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Citizens wait in line outside City Hall in Athens, Georgia on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. The public was invited to comment on the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget online or in person. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; @taylormckenzie_photo)

Hundreds of people gathered outside Athens City Hall on Tuesday to protest and speak at the public input meeting for the county fiscal year 2021 budget proposal. Many voiced support or opposition for a proposal to reduce the budget and number of officers for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department.

Protesters began gathering around 3 p.m. for an “End Slavery in Athens” rally that was opposed to the use of convict labor. A remote ACC Mayor and Commission agenda-setting meeting began at 6 p.m., with a public input session held in City Hall.

The protest was mostly peaceful, although a brief altercation occurred around 5 p.m. when a group of people protesting racial injustice moved to occupy the City Hall steps facing College Avenue.

Protesters were dancing and playing music when a white counterprotester pulled one of the protesters down from the steps. Both sides yelled at each other, but the tension eventually passed without police stepping in.

“It was clear to me that the counterprotesters who were talking about supporting the police and increasing police were not there to be peaceful, that they were totally okay with violence,” said Alden DiCamillo, who was at the protest.

Jasmine Burgess, an Athens native, helped organize the protest. Burgess, who said she has protested several times throughout the past few weeks and was tear-gassed by ACC police on May 31, said she was in favor of the proposal to reduce the police budget.

“I’m just here for the movement, I love to see everybody get together,” Burgess said. “I just think it’s fucked up how Athens-Clarke County Police Department tear-gassed peaceful protesters.”

Gordon Rhoden, the chairman of the Athens Republican Party, helped organize the opposition to the budget proposal.

“We have a lot of concerns with the commission … We’re hoping the commissioners will see … that there is a different side of Athens-Clarke County,” Rhoden said on behalf of the counterprotesters.

The budget plan, called the 50/10 plan, was proposed by ACC Commissioners Mariah Parker (District 2) and Tim Denson (District 5). It would reduce the size of the ACCPD by 50% over the next 10 years, diverting funds to social workers and other social programs.

Due to the coronavirus, police officers limited the number of individuals inside the building. Over 100 people spoke during the public comment period, which took around four and a half hours.

Jeremiah Sims said during the public comment period he didn’t support the proposed plan because he didn’t want to see police presence decrease in Athens. He said he grew up in the “inner city parts of Athens,” including Nellie B. Apartments and Broadacres Apartments.

“When there is a lack of authority in a place, chaos begins to come in,” Sims said.

Most people spoke in support of the 50/10 plan. Many cited a need for mental health professionals in the community. James Simmons said he supported the gradual decrease of police and the diversion of funds to social workers, restorative justice and mental health professionals.

“The question is not whether or not systemic racism exists — it does — the question is, what are we gonna do about it right now?” Simmons said. “We have an opportunity to do something right now, we have an opportunity to move away from small, gradual reform and do something courageous and bold … anything else is simply a half-measure.”

Some speakers said the 50/10 plan didn’t go far enough to support the Black community in Athens. Local activist Imani Scott-Blackwell said it didn’t address the needs of incarcerated people.

“I wish I could say I was here to speak in support of the 50/10 plan, I really do, but it’s not even close to enough,” Scott-Blackwell said. “It’s not just the police that are killing people that are the problem. Families are separated by the result of incarceration. We know that the trauma that comes from taking people away from their families is setting off generations of damage.”

Langston Leake, a recent University of Georgia graduate, said the allocation to the police department in the budget is a “truly ridiculous amount of money.” He said he would like to see the money go to other parts of the city, including public transportation, affordable housing and public health centers, in order to help the people who live in Athens.

“I believe that the 50/10 plan is a good start, but I should emphasize that it’s a start,” Leake said. “Until Athens-Clarke County Police Department is defunded, and that $25 million goes towards addressing the root of the social problems that continue to oppress the citizens in Athens, we will continue to have this same discussion again and again and again.”

Editor’s note: The Red & Black used a livestream of the public comment period for the names of commenters, who did not spell their names out.

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(3) comments

agcorley

I would like to clarify two points about the protests, namely, the physical altercation and the order in which speakers were allowed into the chamber. I will try to do so without bias to either side.

The physical altercation, if you can call it that, was early in the event. I arrived a few minutes late, before either party was at full strength. The BLM group had a speaker set up and was giving various orations while the pro-police group was waiting for their speakers to arrive. The former group spoke and held their signs while the latter chatted in small groups, handed out American flags, and listened to the BLM speaker a bit. Neither group was terribly energetic at the time.

