Avondale Estates protesters demand police reform; other protesters show support for police
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This story has been updated.
By Zoe Seiler, contributor
Avondale Estates, GA — Demonstrators on July 18 took to the streets in Avondale Estates to demand City Commission reform the city’s police department while counterdemonstrators showed up afterward to support the city’s police department.
The two views clashed in a minor altercation outside of City Hall on Saturday afternoon. City Hall is located on U.S. 278, also called North Avondale Road. Police stops along the busy road have been a focus for people seeking to reform the city’s police department.
On Saturday afternoon, a group of people gathered outside of City Hall for a demonstration in support of local police. It was part of a nationwide “Back the Blue” rally that was organized by a group called Bridge the Blue.
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The gathering followed an Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice protest held on Saturday morning. The Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice wants the City Commission to adopt 21st Century Policing guidelines and move toward a community policing model.
The Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice said protest drew about 35 to 40 demonstrators. The Back the Blue rally was smaller drawing about seven or eight demonstrators.
At the Back the Blue protest held Saturday afternoon, Avondale resident Meghan Gurley held a “Back the Blue” sign and said she didn’t have an opinion about the issue until she attended the Citizens Police Academy several years ago.
“I really got to see what policing was like from a police person’s perspective,” she said. “I’m still first name basis with several of the officers that taught the class. It’s cool to see them passing by. To think, they don’t know if they’re going to get to go home tonight.”
The pro-police rally took a turn when a Black Lives Matter protester, who only identified herself as Emily, yelled at the group from her car.
“F*** you! I hope you get f****** coronavirus you piece of f****** shit,” Emily shouted. “You have no idea what you’re even standing there holding. Black lives matter, you piece of shit.”
A reporter did not see Emily at the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice protest on Saturday morning and the group’s organizers said she is not a part of the Alliance.
After yelling at the Back the Blue demonstrators, Emily then came back to stand in front of them, holding a Black Lives Matter sign. After a few minutes of standing far in front of Gurley and her sign, the two women argued back and forth, moving closer to North Avondale Road, trying to upstage each other with their signs.
Gurley then approached Emily from behind and reached around her to display the Back the Blue sign. This resulted in an altercation as the two women tried to distance themselves from each other and continued arguing.
Gurley later told Decaturish that Emily had disrupted their peaceful rally.
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Emily, who grew up in Avondale, said she supports the police and thinks changes need to be made to the police department’s operations and funding. She said she stopped at the Back the Blue rally to show people of color who pass through Avondale Estates that there are people in the neighborhood who love them and support them.
Demonstrators at the Back the Blue rally said they stood in front of City Hall to let the police department know that they are supported. Gurley’s husband, Scott, also was in attendance.
“There’s a lot of divisiveness and there’s been a lot of anti-police [rhetoric] so I thought it was important to let them know that not everybody is against them, that they still have supporters,” Scott said. “We understand what they go through. We understand that the majority of them are good.”
He and fellow Back the Blue demonstrator Larry Zagorski said they weren’t aware of any complaints against the department.
Resident Brenda Shugart added that she doesn’t normally protest but thought it was important to show the police department that she supports them. She noted that during the altercation with Gurley, Emily said she would call the police.
“I think we have a good police department. I think it’s well run. We need the police,” Shugart said. “Like the girl (Emily) just said ‘I’ll call the police’ but yet she’s demonstrating against the police. In the long run when there’s a problem everybody calls the police. As we all know there’s bad things that happen from time to time but that doesn’t make all police departments bad.”
The 21st Century Policing guidelines that were the focus of the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice protest were created by a task force under President Barack Obama. The task force made recommendations on aspects of policing including advocating community policing and building trust within the community.
“We want to make it really clear, we totally support the police. 21st Century Policing helps police make sure they have the right training and support they need,” said Lisa Cottrell with the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice.
Zagorksi, with the Back the Blue demonstration, said that the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice’s statements were broad and do not provide specifics on where the police haven’t done their job properly. He said there are no examples.
One issue that has been discussed by the City Commission is traffic stops on U.S. 278 and the race of people who are pulled over. City Manager Patrick Bryant said at a City Commission meeting held on June 17 that Black people usually track around 75% of all traffic citations and warnings throughout any given year, Decaturish previously reported.
“We were told also by the city manager after we had them run that report that 80% of the citations were for Black and people of color and Avondale is 85% white,” Cottrell said. “I understand that we have a state highway going through that a lot of people of color travel on, but I don’t know that we need to make income off of our neighbors in that way.”.
Zagorski said he understands why there are so many traffic stops along the busy road.
“Of course, people coming through Avondale Estates are always ripping through here during rush hour,” Zagorski said. “Of course, there’s more tickets. How [that relates] to racism is beyond me. That’s a real stretch in logic. Wait a minute, they’re doing their job. [The drivers are] breaking the law speeding through Avondale.”
Cottrell, with the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice, said that there’ve been many complaints about perceived over-policing of parents at Avondale Estates Elementary School, which also is located on U.S. 278, and that parents get pulled over often. The group is asking the City Commission to get rid of a speed trap and improve signage for the speed limit around the school.
Sarah Galatioto-Ruff, one of the organizers of the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice, said the group is advocating for more community input in policing.
“We want a friendly relationship with our police,” she said. “We want them to know that we want to be part of what they’re doing.”
Galatioto-Ruff and Cottrell both clarified that the group doesn’t have an us-versus-them mentality. Their goal is not to divide the neighborhood.
“We’re specifically using language like ‘reform’ and ‘review’ and not ‘defund’ and things like that because we do want this to be a community effort that everyone can get on board with and not create this nasty division,” Galatioto-Ruff said.
Another demand the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice has made is to have the City Commission hire a third party consultant with knowledge and experience in civil rights and policing, which members of the City Commission agreed to consider at the June 17 work session.
Other demands of the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice include:
– Moving toward a community policing model
– Reviewing and updating policies, training and data collection on use of force and racial profiling
– Decreasing the percentage of citations given to people of color
– Increasing the transparency of data, policies and procedures
Commissioner Lionel Laratte, Avondale Estates’ first and only Black city commissioner, and his family attended the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice protest. He also briefly attended the Back the Blue protest but left after the altercation between Emily and Gurley started.
Laratte said he doesn’t see anything problematic with what the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice is asking the City Commission to do.
“In my view, I’m an elected official and I have meetings and I talk to my colleagues and work with them on different things,” Laratte said. “But I think that having things like this where people turn out is the closest thing that you can get to direct democracy where people let their representatives know what they are for. It’s good.”
Here are additional photos from Saturday’s demonstrations in Avondale Estates:
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to the mayor. The quote should have been attributed to the city manager. This story has been updated with the correct information.
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