There were no riots, no overturned cars or burning storefronts. No marchers blocking the interstate. Nobody throwing rocks through Starbucks’ windows or carrying crates of vinyl out of Wuxtry. No police in riot gear, throwing smoke bombs. No inane TV talking heads. Just 200 or so people gathered at the Arch on Nov. 25, holding signs and speaking from the heart about their frustration with a St. Louis County, MO, grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
“The system acts like it’s open season on black youth,” said Alvin Sheats, president of the Clarke County NAACP.
Many expected that Wilson would go free. “I was not surprised at all,” local NAACP leader Tommie Farmer said. “It has been happening all over. It happens all the time. Police officers feel like because they have a gun, they can do whatever they want, and that’s not right.”
Black and LGBT activist Ricky Roberts said she was “disappointed” in the lack of an indictment. “I was more disappointed by the response, that the people didn’t respect the wishes of the family and maintain peace,” she said. “I understand the frustration, but I think the violence was inexcusable.”
Sheats explained the riots and looting elsewhere as “a pressure cooker being relieved.” People are desperate because they can’t find jobs or feed their families, he said.
Ask any Athens-Clarke County cop, and they’ll tell you the local police aren’t perfect, but Athens isn’t Ferguson. The department has long used dashboard cameras that could have put to rest any question about Wilson and Brown’s actions, and is now equipping officers with body cameras that can protect officers from false accusations, as well as the citizenry from excessive force.
But there are issues. “I’ve heard numerous stories, particularly from the trans community,” Roberts said. “There’s a lack of respect, and they don’t feel valued here.”
Linda Lloyd, head of the Economic Justice Coalition, pointed out that Athens has a 38 percent poverty rate. “When you look at the things that made Ferguson happen, that could be us,” she said.
For-profit prisons are a big part of the problem because they have an incentive to keep young black men locked up, Sheats said. “We thought we got rid of slavery during the Civil War,” he said. “It’s come back in a different form.”
Athens rapper Versatyle tha Wildchyld related his experiences in prison before turning his life around. “I was at a prison where there were no black people in the county,” he said. “I was spit on, I had feces thrown at me in my sleep, my food was spit on. I had to endure that for nine months.”
It was a rare moment when people spoke the raw truth about race. “We’ve been living in fear our whole lives,” said another local rapper who goes by the name Southpaw. “What we’ve been taught is, don’t trust the police. You can be friends with white people, but don’t get too close. They’ll betray you.”
Still, there was a hopeful tone. Donna Faye Jackson noted that her 106-year-old grandmother never expected to see a black president. “It’s a slow process,” Jackson said. “But it will happen. Maybe one day, we’ll be able to see that justice.”
Versatyle said the focus should be on making the world a better place, not revolting against the system. “It takes this type of travesty in our culture to make us stand up,” he said. “When are we going to do this on a daily basis?
“This is great, but don’t let it stop here,” he said.
University of Georgia student Kailyn Sanders took the long view. “If we want change, we need to become the system,” she said. “We need to become the lawyers and politicians we’re so angry at right now.”
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