A few minutes after I arrived the pro-police group gathered before the steps of city hall so that they could begin speaking, though their guests had not yet arrived and they had no amplification. This was short-lived, however, as they were interrupted by the BLM group after less than a full minute. I must here make the point that the pro-police group had in no way interfered with the BLM speakers or protesters.

The BLM group rushed to the steps above the pro-police group and stood close in front of them, as well as close at the sides. They began shouting, cursing, chanting, dancing, waving their signs over the speaker’s head, and perhaps most importantly, playing “F the police” as loud as they could from their speaker. There was little the pro-police group could do, since, as stated, they had no amplification system. For the most part they tried to ignore the BLM group.

I was standing among the pro-police group, and even if I was looking at the incident when it happened, I would not have had a good view. From what I understand one of the pro-police ralliers tried to take the speaker, and in so doing knocked a BLM protester down. I did not see if she was standing on the railing when she fell, but she was lying at the top of the stairs. Next came several minutes of shouting and arguing. This, however, died down when the pro-police group was able to get a megaphone and begin speaking, though the BLM group once more began blasting their music over the other party.

The matter of how citizens were lined up to speak to the commissioners is comparatively simple. The line was originally supposed to start at the front door. However, as you have seen from the pictures, the BLM group was standing on those stairs, blocking sight of the front door and doubtless leading many to wonder where the line was supposed to be.

I was told at ~5:45 that, since the BLM group was blocking the stairs, the line was moving to the side door. This was passed up the line by word of mouth, and everyone walked to the side door. From what I could see the line was mostly composed of those supporting the police at the front, and it stayed that way for some time. The BLM group continued protesting for some time longer before a large number of them also joined the line, so that the first half was mostly pro-police, the second half mostly anti-police. I have no idea why BLM didn’t join the line when it moved. They saw it moving, but perhaps they did not hear the news of it moving. As stated, BLM used a loud speaker and shouted almost constantly. I am sure they were well aware of the line moving, however, because some of them were heckling those standing in line as they waited.

agcorley

I didn’t mean to post that twice

agcorley

I would like to clarify two points about the protests, namely, the physical altercation and the order in which speakers were allowed into the chamber. I will try to do so without bias to either side.

The physical altercation was early in the event. I arrived a few minutes late, before either party was at full strength. The BLM group had a speaker set up and was giving various orations while the pro-police group was waiting for their speakers to arrive. The former group spoke and held their signs while the latter chatted in small groups, handed out American flags, and listened to the BLM speaker a bit. Neither group was terribly energetic at the time.

A few minutes after I arrived the pro-police group gathered before the steps of city hall so that they could begin speaking, though their guests had not yet arrived and they had no amplification. This was short-lived, however, as they were interrupted by the BLM group after less than a full minute. I must here make the point that the pro-police group had in no way interfered with the BLM speakers or protesters.

The BLM group rushed to the steps above the pro-police group and stood close in front of them, as well as close at the sides. They began shouting, cursing, chanting, dancing, waving their signs over the speaker’s head, and perhaps most importantly, playing “F the police” as loud as they could from their speaker. There was little the pro-police group could do, since, as stated, they had no amplification system. For the most part they tried to ignore the BLM group.

I was standing among the pro-police group, and even if I was looking at the incident when it happened, I would not have had a good view. From what I understand one of the pro-police ralliers tried to take the speaker, and in so doing knocked a BLM protester down. I did not see if she was standing on the railing when she fell, but she was lying at the top of the stairs. Next came several minutes of shouting and arguing. This, however, died down when the pro-police group was able to get a megaphone and begin speaking, though the BLM group once more began blasting their music over the other party.

The matter of how citizens were lined up to speak to the commissioners is comparatively simple. The line was originally supposed to start at the front door. However, as you have seen from the pictures, the BLM group was standing on those stairs, blocking sight of the front door and doubtless leading many to wonder where the line was supposed to be.

I was told at ~5:45 that, since the BLM group was blocking the stairs, the line was moving to the side door. This was passed up the line by word of mouth, and everyone walked to the side door. From what I could see the line was mostly composed of those supporting the police at the front, and it stayed that way for some time. The BLM group continued protesting for some time longer before a large number of them also joined the line, so that the first half was mostly pro-police, the second half mostly anti-police. I have no idea why BLM didn’t join the line when it moved. They saw it moving, but perhaps they did not hear the news of it moving. As stated, BLM used a loud speaker and shouted almost constantly. I think that they simply did not hear that the line was moving. At the time I left the event the side door was still being used, though they may have used the front door once the BLM protesters dissipated.

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