When Cameron Harrelson moved to Athens in 2013, Athens PRIDE wasn’t a festival. It was just a picnic tucked away in a park. In 2019, the Athens PRIDE festival expanded over two blocks downtown with a crowd of thousands of people.
As Harrelson, an Athens resident and vice president of Athens PRIDE, walked away from the 2019 festival back in September, he thought about how the Athens community could showcase year-round how much the LGTBQ community has grown.
That’s when the idea to paint a rainbow crosswalk was born.
“I wanted people to know, not that the government is accepting people, but that we are an accepting people,” said Harrelson. “I talked with people on the Athens PRIDE board, people in my friend group and those in our community that are further marginalized by race and gender identity, and we felt a rainbow crosswalk could represent us in a public way.”
In October 2019, Harrelson created a petition on Change.org for the Athens-Clarke County government to dedicate a space in the community for a rainbow crosswalk.
The petition became hugely popular and gained support almost overnight, Harrelson said. Harrelson later wrote an open letter to the ACC Mayor and Commission and garnered support from District 4 Commissioner Allison Wright.
Nearly 10 months and over 8,000 petition signatures later, on June 25, the ACC Mayor and Commission approved $50,000 in funding to paint the crosswalk at a future time and an undetermined location.
Wright said the $50,000 is coming from the 2018 Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. TSPLOST is a program that was voted on in 2017 by ACC voters to fund 19 projects related to transportation purposes, according to ACC’s website. The money was designated for a community art project but was never used and the crosswalk has been on the commission’s radar since the fall, Wright said.
Project timing amid protests
Amid protests against police brutality across the United States, some members of the Black community in Athens view the announcement of a rainbow crosswalk as performative and diverting attention away from race-related issues.
Rachelle Berry, a University of Georgia graduate student, activist and member of the LGBTQ and Black communities, said they can agree with people who view the crosswalk as performative.
“Today’s the day you decide to put up a rainbow? It’s not that other cities aren’t doing symbolic things like this,” Berry said. “But they’re painting Black Lives Matter on their streets, and Black Lives Matter in rainbow colors, which I don’t think Athens is ready for, or would ever do.”
Berry said there is discussion circulating the LGBTQ and Black communities that the rainbow crosswalk is going to be painted at the intersection of Broad Street and College Avenue, which Berry said would have been “so performative and disrespectful,” considering the fact that ACC police used tear gas on protesters there on May 31.
Even though the exact location of the crosswalk hasn’t been determined, Wright said the rainbow crosswalk cannot be painted at that intersection because Broad Street is a state highway and ACC doesn’t have jurisdiction over it. The crosswalk will most likely be painted somewhere along Clayton Street, Wright said.
Regardless of the location, Berry said they feel like the government is trying to “change the conversation and make people forget that they didn’t apologize” for using tear gas on protesters.
“There are people in the community who know that this is them just trying to whitewash what they did,” Berry said. “But COVID will end one day and the government will answer for what they did.”
Harrelson and Wright both recognize that the approval of the rainbow crosswalk comes at a bad time.
Harrelson said the announcement of the rainbow crosswalk is not meant to be a pat on the back for the commission or to change the conversation surrounding police brutality and injustices, but rather to start a conversation between the LGBTQ community and the commission.
On the petition, Harrelson called for the rainbow to have inclusive pride flag colors for the transgender, Black and Brown communities. Harrelson said he specifically requested this when he turned in his proposal to the commission.
“The timing is awful for me. It is awful for this great project that the queer community, including queer people of color, put together,” Harrelson said. “This project has been in the works for a long time with queer people of color at the forefront and people of color in mind.”
Harrelson said people have been directing their anger at the crosswalk and he thinks they should instead direct their anger toward those in power who have not changed the system.
From the onset of the petition, Harrelson and supporters of the crosswalk knew it was not the ultimate goal but just the first step in the right direction. Harrelson said he wishes this step could have been taken sooner so it wouldn’t appear to overshadow any other issues at all.
“It’s not about painting a sidewalk, it’s about starting conversations about multiple issues facing the LGBTQ community,” Harrelson said. “I can honestly say that it has been successful in starting conversations, from conversations I’ve had with commissioners.”
In addition to the rainbow crosswalk, Wright said she has been trying to get approval for an updated, broader and more inclusive Athens anti-discrimination ordinance.
“If the mayor signs the ordinance and it’s in committee, that’s where the real work gets done,” Wright said. “But then we’re not done, we have to do a better job of reporting what we have on the books and making sure people know that they can report discrimination too.”
As June ended and marked the end of this year’s Pride Month, Harrelson said he wants the community to know that the crosswalk marks the beginning to a longer road of change.
“I have urged the commission from day one that the approval of the crosswalk should coincide with the passing of an updated Athens anti-discrimination ordinance,” Harrelson said. “We can’t just stop with symbolic gestures, we have to pass real policies that affect our actual lives.”
The rainbow crosswalk is not a solution to any of the problems facing the LGBTQ or Black community, it is just the response to many people wanting to see a public display of pride in Athens, Harrelson said.
“I think everyone has the right to be outraged at our local, state and federal government. I understand the frustration and I share it,” Harrelson said. “With that being said, I will celebrate this as a win. Not because of the committee that brought this to fruition, but because of the work of the queer community in Athens.”