The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody feels like a turning point in America, where more people across all kinds of backgrounds have realized that something is wrong and something needs to change.
The momentum of cross-country protests — in communities big and small — has not slowed down and we are as a nation hopefully at the beginning of a long and critical, even if uncomfortable, conversation that is way overdue.
On Thursday, June 11, White Oak Spring Missionary Baptist Church in Winder hosted a virtual “town hall meeting” on race relations. The video, a little longer than an hour and a half, is still available on the church’s Facebook page and well worth a watch. The evening was a productive one as a conversation-starter but the panelists and moderator were in agreement that there is still a long way to go and many conversations to still be had, hopefully with even more input from the Barrow County community in future meetings.
One of the key moments in the evening came when Barrow County sheriff Jud Smith acknowledged what many officials across the country, not just in law enforcement but in government in general, have not always been willing to say publicly: as the parent of white children, he doesn’t have to have the same conversation with them that the parent of a black or brown child does about interactions with law enforcement.
“To me that’s absolutely unacceptable,” Smith said. “Based on my position and career choice, I tell my children to respect law enforcement. Any interaction you have with law enforcement should be respectful. If the officer has done something wrong, if they’re doing something to you, I would ask and caution that you be patient and we can have open dialogue and take care of that deputy or officer if there’s a problem. But I think it’s a travesty that a black mother has to talk to her children about ‘watch out behind you if you get stopped.’”
As Smith noted, hopefully the new national dialogue sparked by another heinous act — the on-camera murder of a man who did not need to die and should not have died for allegedly passing counterfeit money — will eventually move us to the point where we can put that dynamic behind us. At the same time, people like George Floyd and many others haven’t been given that opportunity to sort through problems and issues later or been given their due process in court. And that has to change immediately.
One of the biggest issues at play here is trust between the black and brown community and law enforcement, an issue the five panelists and moderator spoke to during the forum.
“I think as a whole, we’re blessed with good relationships in our community,” Winder police chief Jim Fullington said, noting that his department averages many more hours of police training per officer than required and citing statistics that would indicate a low percentage of incidents locally involve use of police force. “I’m not naïve enough to think there’s not race issues. It’s important to me for the community to feel comfortable talking to me or any officer in any situation. We’re out there trying to do our best in any circumstances.”
Another key moment came when Fullington spoke about the importance of us imagining a walk in each other’s shoes. Certainly, being in law enforcement is a demanding, sometimes dangerous and often not well-paying job.
Officers have to be able to think and react quickly, sometimes in the blink of an eye, and a lot of training and resources go into making sure departments are staffed with competent, capable people making those decisions. Even more effort is likely needed because this is not a profession where you can really afford a couple of “bad apples.”
But we should also consider what Rev. Dervin Caspers, the interim pastor at White Oak Spring and panel moderator, said: Police and the white community need to also envision a walk in a black person’s shoes.
“We have to factor in, as black or brown people, how not to get shot while black,” panelist and community activist Barnard Sims said, adding that there are deeper issues at play beyond just community-police relations.
“A larger discussion and dialogue needs to be held on systemic racism,” Sims said, mentioning issues of access to high-quality health care in the U.S., our country’s overall attitude and approach toward public education and economic inequities among others. “Police officers usually get the blame because they’re the government officials we encounter, but the problem goes much deeper. We can do better and the police can do better. But we need to expand the conversation.”
These were the points that former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick tried to make with his peaceful protests in the form of kneeling during the national anthem before games. You didn’t have to agree with his method, but he wanted us all to listen to the message he was trying to convey and to get to work collectively on solving critical problems. Instead, he was ostracized and left out of work when he was obviously still talented enough to be on an NFL roster. And even though some of his critics have begun to re-examine their views toward his actions, there were more precious years lost as people retreated to their corners in a perceived culture war.
And so, it shouldn’t be difficult to understand when, after so many peaceful protests and demonstrations have fallen on deaf ears of those in power, that the anger, frustration and exhaustion of people would boil over into the burning and destruction of property.
There is no condoning burning a police station or stealing items from a store that aren’t yours, and those actions reported around the country have not all been the work of people protesting racial injustices and discrimination. But the point remains: This could have been avoided a long time ago if more people in a position to directly enact change had listened.
“What do you expect when we’ve been pushed down for so long,” said local pastor and Barrow County native Antwan Harris during the forum.
“While I don’t agree with looting and destroying our hometowns and properties, I do understand,” added Winder city councilwoman Kobi Kilgore. “You didn’t hear us when we were silent.”
So, where do we go from here? How do we repair the trust that is either broken or never was fully there?
Kilgore suggested more face-to-face community interactions from law enforcement like she saw when she was younger. The law enforcement agencies around Barrow hold various community events throughout any given year, but surely there is room for more. We need to get to the point where police in all communities are viewed not as some occupational military force but as true public servants and guardians of their citizens.
As for the broader issues, change most effectively starts at the local level. And that starts with voting, ensuring that every vote is rightfully counted and electing officials who understand the challenges that lie before us.
And the latter starts with better and more productive community interactions in general.
Last week’s panel was unanimous in agreement that there is a need for many other community discussions on race relations and that much of that bringing of people together starts through the efforts of local churches.
“The movement started in the church and will continue to be in the church,” Harris said. “Right now, a lot of preachers and pastors will not use their voices. It’s important for the clergy to be involved in issues around the community.”
“To me, I think the clergy should have a strong influence, and I know specifically here in the past, the clergy have made a difference,” Fullington added.
The panelists mentioned the need for white churches and black churches in the community to work more closely together on coordinating community outreach throughout the entire year and that, across the country, we should all be conscious of who we attend church with and whether there’s an opportunity for more diversity across all congregations.
“We shouldn’t be segregated on Sunday mornings. We serve the same Christ,” Caspers said, adding there are plans for future town hall meetings in the works. “We have to talk. We have to put racism behind us.”
The Barrow County community has taken a promising first step toward confronting difficult issues that the entire nation should be grappling with. But it is just that — a first step. There is much work left to do together, and more people to bring in and be involved in the conversation.
We can’t lose the momentum. And we can no longer afford to ignore the urgency of the moment.