Rockdale and Newton officials answered youths' questions about racial disparities in policing and government at an extraordinary forum held Dec. 3 at Springfield Baptist Church in the wake of the Ferguson protests.
Hundreds - including some teens and young adults - attended the "Redemption Forum" to ask questions about police tactics and racial diversity in government. No specific local complaints emerged, but better communication between cops and kids was a running theme. And some officials acknowledged Conyers' similarities to Ferguson, pointed out in a recent New York Times article-a metro suburb with a majority-white government and police force while the population shifts to majority-black. They differed, however, on how much racial diversity in leadership matters.
"Tonight, we want our young people to know they have a voice," said church pastor Rev. Eric Wendell Lee, calling for Rockdale and Newton to face "hard truths," including a "culture of suspicion" that falls on black youths.
Conyers Police Chief Gene Wilson said he has heard concerns about racial diversity in the police force. "That's important, but I tell you what's more important is a good heart," he said, explaining that his message to his officers is, "Treat people the way you want to be treated."
Chief Wilson and other police officials answered many questions about police procedures and use of force. Much of it comes down to officer training, they said, while adding that tight budgets can make that difficult.
Chief Stacey Cotton of the Covington Police Department said there is a "training deficit," with the state of Georgia requiring only 11 weeks of training for someone to become a police officer-one of the lowest requirements in the nation.
Asked about training cops to speak respectfully to black teens, Wilson said that "progressive" departments do so. They also teach "verbal judo" methods to have "conversation, not confrontation," he said-a phrase that was picked up as a theme of the event.
Rockdale District Attorney Richard Read said a recent trip coincidentally put him within driving range of Ferguson, so he went there and spent two hours touring the city and talking to residents.
"One thing that struck me as I stood in Ferguson, Missouri, was how much it was like Conyers, Georgia," Read said, describing the people, the look and the atmosphere as similar.
Read answered questions about how grand juries work-in Rockdale, they're about 55 percent white, 45 percent black-and that justice and respect are his office's guiding principles. "There can be no justice when there is a perception of injustice," he said to sounds of approval from the audience.
Richard Autry, superintendent of Rockdale County Public Schools, indicated that stereotyping affects the respect and expectations placed on children-and that he has had a taste of that himself.
"With regards to education, there are hard truths," Autry said. "There is an issue of expectation, particularly when it comes to children of color," as well as kids from lower-income families, he said. "Just because, pastor, I grew up in the mill village didn't mean I didn't deserve the same level of respect and the same level of opportunities as anyone else," he said.
Different opinions were voiced about how youths should express themselves to authority figures.
Former Newton High School principal and Springfield Baptist parent Dr. Roderick Sams said youths need to learn to speak respectfully and clearly, but unlike earlier generations, are unwilling to be "subservient...or do the quote-unquote shuck and jive thing, as I've heard them say before."
"If you respect somebody, that's not shucking and jiving. It's not," objected Councilman Stroud. "We need to teach our young people to respect adults and people in authority," he said, adding that if that happens, "this problem we're talking about now will just disappear."
Autry said listening to young people, not just talking at them, is crucial. "We have to engage in that dialogue. To oppress or overreact...is a mistaken," he said. "We need to listen to our young people more, not less."
"In our generation, young people were to be seen and not heard. This generation will not stand for that," Autry added.
Rockdale Sheriff Eric Levett addressed the controversial use of military vehicles and weapons by police. "If we can get away from that word ‘militarization,' we'd be better off," he said, describing such gear as being used for protecting citizens. But, he added, military hardware needs to be purchased with "common sense," transparency and actual need. "We're not out here looking to get tanks," he said.
Conyers Mayor Randy Mills and Councilman Cleveland Stroud spoke about the New York Times article, which noted a city election turnout of less than 10 percent, and indicated a disconnection between government and most citizens.
Mills, who is white, said he and county Chairman Richard Oden, who is black, both "represent anyone," regardless of race.
"Why there was (a low) turnout, I do not know," Mills said, adding, "I do not believe there is a disconnect" in terms of city government representing citizens' best interests.
"Having been the first black man elected in Rockdale County, there was a lot of pressure," said Stroud, adding that council members do not have to black to represent blacks, or white to represent whites. "We're representing everybody, whether they voted or didn't vote. We're trying to do the right thing without reference to race."
As for the very low election turnout, Stroud said, "You can look at it two ways: People don't care, or people are satisfied with what they have."
Rev. Lee said that while not everyone will agree with that night's answers, "I think we can agree that our leaders are not our enemies. These are relationships that need to be strengthened in order for Fergusons to stop happening."