When the guilty verdict came in for Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, the Rev. Rose Johnson said she took a breath.
“I took a breath because I could not breathe, and I heard somebody say earlier that we have these conversations but nothing like this is going on in our community,” said Johnson, the executive director of the Gainesville civil rights group known as the Newtown Florist Club. “I got to tell you: We cannot separate ourselves from George Floyd. We can’t do it. It’s hard to be Black in America and separate yourself from George Floyd.”
A crowd of roughly 50 people gathered around 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 29, on the Midtown Greenway in Gainesville, listening to members of the club’s public policy committee and others discuss persistent concerns in light of the Chauvin verdict and other national cases of police shootings.
Chauvin is set for a sentencing hearing in June regarding Floyd’s death in May 2020. A video of Chauvin holding Floyd down with his knee was widely circulated following Floyd’s death.
Christine Osasu, a member of the public policy committee, referenced the September 2019 case involving Adam English, an Oakwood man who was shot by Gainesville Police officers in front of the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group surgical associates office.
“My heart hurts for his life lost and his family as they find a way without him,” Osasu said. “I’m interested to know what policies have been changed because of Adam’s death. I want to know what assurances can be made to the community that what happened to Adam will never happen to anyone else again.”
Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said in December that he did not feel the evidence would lead to guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and decided not to pursue charges against the officers.
A civil lawsuit brought by English’s parents against the city is ongoing.
Osasu mentioned other “tension points” for the community that needed to be addressed, which included the 287(g) program in the Hall County Jail and the criminalization of poverty.
The 287(g) program is a partnership between local, state and federal agencies to identify undocumented immigrants for possible removal.
Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch and Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish said they could not attend due to prior commitments, but both provided individual responses to questions posed by Newtown.
In summary, the questions were:
How can all of us be better together around issues of racial and social injustice?
Is it realistic for us to think that Gainesville/Hall County could be a national model for improved criminal justice community relations?
Is it possible for a community of faithful people to be consistently proactive before trouble knocks on our door? What is your solution/suggestion?
In response to the first question, Couch said there must be “honest, accurate conversations as opposed to emotion-driven shouting matches where no one is willing to hear what anyone else has to say.”
He cited a study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, where use-of-force incidents over a two-year period at three mid-sized police agencies were examined.
The results showed .78% of criminal arrests, roughly 1 in 128, had use of force.
Couch said there is a definite need to discuss use-of-force incidents but suggested revisiting why police are there in the first place.
“The police are not driving around randomly looking for citizens on whom to use force,” Couch said in his statement. “Therefore, we have to acknowledge that the average person — of any race — who is simply going about their business in a manner normal for the place/time has nothing to fear from law enforcement. The notion that a young Black man has to be fearful of the police using force against him as he’s just walking to the corner store is unrealistic. If an individual isn’t committing a crime therefore causing the police to be called or behaving in such a way that attracts law enforcement’s attention, then they have nothing to fear.”
Couch said he felt the community must understand “that if someone tries to flee, or resists detention/arrest, or assaults an officer, words are no longer effective.”
“The officers must use some level of physical force to accomplish their lawful objective,” Couch wrote.
Concerning the final question, Parrish said being proactive “means having plans, measures and checks and balance systems in place to prevent tragedy.”
“We must control what we can control and not focus on those things outside (our) control,” Parrish wrote. “Moreover, we must foster an environment where people are safe and free to express their concerns and grievances without fear of retaliation.”
Gainesville City Council member Sam Couvillon echoed some of the comments made by the law enforcement leaders, saying we need to be able to have “open and frank conversations” with one another and try to understand others’ perspectives.
“There’s a time for emotion, but when you’re trying to solve a problem, we need to tamp down that emotion,” Couvillon said.
Toward the end of the event, Johnson addressed the claims made by some to “stop being so emotional.”
“We can begin to understand each other better when we communicate with each other our own truths,” she said. “If you have not walked in my shoes, you cannot tell me not to be emotional.”
Couvillon referenced the 2020 addition of a Gainesville Police mental health clinician who works to connect people with resources in the community and collaborates with officers.
“(The) fact of the matter is, we could use not one, but in our community, Gainesville city police could probably use three or four, but that’s going to take a commitment to fund that, and we are committed to getting there,” Couvillon said.