Decatur City Commission discusses racial tensions, MLK historical marker, and anti-racist actionRev. Martin Luther King, head-and-shoulders portrait, seated, facing front, hands extended upward, during a press conference / World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico. Photo given to the Library of Congress and obtained via Wikimedia Commons
Decatur, GA — Monday night’s Decatur City Commission meeting was one focused on recognizing the city’s marginalized residents.
It began with a proclamation of June as Pride Month and included the City Commission’s support for a historical marker commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The meeting ended with a frank discussion about racism.
In presenting the proclamation of Pride Month, Mayor Patti Garrett referenced Decatur’s Better Together initiative, as well as the non-discrimination ordinance that was adopted in November 2019. She highlighted Decatur’s “steadfast belief in the equality of all people.” She stated that a pride flag will be flown at City Hall.
Commissioner Lesa Mayer introduced Decatur High School student Genesis Reddicks, who presented her and her committee’s research project, “Commemorating King: A Decatur Story.”
“We are working on a campaign to erect a marker which will recognize the event of when Martin Luther King was actually sentenced to a chain gang in Decatur, right across from Decatur City Hall, and how that actually changed the entire tide of the Civil Rights movement and the political aspect of the country as well,” Reddicks said.
Reddicks and other members of the Black Student Union at Decatur High School conducted historical research surrounding the incident, including interviewing living Civil Rights figures and reviewing documents from the Dekalb History Center. The group plans to submit their application for a marker to the Georgia Historical Society on June 15th, 2020.
The research group asked the City Commission to become the third sponsor of their marker project, which needs to raise $2,500 before October. The City Commission approved the motion and will become the project’s third sponsor.
“[These students] really brought the story to light,” City Manager Andrea Arnold said. “It’s remarkable that there’s this extremely significant piece of history that took place right here in downtown Decatur, and I guarantee you that most people in this city aren’t aware of that. This group has done something so positive to bring this to light, and their work will be there for generations to come if this marker happens.”
During the Requests and Petitions segment, Clare Schexnyder spoke on behalf of the newly-formed Decatur Anti-Racist Coalition. A resident of Decatur and member of the coalition, Clare Schexnyder said that the new organization has 200 members so far and their goal is eradicating racism in the city of Decatur through anti-racist education.
The coalition is asking the city of Decatur and the City Schools of Decatur to move forward with a clear, coherent joint mission statement that “racism is unacceptable in our city — by its staff, administration, businesses, families, and communities.”
The group made the following demands of the city and school district:
1. Clarify the code of conduct for the City Schools of Decatur to include clear language on racism being unacceptable, and having the code of conduct stated in a way that students understand the consequences. The Decatur High School Black Student Union has requested clarity on the policy and the assurance that it is being enforced.
2. Enact immediately anti-racist training for citizens of our city. This can be available online for all as soon as possible. Training should be offered during the day, in the evenings, and on weekends on a regular, monthly, ongoing basis. The Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights has a meeting scheduled with the Mayor, Mayor Pro Tem, the Chief of Police, and the School Superintendent to discuss this further.
3. Enact anti-racist classes that are mandatory for school-aged children at all levels, from College Heights all the way up to Decatur High. Classes should be delivered by trained faculty and staff. The coalition suggested small-group counseling can occur as well so that peer-to-peer discussion can occur later. The Black Student Union recommends that racism be given the same attention as drug prevention in the City Schools of Decatur. They mentioned having experts of color lead school assemblies and talks on a monthly basis, where they can speak, and the burden and responsibility of addressing racism can be lifted from the students. This can happen at all levels of the school system.
4. Requiring all staff, administration, and teachers to take Beyond Diversity, Courageous Conversations, Multi-Tier System of Supports, and Restorative Justice training.
5. Putting restorative justice in place in the school system now. Restorative justice is a system of justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims in the community at large.
6. Requiring anti-racist training for all staff, employees, and business owners holding a business license in the city.
7. Providing better tracking and reporting on the use of force by the city of Decatur Police officers.
Schexnyder also stated it would be helpful to evaluate the impact of the city’s Better Together Initiative, which focuses on equity issues, and whether that initiative has helped the community.
