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(UPDATE) Protest planned in response to racist incidents involving Decatur High students

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(UPDATE) Protest planned in response to racist incidents involving Decatur High students

Mawuli Davis with the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights speaks at a press conference on May 29. Photo by Jana Johnson-Davis
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Update: The protest planned for May 31 has been postponed. For more information, click here

Here is our previous story …

Decatur, Ga. — On Thursday, May 28th, Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights released a statement demanding a meeting with the City of Decatur Mayor, Mayor Pro Tem, Police Chief, City Manager, and School Superintendent “to discuss the rash of racially motivated incidents that have occurred in the City of Decatur over the past few weeks.”

The incidents include a video of a white Decatur High School student waving a toy gun and making a racist threat, other videos of white Decatur High School students using racial slurs, and an incident where a white Decatur teenager confronted a black man at his house in Oakhurst.

The Beacon Hill Alliance asked that the meeting take place on Friday, May 29th at 10:30 am at Decatur City Hall. The statement also indicated they would hold a press conference outside city hall after the meeting.

On Friday at 10:30 a.m., members of the community and the media gathered outside city hall on North McDonough Street. There was some confusion about whether the meeting between activists and the city officials would take place. It was determined that a formal meeting would not take place, but there were a series of speakers who attended the event, including Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone in attendance wore a mask and attempted to keep physical distance from one another.

The mayor apologized if people interpreted her initial response to the proposed meeting as being dismissive of the idea.

“I, as the Mayor, and the Mayor Pro Tem [Tony Powers] and the City Commission […] certainly did not mean to send any sort of message that we are not aware and concerned about the seriousness of the conversations that are taking place,” she said.

She recognized that the members of the City Commission were also in attendance.

“On behalf of the city commission, I am disappointed and outraged about the despicable racist incidents that have occurred in our community,” Garrett said. “These inexcusable acts reveal the hatred and ignorance that still exists in our community. We as community leaders must come together to do the hard work of eradicating racism in our society. We are committed to creating a community that values every person, promotes true equity and inclusion, and keeps every person safe.

“Even during this additional challenge of a global pandemic, we are committed to continuing the work that started years ago with the Better Together initiative to create a more just, welcoming, inclusive, equitable, and compassionate experience for everyone in our community. Clearly, there’s more work to be done. A community conversation is being planned and scheduled in partnership with the city, City Schools of Decatur, Decatur Parents Network, The Better Together Advisory Board, and the Beacon Hill Alliance. Information about that will be provided to the public very soon.”

The mayor used an extended metaphor to try and explain the current moment.

“Right now, we’re all worried about our breath,” Garrett said. “How important it is to not breathe on one another. But in this moment, it is not the time for us to hold our collective breath. We have to breathe together and come together to recognize that we have so much hard work ahead of us, and we must do that to restore trust and a sense of unity in Decatur. Finally, let us not be judged by the vile acts of a few, rather let us use this as an opportunity to show how a community can become stronger and better through adversity. I welcome having the conversation virtually with the Beacon Alliance so that we can not have large groups gather, and I hope that we can do that as quickly as possible.”

Superintendent David Dude also spoke, referencing his Wednesday Facebook post condemning the incident.

“This is an extremely serious issue for us, our partnership with the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights is very important to us,” Dude said. “It’s very important for us to attack this racism right in our community and in our school district. We are all in with attacking racism in the City Schools of Decatur. It is absolutely unacceptable that our students are not only displaying these racist views and these threats but that they’re even thinking them in the first place. And that is where we’re grappling [with] this. We are trying to change mindsets, we are trying to change beliefs, we are trying to change people’s implicit biases and help them to recognize how that impacts how they interact with the world. We are very serious about this work and we will continue this work, it is very important to us.”

Mawuli Davis with the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights spoke, acknowledging that all the city officials requested were in attendance, except for Police Chief Mike Booker, who they plan to follow up with later. He then invited families to speak at the podium.

“Beacon Hill is just an organization of people committed to human rights in the city of Decatur,” Davis said. “But we want them to hear the unfiltered voices of our people so they can have a better understanding of where we are in this moment, in this city, in this country, and the level of frustration and anger and pain that black people are in right now.”

DaVena Jordan and Tony Jordan, Decatur residents for five years, spoke to the anxiety of witnessing these racist incidents.

“I was up all night. I could not sleep,” Jordan said. “I could not rest, just because of what was going on in our entire country. So to see this as a parent, to notice on my cellphone that something in my backyard — a young man waving a gun saying that he uses it to kill black people, it was a gut punch, it was a sucker punch in the middle of all of this. I was infuriated and I was angry, but as a longtime community activist, I set about the work of correcting it. The only way we can fix is this to correct the behavior by action, not talk. There are consequences for things that you do, and this young man should definitely suffer those consequences as any other child would. I have two black sons, one that attends Decatur High School and another that attends Renfroe Middle School. If this was them, the police would have been at my door. That’s the truth, America. They would have been dragging my son out the door. But this child is somewhere, I guess, resting his nerves after committing a felony act, terroristic threats.”

Jordan and her husband ran an organization in Savannah, Ga. called AWOL, or All Walks of Life. “I wrote three and a half million dollars worth of grants for juvenile delinquency prevention, so we know this work all too well. … There are no more apologies. I don’t want your apologies, I want you to change [your behavior].” 

