The deadly violence that broke out after white nationalist demonstrators and counter protesters clashed in Charlottesville, Virginia has concerned many Athens-area residents — especially as discussions of removing local confederate monuments increase.
Most prominently in Athens, groups such as the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement and community members such as Mokah Johnson have advocated for the removal of the “Soldiers’ Monument” on Broad Street.
The intensity of this debate makes many of the members of the Athens chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People anxious, said Tommie Farmer, the chairwoman of the chapter’s education committee.
“As many people I know who want the monument [in downtown Athens] taken down, there are just as many who want it to stay,” Farmer said.
The anxiety of the members of her organization prompted the NAACP to invite Athens-Clarke County Police Chief Scott Freeman to speak on the response his team would have if any potential protests by white nationalist groups such as the KKK in the area turned violent.
The main concern of the group was how the police department prepares for protest events and the general plans they would implement in the case a demonstration turned violent.
Each group of protesters that desires to gather in a public place, such as downtown near the UGA Arch or in front of City Hall, is required to request a permit from the police department. Freeman said each of these groups is vetted for potential for violence.
But Freeman said the police department is not only responsible for public safety. It is also tasked with protecting each citizen’s right to free speech under the First Amendment.
Freeman said he has in the past been in charge of protecting the right of groups, such as the KKK, with which he said he has nothing in common.
But, whether or not he agrees, the police force still has an obligation to follow the constitution which protects free speech.
Achieving the right balance of maintaining safety and protecting speech can be difficult, he said, and “police are really put smack dab in the middle.”
Freeman said the department would only be able to deny a permit to protest in the most severe of circumstances.
If two groups were protesting topics opposing one another on the same day — or if non-permitted individuals or small groups of people began to counter protest — Freeman said the main tactics of the police would be separation and de-escalation.
Freeman said the goal of the police department would be to keep opposing groups completely apart, “so there is no propensity for violence.”
Freeman believes the violence seen in past events such as Charlottesville escalate when they are not handled by police properly and those individuals inciting a disturbance are not dealt with effectively or officials overreact and begin arresting everyone involved.
If violence were to occur in Athens, Freeman said the department would concentrate on removing the individuals inciting violence.
“We will maintain law and order in this county,” he said.
Chief Freeman met the NAACP chapter at Friendship Baptist Church at 7 p.m. on Sept. 7.