Local leaders respond to 2020: A year of obstacles, unrestProtestors gathered on the Decatur Square for a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration on June 3, 2020. Photo by Dean Hesse.
Editor’s note: This story orginally appeared in the April 2021 Decaturish e-edition, a monthly product for our paying supporters. To become a paying supporter of Decaturish, visit supportmylocalnews.com.
By Logan C. Ritchie and Zoe Seiler
Decatur, GA — One year ago, March 2020, saw the beginning of a new era. Data reports were grim, and often confusing to readers and journalists. Without a plan, schools, offices and government operations began closing. Optimistic parents started creating nooks for schooling at home, while stores ran low on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and masks became an expression of fashion and politics.
Families were seen taking long walks. People made sourdough bread from scratch. Trees bloomed and birds sang. But there was no denying the uncertainty, fear and illness that lingered as we remained stuck at home.
In the midst of the crisis, social unrest erupted over the killing of Black people by law enforcement officers. A few of the lives we wept for include Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga. on Feb. 23, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. on March 13, George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta on June 12.
Social and racial justice would no longer take a back seat under the nation’s crumbling leadership. People took to the streets, marching and carrying signs to demonstrate their heartbreak, distress and rage.
In Decatur Square, a Confederate memorial was removed at midnight on a Thursday in June — the day before Juneteenth, a national holiday to mark the freedom of enslaved Black people in the U.S.
At the helm, elected officials and community leaders delivered messages to the people of DeKalb County. Some believed in resiliency from the start, others floundered right alongside us. Decaturish asked them to reflect on the past year, and what stands out the most.
Avondale Estates Mayor Jonathan Elmore
March 16 comes to mind for Avondale Estates Mayor Jonathan Elmore as the day he and his family realized COVID-19 was a serious issue. They watched the news and saw the global nature of the virus, but weren’t too alarmed yet.
The realization came when schools shut down and his three children were suddenly learning virtually from home. City Commission meetings moved to Zoom as City Hall closed. The outbreak in Albany, Ga., after two funerals, showed the seriousness and lethality of the virus, Elmore said.
Elmore felt the biggest challenge his city faced was how the state handled the pandemic. Orders from the governor could have coordinated better with the cities, he said. But it was difficult for local officials to create and enforce resolutions like mask mandates.
“I never understood that. Like why would you not engage law enforcement that willingly wants to help in your efforts to protect people in the state,” Elmore asked. “If there ever was a time where you needed to work together that was it. I felt like we got completely pushed aside.”
Carol Calvert and Lisa Cottrell, Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice
In spite of the pandemic, residents of Avondale Estates got together to advocate for racial justice and establish a new local organization. Carol Calvert and Lisa Cottrell felt called to respond to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and take protests to the street, while following COVID-19 safety guidelines.
“Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice was created in June with the mission to show up and do anti-racism work in our own community and beyond through activism, education and community building,” Calvert said. “Creating a grassroots organization during a pandemic has definitely had challenges, especially around community building, but we are proud of the work we have been able to do so far.”
Hundreds of people lined North Avondale Road for a protest in June 2020. The AARJ has held monthly protests and events ever since to ask the City Commission to implement the 21st century policing guidelines and review the city’s police policies and procedures, Cottrell said.
“While we had protested in years past, the blatant overuse of force in the George Floyd murder was more than we could continue to witness without acting and demanding immediate change,” Cottrell said.
Clarkston Mayor Beverly Burks
The state started to shut down in early March 2020 as Clarkston Mayor Beverly Burks went into surgery during her final set of breast cancer treatments, while also in the middle of a mayoral campaign.
“It was an awakening, but I tried to see the benefits and the beauty of the situation and tried to make the best of the situation,” Burks said. “It was going to be rough anyway but then what can we do and how can we make the most of this time that we have?”
Clarkston residents were displaced as a result of COVID-19 and couldn’t do certain jobs. The city provided $900,000 in rent and mortgage assistance and this brought the importance of workforce development to Burks’ attention.
Clarkston is often referred to as the most diverse square mile in the U.S. Racial justice is an ongoing issue in the community. Burks is complimentary of the police department but also recognizes there is always room for improvement.
“So that’s one of the reasons why I came up with the police task force, so that we can look at what we’re doing, see how we can improve our training so that our officers are better in terms of how they engage with the community,” Burks said.
Decatur Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers
For Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers, daily reports of COVID-19 crippling Europe in early February were the early indicators that 2020 would be very different. While he admitted it is difficult to summarize all the events that have transpired during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said he is “grateful to our community for the resilience shown while navigating this crisis.”
Powers noted Decatur already had a pandemic plan in place when COVID-19 hit. He named voter turnout, mask mandates, social distancing, social justice and equity as standout issues.
“There were many challenges that faced all of Decatur. We grappled with some of our most vulnerable school aged children learning in a virtual environment. I recognize that not every household had the same resources to equip children to learn in a digital world. There were a number of peaceful protests in and around the square for several weeks,” he said, adding the Decatur Police Department did a remarkable job of keeping protestors and spectators safe.
