Growing up in a community labeled a “high-drug area,” Irene Lipscomb said she and others were often pulled over, harassed and searched even as teenagers.
“We had to explain that we live here or our grandparents, our grandmother lives here or that we were just going home in order for us to get away from the police, because they felt as if we were selling drugs or we were coming to get drugs in that area,” said Lipscomb, who is a co-chair of the Newtown Florist Club’s criminal justice reform project.
The Newtown Florist Club, Gainesville’s civil rights group, hosted a criminal justice roundtable conversation Thursday, Sept. 24 over Zoom called “The Devastating Impact of Drug Bust in the Black Community.”
The event comes in the wake of an August drug bust on Black and Cooley Drives, where 20 suspects were accused in a drug operation that authorities said netted $1.4 million per year. Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said investigators believe the group had been operating for roughly two years, trafficking more than 60 kilograms of crack cocaine annually.
“According to agents, drug dealers at the home averaged a minimum of 20 transactions an hour, from early in the morning till late at night, seven days a week,” Couch said at a press conference announcing the arrests.
Community members previously told The Times they believe some of those charged in the case were falsely accused because of their neighborhood associations or affiliations to some in the community.
During the forum, Lipscomb addressed the financial and psychological effects and stigmas of living in such an area.
Kids in “high drug areas” see their friends’ parents forbid children from visiting them or from crossing the railroad tracks that divide parts of Gainesville, she said. Children are traumatized when they see family members dragged out of their home and put behind bars, and there are mounting costs in attorneys’ fees, probation fees and other court-related costs while a source of income is lost. Those children can be labeled by the actions of their family name, what neighborhood they come from and even what buses they took to school because of neighborhood associations to crime, Lipscomb said.
“Of course, we want the drug selling to stop in the community, because we don’t want drugs in our community,” Lipscomb said. “We know that drugs and drug use is widespread and causes permanent physical, emotional damage to the users and negatively impacts their families and many others with whom they have contact.”
The club invited attorney William Sheppard, who said he owed part of his early career to Gainesville and once had an office on Oak Street.
Sheppard said almost any book on criminal justice will say the system is often made up by the police, the courts and the corrections system.
“Those books will also tell you it’s really not a system, because a system works together,” Sheppard said. “And those three units don’t work together.”
In the courts, there is a presumption that people are expected to know the law, Sheppard said.
Sheppard said mere association will not cause someone to face problems with the law, but certain activities surrounding their connection will. He mentioned a case in which two friends were charged after 250 grams of cocaine were found in a car, though one of them was unaware of the drugs.
“People will say, ‘Well, that’s my friend and I didn’t know.’ Well, I’ll tell you people who are very careful and lead very strict lives in Georgia are judges,” Sheppard said. “Judges are careful about who they ride with, careful about what parties they go to. They practice preventive law to keep themselves out of trouble, and so young people have to do that, too.”
Sheppard said there are many ways someone can be accused of being associated with drug or gang activity without them knowing, such as making a phone call for someone or transporting something.
Amid protests earlier this year in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the Newtown Florist Club held a pair of open-air meetings to bring community members and law enforcement together to discuss possible reform and steps forward in policing and the judicial system.
More unrest was sparked this week when a grand jury returned no indictments directly charging the officers responsible for killing Breonna Taylor during a botched drug raid in Louisville, Kentucky. The Kentucky attorney general said the officers were justified because they fired in self defense. Taylor’s boyfriend has said he fired on officers because he thought someone was breaking into his home.