Janice Mathis with Rainbow Push Coalition says she’s never seen anything like it, nothing so deliberate and focused on a particular incident that was about to happen. According to Mathis, “I’ve seen meetings sort of like this in the aftermath of Jena, or in the aftermath of Trayvon, but I’ve never seen anything like this in preparation for an announcement.”
Close to 200 metro Atlanta law men and women, administrators from various jurisdictions, members of clergy and civil rights organizations, along with high school and college students gathered Thursday afternoon inside the chambers of the DeKalb County School Board. They were there, according to DeKalb County Public Safety Director Dr. Cedric Alexander, “to address how individual entities were planning for incidents that may occur as a result of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri.” In addition he said the briefing “was to review how the region is collaborating to ensure metro Atlanta communities remain safe and are not negatively impacted by events that may unfold in Ferguson.”
The grand jury will determine whether or not criminal charges will be brought against white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the August 9, 2014, shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The killing of Brown sparked protests in and outside of Ferguson, including Atlanta.
At Thursday’s planning meeting, held at the headquarters of the DeKalb County School District, Dr. Alexander called on individual representatives from city and county police departments, members of the civil rights and ministerial communities, as-well-as students from local high schools and colleges. They provided details as to how they are preparing for what could happen in their areas once the grand jury’s decision is announced.
Georgia State Patrol Captain Nikki Renfroe called the meeting “vitally important and very necessary in order to bring the community together with law enforcement and so many other entities.” Renfro adding, “this is the beginning of great dialogue and that’s what it takes in order to come to an understanding. We have to be able to come together and talk.”
Deputy Chief Ernest Finley, with the Atlanta Police Department said, “It’s all about engagement, enrichment, and also communication.” Following the meeting Finley said, “one message that we want to make clear is about peace and quality of life for everybody that choose to protest or choose to go to a route. We want to make sure that they’re safe and secure, but also we want to make sure that we give them that right and that opportunity to voice their concerns.”
DeKalb NAACP President John Evans said “they’re preparing themselves for whatever might come about. We are fired up and ready to go.” Asked about his message to the community, Evans said, “We have to protect our rights to peacefully protest. If something should happen to that, we have to have law enforcement and others involved. We just have to be ready, we have to know how to talk to people, and know how to quiet the conditions.”
DeKalb County Interim CEO Lee May called Thursday’s meeting “an opportunity to learn from what we saw in Ferguson, but also to prepare for whatever may come forward here in the Atlanta metro area.” Fire, police, and sheriffs were represented, along with school systems, clergy and civil rights organizations. May said, “it really reflects a coordination of efforts in preparation. We’re at the intersection now of public safety and politics when we bring in the question of how do we protect all citizens.”
Michael Thurmond, the DeKalb Schools Superintendent and host of the meeting, said, “Lives have been saved today. I think this will continue to resonate throughout the law enforcement community. We’re building bridges, we’re closing the gap, engaging the community in a positive way.” In his address to the gathering, Thurmond said that he has 45,000 potential Trayvon Martins and Michael Browns in his district each day. “We don’t want them to become another statistic”, said Thurmond. The DeKalb Superintendent added that’s the reason that he and other superintendents around metro Atlanta embraced the idea of such a meeting, saying “We want to protect our young men and young women. We don’t need another Ferguson, or another Trayvon and I’m going to do everything in my power to prevent it.”
Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was shot and killed, February 26, 2012, by a Sanford, Florida, neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman. On July 13, 2013, Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing the 17 year old. The verdict sparked protests nationwide, including Atlanta.
Thurmond told me that what really impressed him about this week’s meeting was that there was “a commitment to protecting the right to protest, recognizing that there are concerns, there are issues, but at-the-same-time, saying that it must be done in a lawful way that respects life and property.” Thurmond added, “We are here together proactive, not just waiting, not reacting, but trying to actually solve the problem, trying to improve the relationship between law enforcement and our communities.”
Meeting organizer and moderator Dr. Alexander thought the meeting was “very important.” He said that he didn’t think that “historically anything of this magnitude has ever occurred in this community so I think that makes it very unique.” Alexander added “more importantly it wasn’t just a meeting to meet, there is effective communication going back and forth, sharing of communication, having access and contact with each other from our respective jurisdictions.
When I asked Dr. Alexander about his message to the public, he said, “Wait and see. Regardless of what you hear, do not attend to rumors and innuendo, wait for the grand jury’s ruling to come out of Ferguson, and whatever it is, we should conduct ourselves accordingly and in a professional manner.”
Whenever the grand jury decision is announced, local organizers say there will be rallies held at Underground Atlanta and at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in Atlanta.