Other challenges in the city were homelessness and funding for small businesses. Decatur received three rounds of funding from the CARES Act that was awarded to local businesses and nonprofits.
“I would be remiss in also mentioning the record voter turnout during this pandemic. We must now be equally vigilant to ensure that access to voting is not taken away. We will continue to get into ‘good trouble,’” Powers said.
Dr. S. Elizabeth Ford, DeKalb County Board of Health
Dr. S. Elizabeth Ford, DeKalb County’s director of health, appeared regularly at meetings to detail COVID-19 numbers, testing sites and vaccination distribution. DeKalb County is currently reporting 900 COVID-related deaths and more than 53,000 positive cases. Among all persons diagnosed with COVID-19 in DeKalb County, 7.9% needed hospitalization and 1.6% died. Forty three percent of people who had COVID-19 in DeKalb County are Black.
Ford oversaw a county hit hard by physical health, food insecurity and job loss.
On her greatest challenge during 2020, Ford said, “Clearly, countless challenges have presented themselves in the midst of the pandemic. One of the greatest was the toll the pandemic took on my own team, my own workforce. Everything that happened in the world — illness, hospitalizations, death — also happened to my staff. Yet, there was an expectation that we could test everyone, vaccinate everyone, and perform contact tracing — with a workforce reduced dramatically due to medical fragility or childcare issues related to school closures. We were expected to do three times the work with one third of the staff.”
Tucker Mayor Frank Auman
Tucker Mayor Frank Auman recalled the announcement he made in a video to Tucker on March 13, 2020.
“It was like walking into a dark room,” he said. “We didn’t know anything except that there was danger. We don’t know where it was, or how big it was, or how to defend ourselves from it, and certainly not how to beat it in the end. [I am] super proud of how Tucker’s responded.”
He added, “We’ve had a lot of obstacles to get over in the last year, but ever since then it’s been like the lights have been coming on bit by bit, and we’re finding our way. I think we’re very close to the end now.”
Tucker was awarded $4.1 million in CARES Act funds by DeKalb County, some of which was distributed to residents in need of food, rent, mortgage and utility assistance.
Emory Morsberger, Tucker Summit CID
As executive director of the Tucker Summit Community Impact District (CID), Emory Morsberger says he is looking to the future. He reflected the ways in which 2020 is moving Tucker into a place of progress.
“The way we live, work and play is about to drastically change. There will be a major movement to the suburbs from Atlanta, both from offices and residential units. A lot of people who don’t want to drive to a meeting and face traffic will not have to do that anymore. Not when they can log into a meeting from where they live. It’s going to change how and where people live and work,” Morsberger said.
State Sen. Kim Jackson (D-41)
State Sen. Kim Jackson realized that the pandemic wasn’t going to last for just a little while as colleges cancelled graduation ceremonies. She took the pandemic seriously, especially as her brother-in-law in New York City got COVID-19 and was on a ventilator.
The cancelled graduations also seemed to be the trigger for people to cancel summer weddings that Jackson was set to officiate. She is a priest at Church of the Common Ground.
She remembers being fearful for the homeless community she serves if they got sick. She couldn’t find people. The day before shutting down her church she handed out cards and asked people to provide contact information for family so she could find relatives if they died.
Jackson, a 15-year resident of Stone Mountain, has never seen so much public hunger. She described a long line of cars at the local YMCA on food distribution day. It was challenging to connect people to food banks and pantries.
“It’s one thing to grieve all of the different family gatherings that we didn’t get to have,” Jackson said. “It’s another thing to think about families and children being hungry.”
The summer of 2020 was the first time that social justice advocates had to consider whether they should take to the streets to protest as the Black Lives Matter movement was re-energized in the middle of a pandemic.
“Suddenly protesting had a real, life threatening manner to it and yet the issue of racism is clearly life threatening too,” Jackson said. “I think those tensions were clear and highlighted and amplified in ways that made that protest, I think, all the more powerful and me all the more grateful for the people who made the calculations and decided that the risk was worth it.”
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock
Toward the end of 2020, Georgia saw contentious general and runoff elections as both Senate seats were up for grabs. In a historic vote, Georgia sent two Democrats to the U.S. Senate including Sen. Raphael Warnock at the beginning of 2021.
Warnock is thankful to voters for choosing him to represent them and their families.
“And following this once-in-a-century public health crisis and economic downturn that has threatened businesses, disrupted education for our state’s students and claimed the lives of countless loved ones, I’m glad Georgia made it possible for Congress to pass expansive COVID relief,” Warnock said in a statement.
The pandemic has illuminated and exacerbated longstanding disparities in the community and Warnock is glad Congress passed legislation to send direct payments to individuals, strengthen funding for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, support small businesses and local governments, and more.
“It is the honor of my life to serve the people of Georgia and bring our issues to the forefront of legislation in Washington D.C,” Warnock said. “This past year has been dark, but together, with unwavering faith and perseverance, better days are coming.”
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