Protesting ‘Toxic’ Policing: Athens Area Residents March for Accountability

Tiffany Taylor worries about her four sons. She is constantly anxious that they are in danger — she fears that one day, they will have an encounter with law enforcement that could end their lives.

“I stand before you as a mother who is in mourning for yet another black son slain by the hands of police officers whose job it is to serve and to protect,” Taylor said.

As a mother of Black sons, she has a “heaviness” because she doesn’t know what’s going to happen to them, Taylor said.

“It seems like we’re not immune to it. No matter where we live. No matter how high of status we are. We’re not immune to the possibility of burying our sons,” Taylor said.

Taylor is the county commissioner of District 3 and founder of Mothers of Black Sons, a nonprofit development program for African-American boys. She spoke at a rally organized by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement on Feb. 9 in honor of Tyre Nichols, a Black man killed by members of the Memphis Police Department.

 Why it is Newsworthy: Tyre Nichols is just one out of countless victims of police brutality, and his death is a reminder of why police systems should be monitored and held accountable, including in Athens. However, the Public Safety Civilian Oversight Board designed to monitor the Athens-Clarke County police department is currently facing pushback from elected officials. 

According to The New York Times, several officers from the Memphis Police Department stopped Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, on suspicion of reckless driving on Jan. 7. Five officers, who were all Black, beat Nichols for about 3 minutes, resulting in his death three days later in the hospital. Findings from a private autopsy commissioned by Nichols’ family found that Nichols died from extensive bleeding caused by the assault.

The Memphis Police Department fired the officers involved in the incident, and the officers were charged with second-degree murder on Jan. 26. 

Remembering Tyre Nichols

Inez Salas (front) and Ester Carrillo make signs before a rally at the Athens-Clarke County City Hall on Feb. 9, 2023. (Photo/Alyssa Romero Ginn)

“I was only 29 when you beat the life out of me, leaving me lifeless, blow after blow after blow after blow,” said Mokah Jasmine Johnson, the co-founder of Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, in a speech honoring Nichols.

The Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, or AADM, is a civil rights organization formed in 2016 as a community effort to combat discrimination. According to its website, the AADM desires to spark change through civil rights advocacy, training and dialogue, organizing community events and by campaigning against racial and social injustices.

During the rally, several speakers from the AADM, Dignidad Inmigrante en Athens and Mothers of Black Sons stood on the steps of City Hall and addressed the crowd, demanding justice for victims of police brutality and that police systems be held accountable.

Cassie Chantel Evans (front) listens to Mokah Jasmine Johnson speak during a rally at the Athens-Clarke County City Hall on Feb. 9, 2023. (Photo/Alyssa Romero Ginn)

Jessica Martinez, an organizer for Dignidad Inmigrante en Athens, spoke at the rally about the recent killing of activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán in Atlanta. According to the Guardian, Terán, who was known as Tortuguita, was protesting “Cop City,” a planned police training facility, when he was shot and killed by an officer.

“This form of police brutality demonstrates that they currently hold the power to use violence to control and destroy bodies, and to decide who lives and who dies,” Martinez said.

Johnson said that there is a “toxic culture of policing,” regardless of the officer’s race, and that this is “bigger than black and white.” She connected this with her personal experience working in government.

“The culture of American policing is broken and toxic no matter the color of your skin once you become a part of the policing or the government or the institutional system,” Johnson said. “I ran for office myself and sometimes I wonder what was I doing? Because something is obviously wrong with that system.”

An attendee holds a sign and listens to Mokah Jasmine Johnson speak during a rally at the Athens-Clarke County City Hall on Feb. 9, 2023. (Photo/Alyssa Romero Ginn)
“What those officers did to Tyre Nichols was bound to happen, and it will happen again and again until we change the corrupting force in the system of policing, until we have accountability throughout the legal criminal system.” – Reverend Pippin Whitaker

Power without accountability corrupts and will inevitably lead to brutality, especially against Black and brown skinned people, said Reverend Pippin Whitaker, a speaker from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

“What those officers did to Tyre Nichols was bound to happen, and it will happen again and again until we change the corrupting force in the system of policing, until we have accountability throughout the legal criminal system,” Whitaker said.

 Working Toward Accountability in Athens

According to the Athens-Clarke County Government website, the Public Safety Civilian Oversight Board is an citizen’s oversight board that was established to monitor alleged abuse of authority, as well as evaluate and make recommendations regarding policies and procedures of the Athens-Clarke County justice system, including the police department.

“There is something here in place that will put the community at the table,” Johnson said. “You deserve to have a seat at the table, and that is what this Public Safety Civilian Oversight Board allows you to do.” 

J.W. Chin, who attended the rally with AADM, said that citizens need to be able to voice their opinions to the police and hold police accountable, or else the police will get away with doing whatever they want.

“Athens is taking steps to hold the police accountable, to have community oversight for the people’s voices to be heard, because we’re tired of the violence,” Chin said. “We’re tired of the brutality and there needs to be accountability in every city really, but especially here in Athens, a place we all call home and our community.”

Cassie Chantel Evans speaks during a rally at the Athens-Clarke County City Hall on Feb. 9, 2023. (Photo/Alyssa Romero Ginn)

Cassie Chantel Evans, the president of the Public Safety Oversight Board, says the board is currently at a standstill right now as they are lacking their monitor position, who is to serve as the liaison between the police department, the board and the public. Board members don’t want the monitor to have an affiliation with the Athens-Clarke County Police Department. However, the board was notified at their Jan. 25 meeting that this preference was being removed from the job description. In addition, board members are being excluded from the interview process for the monitor position, Evans said.

Evans said the first principle in a set of rules by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement is independence, which refers to an absence of real or perceived influence from law enforcement.

“So I asked, how can we truly uphold that first, that very first principle of civilian oversight if we’re going to hire somebody that was affiliated with ACC PD?” Evans said.

 “You can’t!” responded a member of the crowd.

Attendants march from the Athens-Clarke County City all to College Square during a rally on Feb. 9, 2023. (Photo/Alyssa Romero Ginn)

Following Evans’ speech, speakers and attendants observed a moment of silence before marching from the Athens-Clarke County City Hall to College Square. After the rally, Evans voiced her surprise at the number of people who attended.

“The community showed up in a big way, and I wasn’t really expecting the turnout,” Evans said. “I wasn’t really expecting anything, but to see the community come out and be in full support of AADM and the board was amazing to me, and it’s something that I hope we continue to have throughout the four years that I’m a part of the board.”

 In an interview after the rally, Taylor spoke more about her hope that change will come about from rallies like the one in honor of Nichols.

“In 20 years, I want my son to be able to sit here and say, ‘I remember going to a rally that happened in downtown Athens and it changed the way that I looked at anything that I did, because I saw that once we come together and demand change, that change is going to happen and power is going to be gained by each and every individual,’” Taylor said.

Alyssa Romero Ginn is a senior majoring in journalism and economics.

 

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