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Several dozen people gather at the University of Georgia Arch on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 in Athens, Georgia for a “No Place for Hate” rally. Despite the rain, the hour-long rally had several speakers and organizers led chants and songs. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; @taylormckenzie_photo)

A little over a week after the removal of Athens’ downtown Confederate monument, local activists called it a symbolic victory as they greeted a gathered audience near the University of Georgia Arch on Aug. 20. They reiterated it’s time for substantial policy change to protect Black lives.

“I don't even know how excited and thrilled I could be when I feel like we've been having this conversation for literal years,” Imani Scott-Blackwell, one of the speakers at the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement’s Thursday evening rally, said. “I don't think we reached the pinnacle of what progressive Athens really is supposed to be about.” 

Accompanied by the sounds of nearby thunder and rain, car horns loudly honked in solidarity as speakers at the AADM rally took aim at UGA’s reopening policies, the Athens-Clarke County Police Department’s funding and the mayor and commission’s efficacy. The rally demanded changes in the name of racial justice.

Sharing concerns

Standing where the monument once stood, the speakers addressed the crowd of approximately 80 people across the street in front of the UGA Arch, with District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker serving as host.

“Black Lives Matter began in the wake of police violence, and police violence is but one of many facets to the institutional and systemic racism that have marred this nation since its inception,” Parker said.

In addition to calls for defunding the police, AADM hosted the event in solidarity with Sick Out for Public Health and United Campus Workers of Georgia's UGA chapter, sharing their concerns about UGA reopening plans. All three condemned UGA’s plans for especially endangering Black and working-class employees.

Parker read a letter, saying it was written by a Black UGA employee who works on the main campus. Keeping their identity hidden, Parker said the worker didn’t read it at the rally themselves out of fear of retaliation from UGA.

In the letter, the worker said they did not feel like UGA leadership was prioritizing faculty and staff safety, and called for faculty members in positions of power to stand up for them, Parker read.

“I already had one COVID-19 scare and missed a full week of work while waiting to get tested and received my results. I had to use CVS and MinuteClinic because I don't have a primary care physician, and the university is not providing testing for faculty and staff,” Parker said, reading off the letter. “Those are the recipe for disaster when it comes to the propagation of COVID-19 on campus and keeping campus running, so to speak.”

Rayna Jai, a fourth-year student who is triple majoring in sociology, criminal justice and psychology, spoke to the audience and said UGA’s reopening plans aren’t consistent with their promise to seek racial justice.

After receiving backlash for his initial statement this summer, UGA President Jere Morehead released a new statement in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, condemning racism in all of its forms and calling for the university to seek racial justice through thoughtful listening and constructive dialogue.

“Let’s hold them to more [than] words. We need to see actions. We need to see funds created. They want school to be back? We need money,” Jai said. “You’re putting people’s lives on the line. Where is the hospital funds for all those people that we’re putting their lives on the line by being here, by bringing diseases here?”

To promote policies that safeguard Black people, Blackwell called to defund the ACCPD and move toward alternative methods to help people who are in mental crisis. 

“Another pro tip of the day if you haven't heard of before,” Blackwell said. “Most things actually don’t require the militarized arm of the state to respond. I think we can figure out how to direct their own traffic.”

Demands for action

To push for racial justice, AADM has made a list of demands advocating for racial justice, which includes establishing a community police accountability board by the end of the month. 

Parker told The Red & Black ACC Mayor Kelly Girtz assured her the board was coming soon but said she hadn’t been provided with a specific date. Parker later said the community was fed up with waiting and expected this board “yesterday.”

AADM volunteer Aditya Krishnaswamy, another speaker, expressed his criticisms of the Athens Mayor and Commission to the audience, saying it took them three years to remove the monument after AADM co-founder and President Mokah Jasmine Johnson first raised the issue in August 2017.

“We’ve been calling for a police review board for over a year,” Krishnaswamy said. “We had protesters who were tear gas[sed] and arrested for peacefully protesting, and it took two months for them to take any action and [pass] even a resolution to ban tear gas.”

In response to the escalating weather, organizers drew the rally to an early close just before 7 p.m. One audience member, UGA student Indira Washington, said the rain suited the rally well.

“I feel like it made what was said really powerful, and short, and succinct,” she said. “It kind of calmed everything down and it made it really just about having the speaker speak, and everyone else listen, and I enjoyed that.”