, speakers at the Moms Demand Action Advocacy Day rally last week at Liberty Plaza struggled until they acquired a bullhorn. PHOTO / JASON GETZ
Photo: Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz

AJC Watchdog: Why the state cut the mic on the Ga. gun control rally

Organizers of a massive gun-control rally outside of the State Capitol last week struggled to be heard. That’s because their sound system didn’t work — the electrical outlets at Liberty Plaza were dead.

As more than 1,500 strained to hear speakers, longtime State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, who attended the rally, did what politicians do these days when they get angry: She took to Twitter.

“Steve Stancil, head of Ga Building Authority, will not turn on power/microphone, at Liberty Plaza — Moms Demand Action!!!” Oliver tweeted.

But records show the Georgia Building Authority did not fail to turn the power on — they made sure the power was cut off, even sending someone over the morning of the event to manually shut it down.

The state opened the $4.4 million plaza in 2015 to provide a place for press conferences and rallies that didn’t interfere with the normal operations of the Capitol. Oliver is furious at how the Moms Demand Action rally was handled.

“They were there exactly for the reasons we want them there,” she told me. “It’s their plaza and I was really upset how they were treated.”

Oliver followed up the day after the rally with a letter to Stancil formalizing her complaint.

“Steve, this is not the way our state government should work,” she wrote. “I am ashamed that these good citizens were treated this way and cannot tell you how disappointed I am in your unwillingness to provide hospitality to the citizens of Georgia.”

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, is furious that the Georgia Building Authority refused to turn on electrical power for the Moms Demand Action gun control rally last week. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Stancil fired back the next day, with both barrels, saying Oliver appeared “to be unaware of both the facts and the relevant laws and policy regarding the use of Liberty Plaza.”

The group did not have the proper permit, Stancil said in his reply. Any group is free to gather in the plaza, but if they want “to ensure that there is available space and have access to resources in Liberty Plaza for their event,” they must do the paperwork, he wrote.

“(Moms Demand Action) was advised by my staff on February 19 that they did not have a permit and, as a result, state resources would not be made available to the group,” he wrote.

Stancil, who declined my interview request, wrote the policies are “neutral as to the content of the message.” He has turned down groups before.

In 2016, Stancil turned down a permit request for an armed “United Against Islam” rally in Liberty Plaza, but did not publicly give a reason for doing so. The organizer of the rally promised to shred a Koran.

Georgia Building Authority Executive Director Steve Stancil, right, seen here with Gov. Nathan Deal, left, said the gun control activists did not follow proper procedures for the use of power at Liberty Plaza. JAMES SALZER / JSALZER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Last-minute plea for accommodation

It’s true that Moms Demand Action didn’t have a permit. They tried though.

The Georgia chapter of Moms Demand Action had scheduled their annual lobbying day at the Capitol well before 17 students and adults were gunned down in a south Florida high school earlier this month. They had planned on a contingent of 120, but it soon became apparent that they would have many, many more.

They started working the phones, trying to find a way to accommodate the growing crowd. Another organization, a prenatal health care advocacy group, had already reserved Liberty Plaza for their gathering of about 100, but agreed to give up their reservation in favor of Moms Demand Action.

As the event drew near, organizers tried to work out a deal with GBA and got help from friendly legislators. A day before the event, a legislative aide for Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, wrote to Stancil asking for help “to potentially avoid chaos.”

The aide wrote that organizers were told they could not take the now-open slot “because Moms Demand Action did not do … the 10-day pre-booking requirement.”

“We called to see if we could reserve it for them, but we were told no as well,” the aide wrote. “Our concern is that Liberty Plaza is available, but because it can’t be booked, hundreds of constituents and advocates will be roaming the Capitol and elsewhere with nowhere to go.”

About an hour after Parent’s office sent its request, GBA Event Coordinator Tracie Murray fired off an internal email to a GBA staffer: “Will you please make sure that the power in Liberty Plaza is turned off tomorrow?”

“We made every attempt to contact the Georgia Building Authority — including having elected officials reach out — to ensure our plans were clear,” said Phoebe Kilgour, spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety, of which Moms Demand Action is a part. “We hoped they would work with us on the last-minute change. Unfortunately, they didn’t.”

Outlets presented safety hazard, GBA says

Cindy Presto, a lawyer with GBA, said it is “standard, normal practice” for the power to be off in Liberty Plaza.

But GBA went further. The morning of the rally, organizers showed up with a PA system, plugged it in and — surprise! — it worked. In fact, it worked so well they heard it across the street in GBA HQ. Presto said a staffer was deployed to shut it down manually.

“They felt they needed to do something immediately in terms of getting it under control,” Presto said, claiming the active outlets presented a potential safety hazard.

“They had live electrical outlets,” she said. “I was standing there when a woman wanted to charge her cell phone.”

Oliver is unimpressed by what she sees as “some bureaucratic obstacle.” In his letter, Stancil is clear that he believes the group ignored procedures and Oliver can pound sand.

These two aren’t strangers. Both served as members of the House starting in the late 1980s and both made unsuccessful bids for lieutenant governor. Oliver as a D and Stancil as an R.

As a legislator, Stancil had an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association. Oliver is just as well known as an opponent of the NRA.

Local organizers of the rally wouldn’t comment, opting to stay above the fray. With future gun-control demonstrations planned for the coming weeks, they will get another chance to make themselves heard.

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As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.