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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.

Jacqueline GaNun is a junior at the University of Georgia studying journalism, international affairs and French. She has held multiple roles on The Red & Black's news desk, including news editor and coronavirus reporter.

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