The controversial acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin brought 50-plus people to Antioch Baptist Church on Thursday evening in Gainesville, although little was mentioned about the case.
In the wake of widespread outrage and cries for social justice, community leaders have seized on the opportunity to talk about issues affecting the community at large.
“We need to discuss where we are, what we can do, and how to move forward — how we can get there,” said Phyllis Brewer, president of the Gainesville-Hall County Chapter of the NAACP, in her opening remarks. “What are we doing to be proactive, instead of reactive to a situation such as this?”
Brewer was the facilitator of the evening, fielding questions from attendees and referring them to a panel of six people from different facets of the community, who sat at the front of the church.
Those panel members were Gainesville attorney Andre Richardson, Michael Jackson, a guidance counselor at Gainesville High School, Gainesville City Board of Education member Willie Mitchell, the Revs. Eddie Walker and Matthew Little, Johnny Varner from the Hall County Planning Commission, and DeniseFreeman, coordinator of economic development with Lanier Technical College.
Topics of discussion during the about two-hour meeting were diverse, including condemning the disproportionate imprisonment of African-Americans, the Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, and racial profiling.
Formulating a loud, cohesive message was one of the goals of the evening.
“We don’t need one group saying one thing, and another saying something else,” Little said, to applause from the crowd. “We aren’t going to solve our issues tonight, but we can get our issues on the table.”
Willie Mitchell stressed the importance of “walking the walk,” in addition to participating in the dialogue, citing how he had taken it upon himself to get a city permit for the Saturday protest outside the federal courthouse without checking with ministers or other community leaders.
“There are some things where we can’t wait on nobody else. We have to do some things ourselves,” he said.
“Planning is good, but we can’t take 10 years to plan,” Freeman said.
Another common theme in response to a variety of concerns was the importance of voting.
“Voting is the key. Registering to the vote. Don’t sit down. Vote,” said Walker.
Little said making an informed vote at the polls was additionally key.
“An informed people is a powerful people. The better knowledge we have of political situations, the greater power we have. I think we have to make sure how to vote and who is running to make sure they have our interests at hand,” he said.
Brandon Evans, 26, asked the panel how the community could better “grasp our young African-American men. I mentor five guys in high school, but I can’t do it alone,” he said. “I tell mine all the time’ ‘I don’t think people understand how hard it is to be born a black man ... we gotta fight against everything.’”
And reaching those youth was another point of emphasis, with suggestions to target young people with social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Mitchell at one point noted the staggering difference in costs to educate a child versus imprisoning an adult.
“It costs $7,800 a year per student in Gainesville, and $30,000 a year to imprison them in Georgia. Even from an economic point of view, let’s rescue our kids,” he said.
At another point, the conversation turned to examining problems within the community.
“What are we doing to educate our community about black-on-black crime in our community? We’re fighting a war against our own people. That’s a concern that I have in addition to continuing to fight radical disparities,” Ershla Jones said.
Carolyn Yates said it was about not just community leaders and officials stepping up, but parents within their homes.
“What I’m seeing that is really missing here is parents. We’re wanting officials, schools, ministers to be parents to our children when we need to be parent to our children. That’s what’s really missing, even if you’re a single parent, you need to be so proactive in every step of your child’s life. You should have a dialogue with your children every day,” she said. “How do we get the parents involved? How to get them to talk to the kids? Get rid of these devices. Talk to them. Turn the TV off. Make them come to dinner and eat at the table. Help them resolve issues they may be having. That is one step that I think is really missing.”
Several of the attendees who spoke noted their concerns as parents, and a few brought children along.
At the conclusion of the discussion, Brewer said she was grateful to the people who came out, and hopes for a bigger crowd on the next scheduled community conversation day of Aug. 15.
“One thing is for sure, it’s going to take all of us, not just the NAACP,” she said.