Local law enforcement agencies, churches and school systems in Conyers, Rockdale and Newton counties are preparing for any possible Ferguson-style conflicts ahead of a grand jury ruling of the officer accused of killing an unarmed black teenager in Missouri.
Ferguson, Mo., has drawn protests and sparked a national civil rights debate since the Aug. 9 killing of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer. Nationwide protests are likely following a pending grand jury decision on Dan Wilson, the policer officer accused of killing Michael Brown, 18, and whether he will be charged with any crimes.
The City of Conyers is preparing by holding planning meetings between Police Chief Gene Wilson and clergy at local black churches.
City Manager Tony Lucas said at Wednesday's city council meeting, "With the events in Ferguson about to unfold," Councilman Stroud had asked Chief Wilson to meet with local clergy. If there are any disputes or protests, Rev. Al Sadler of the Citizens Progressive Club will be the community contact "to come out and calm the issue," Wilson said. In addition, the police department is holding a "clergy police academy."
A recent New York Times article profiled Conyers as a city with similar demographics as Ferguson and a similar racial imbalance between mostly white government leaders and a growing black population.
On Thursday, local public safety and school officials from Rockdale County and Newton County traveled to DeKalb County for a meeting with more than 100 other public safety officials, public school officials, clergyman and other community leaders to discuss potential situations that could arise in the wake of the grand jury ruling.
According to Rockdale County Sheriff Office spokesperson Cpl. Michael Camp, who attended along with Sheriff Eric Levett, the meeting was a way to bridge the gap between the officials and the community, something that Ferguson officials might not have done prior to the unrest that has transpired in the community in recent months.
According to Camp, clergy in attendance from some of the largest churches in Atlanta stated they were probably going to hold protests either way the ruling went, but would preach peaceful protest.
This is the third meeting of this nature since the incident in Ferguson. Law enforcement, school system officials and clergy from Rockdale and Newton began meeting three weeks ago at Springfield Baptist and also joined a meeting in DeKalb last week.
Rockdale County Public Schools Superintendent Richard Autry and school staff attended the same meetings. "We were there just to talk about how we move through this as a region," said Autry at Thursday night's school board meeting. "We had conversations about what strategies and what certain opportunities would present themselves." He said the school system has assembled support teams of school counselors and clergy from around the region have assembled support teams as well.
"This is a united effort. This is one of the unique efforts that we have had to bring the entire community and entire region together. I have not participated in anything of this magnitude... Rarely has it been seen around the country."
Local pastors that attended included Pastor Eric Lee of Springfield Baptist and Pastor Aldren Sadler of the Church of New Beginnings.
Pastor Sadler, a chaplain with the RCSO, said dialogue with local law enforcement started back in September. "I had raised some questions to the (police) chief, what if something like this happened (in Conyers)? Would we be ready for it?"
He described Thursday's meeting as a way to have everyone on the same page. The church would offer a safe place for people to vent and clergy would encourage their congregations to remain peaceful and calm.
Pastor Eric W. Lee, head of Springfield Baptist, said "There was a unanimous feeling that we need to protect the Constitutional right to protest, but at the same time we need to acknowledge the role of public safety."
"We want people to have a voice but we don't want people to be arrested or injured" or lash out in a way that is not constructive, Lee said. "We want people to channel the frustration into something more transformative."
He continued, "What gets lost in a lot of this is... there's a dead young man in the street. That loss of life was traumatic. His life mattered... The lives of young people matter... The only thing we can do is be better."
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John Ruch, Martin Rand, III, Michelle Kim contributed to the reporting of this article.