She spoke to the pain of seeing the recent video of a Minneapolis officer suffocating George Floyd, who later died. “Seeing something like that here in the city of Decatur and knowing my two black sons could suffer the same thing, or worse yet, this young man grows up to be one of those cops doing those same things … we have to do something now.” 

Tony Jordan said his experience witnessing violence has influenced the way he raises his kids in Decatur.

“My brother was gunned down in the streets [in Washington D.C.], so I take raising my kids and being a husband and being a great father to my kids very seriously,” he said. “And what I notice, and I am going to say it, is there is an ecosystem of generational racism. All these things in the ecosystem, from the system that we deal with, the housing issue that we deal with, all across the board, if you don’t fix it collectively, we are going to continue to have these problems.

“What I want to call out here is, that’s generational racism. This kid [who made the racist threat] is fourteen, fifteen years old, and the fact that he can say something like that in 2020 lets me know from top to bottom that he was raised that way.” 

Members of the Decatur High School Black Student Union also expressed despair and anger over the incident.

Co-President Daxton Pettus said, “When I first saw the video, it really hurt me because right after that, I was researching what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis, and just to see this, with a student who goes to Decatur High School, whose parents have been very involved in our club, it really hurt. And I feel like this is going to continue to happen if Decatur High School does not show the proper consequences. If Decatur High School does not give a punishment that reflects how they feel about a Decatur white students saying the n-word, then it’ll continue to happen.”

Emma LaGon, also Co-President of the BSU, said, “I’m very ashamed to say that Sam [the student who made the racist threat] used to be one of my closest friends, and so to see this video of him come out, of him saying this horrible word and demeaning a whole race, really hurt me in my heart. And I think that Decatur does not have the right policies to address these things in their handbook, I think that a new policy needs to be made to change how we deal with racist students in our school, because what it says is not enough. I’m very distraught and saddened and heartbroken by everything that is going on in our school.”

Marjorie Ellis, a 1983 graduate of Decatur High School, also angered by the recent video involving the student making a threat. 

“All of you all in Decatur, I don’t care what color you are, should be pissed, because this is our legacy,” Ellis said. “This ain’t no black-white thing. This is a human thing. There’s no way in hell that a white boy should have the confidence that, ‘I should record this and post it.’ He shouldn’t even have felt like [he] could do this.” 

All of the speakers indicated that the pain and anger go far beyond the Decatur community and a social media post, but extends to many issues which are all rooted in white supremacy: the pattern of recent police brutality incidents, the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, and the Confederate monument which still stands in Decatur Square.

Davis closed the press conference saying, “We want to be very clear: we are not a buffer between the raw emotions and feelings of black people in this city and the government. More and more, we want our elected officials to hear directly from the people who are experiencing, enduring, and feeling this pain. Because somehow, it feels as though you all think that Beacon Hill is creating the situation, that we’re a wedge. We’re not a wedge, we’re the only thing trying to hold this thing together. And so we need you all to understand that black people in Decatur, in this country, are fed up. And there has to be action. And so, my focus is on some short term plans, like, what is going to be the commitment of the city? This runs deeper than the school district. It’s a community issue.”

Davis called on the city to “invest in anti-racist, anti-white supremacist work,” to “root it out.”

“If it can happen anywhere, it can happen in the city of Decatur,” he said. “But the city has to make a commitment to workshops, to spending time. White folks working on white folks! We need you all to get together and fix your damn selves. Stop putting it on us. It’s not our weight to carry. You all know what’s going on. […] Where are the coalitions of white people against racism and white supremacy in the city of Decatur? That’s what we’re calling for is intense, deep work around white supremacy. It takes constant work. We are all ingrained with it. But that’s y’all’s work to do. Don’t lay that on us. We got enough on us. We’re tired. We’re exhausted. […] We need time to process what we have gone through.”

Beacon Hill will hold a protest this Sunday in Decatur Square.

“We’re gonna gather on Sunday, at 12 o’clock right here in the Square,” Davis said. “We’re gonna allow and invite up other voices so that people can be heard in the community. We’re gonna ask everyone to social distance, to wear masks, to wear gloves. But we’re going to call together a community to stand against white supremacy. Stand up and physically be present if you believe these black lives matter.” 

They also plan to have a virtual meeting on Tuesday and a follow-up town hall meeting. “This got off to a rocky start with our city officials .. and my hope is that they understand from hearing these voices, not my voice but these other voices, that we’re in a different place, and we’re not gonna take one step back. We’re not gonna put it off and put it off.”

After the press conference, the Black Student Union discussed amongst themselves possible ways to confront racism within Decatur High School, including an assembly when classes resume.

LaGon and Pettus also released a statement following the press conference.

“Black students feel that we get ZERO respect from white students at Decatur High School and we are sad, fed up, and angry about it. Decatur High School’s past responses to these situations were not enough,” they said. “We don’t want to talk about our feelings on a Zoom call for an hour. We want to know how justice is going to be served to our community and we want to know promptly!”

Correction: An earlier version of this story spelled a name incorrectly. This story has been updated with the correct information. 

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