Michael Johnson, a resident of the city, said, “Speaking to you guys as a Black man, as a citizen of Decatur, as a father, I am asking my commissioners to do better. What I mean by that is I feel like your response to this particular situation, and other situations that have happened over the past few months, there’s no real direct course on which way we’re going.”
Johnson questioned what his tax money is paying for.
“I sit here as a taxpayer,” he said. “You guys send me a bill twice a year, the line item on that bill, over 51% of it comes from the schools. And I know the city of Decatur schools and our government are somewhat separate, but I give you a message to give to them: I don’t have a child in the school system. Right? What’s my return on investment? A child waving a gun, calling me the N-word? I really urge you to do better. I look at you, Commissioner Powers, and Commissioner Mayer, you guys should be at the helm of this. I voted for you guys. You owe me, and everybody else in this town, the right to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
“And what is gonna happen if it happens again? Please let me know. Because right now, as it stands, the last thing I heard from you guys I heard from Mayor Garrett with her speech that she did in front of City Hall. We talked about breathing and COVID and everything else. We didn’t say how we’re going to deal with this. This, right here, right now. Because as it stands, I have a bill that’s due to you guys … I’m giving my hard-earned money towards the education of some of these children, and they’re gonna spit in my face by calling me that word? You gotta do better. You gotta have my back. … How does that turn into a bad return on investment? I had a family, a Black family who was thinking of moving into Decatur, call me and say they started rethinking whether or not they even want to be a part of this.”
During the closing comments, many of the city commissioners expressed their feelings on the racial tension that has affected the city of Decatur within the past few weeks, and the broader situation of country-wide protests against police brutality that have taken place this past weekend.
Commissioner Mayer addressed the recent racist incidents in the Decatur community, including videos of Decatur High students using racial slurs.
“I am not my usual upbeat self, as you can probably tell,” she said. “It’s been a devastatingly rough week for most of us, if not all of us in the community. I am intentionally raising my three sons in Decatur, Georgia. I live here because I want my sons to be raised in an environment where they will be safe and respected. I am very happy that we have taken the first step to making sure we are funding town halls, or classes, or whatever it is that we need to start working on creating an environment that is completely inclusive to all people where all people can feel respected and racism is nonexistent. But that also requires followthrough and expedited followthrough of the implementation of these town hall meetings and these classes.”
Local activists held a press conference on Friday to address the racist incidents that have taken place in Decatur over the last several weeks.
“I bear a unique and deep responsibility as someone who you have trusted to ensure that what you need from this community is brought to the table, and there’s always more that we can do,” Mayer said.
Commissioner George Dusenbury said commissioners of color should not bear the brunt of this anti-racism work.
“I worry that we have not done enough,” Dusenbury said, referring to himself and his white colleagues. “I think that we all need to accept that burden. We need to be pushing those conversations, we need to be anti-racist, we need to be vigilant. I think that burden falls upon the white community more so than the Black community.”
Commissioner Kelly Walsh said while she usually looks forward to the City Commission meeting’s closing comments where commissioners discuss festivals and congratulate each other on achievements, she recognizes the seriousness of the situation.
“That’s fun, but as we’ve eked our way through this pandemic and this shutdown period, our comments have become increasingly personal and emotional and I’m okay with that,” she said. “In some cases, words are all we have, and I’m not talking about speeches or polemics or platitudes. What I want for everyone in this community is to feel welcomed, and respected, and [to feel] a sense of belonging. I’m really sorry that we have neighbors and friends who don’t feel that way now and haven’t felt that in a while. And we have work to do.”
Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers also emphasized the power of meaningful work.
“We all must do this together,” Powers said. “We are faced with probably the most difficult time I know in my lifetime, where I am afraid of being a Black man. And it shouldn’t be that way. So tonight was the first step of what we can do as leaders in our community to start the healing process, and start hearing what’s going on. Hearing what our young people are saying. But it can’t end here. It can’t be about fancy speeches, about throwing money at a problem, and metrics. We have to put this work in. It’s gonna be uncomfortable. It’s gonna be difficult. There may be people who move out of the region. I’m pledging to be better, and I know the four people I serve with do the same thing. We can’t do this alone.”
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