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'A punch to the gut': Officials react to killing of George Floyd, Gainesville protests
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People take to downtown Gainesville Sunday, May 31, 2020, on the second night of protests in Gainesville that blocked traffic and resulted in vandalism on the square. - photo by Scott Rogers

Gainesville officials said Monday that they supported peaceful protests and were open to conversations with community members about their concerns. 

Protesters gathered in downtown Gainesville Saturday and Sunday, joining other groups nationwide following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis when an officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes. Other recent deaths include Breonna Taylor, who was killed in Louisville, Kentucky, when police served a warrant at her home, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was fatally shot in Brunswick while jogging.

Police made several arrests in Gainesville over the weekend for charges including disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. The Confederate monument on the downtown square, known as “Old Joe,” was also vandalized.

Danny Dunagan
Danny Dunagan

Mayor Danny Dunagan said the city would have “zero tolerance as far as anybody vandalizing or looting anything.”

“I fully support the First Amendment and the right to protest in a mannerly way, but those that decided to go the other way disappoint me. We’re a better town than that,” he said.

City officials are considering a curfew like the one enacted in Atlanta following protests there, Dunagan said.

“Hopefully, we won’t have to do it, but we are looking at it strongly,” he said.

Dunagan encouraged people to express their views without violence.

“We need to settle down and be calm and sit down and have a conversation on concerns that anyone has,” he said. “Let’s get back to some normal life.”

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Barbara Brooks

Councilwoman Barbara Brooks, who represents Gainesville’s largely minority district,  said she hoped law enforcement’s interference in the protests could be minimized, “as long as civility prevails.”

“I’ve been young before. I know how it feels not to have a voice and not to be able to express my opinions in an environment that’s free,” she said. “I empathize with that, as long as things stay safe and stay civil.”

Brooks said she planned to attend the Newtown Florist Club’s 5 p.m. meeting Monday near the downtown pedestrian bridge to encourage people to express their concerns to the Gainesville City Council.

“There are ways that you can be heard in an organized and civil fashion, where you can really perhaps get some attention and some results, rather than using the streets as the first resort rather than the last resort,” Brooks said.

The Council’s next meeting is Tuesday, June 2, at 5:30 p.m. at the Public Safety Complex, 701 Queen City Parkway.

Councilman Sam Couvillon said Floyd’s death was “a punch to the gut to America.”

Sam Couvillon
Sam Couvillon

“Our country has been founded on the ability to protest that injustice. That’s why I wasn’t surprised we had a protest,” Couvillon said. “In my time in Gainesville, we have a very proud community, a very outspoken community.”

Couvillon said community forums like one held in Gainesville in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, could be helpful in continuing conversations started by the protests. The Gainesville Police Department’s efforts at community policing could also improve relationships moving forward, he said.

Councilman George Wangemann also said continuing the dialogue started by the protests could be a positive step, and “influence from all sides is a good thing.”

George Wangemann
George Wangemann

“City Council members, being that they’re in the midst of the community and what’s going on in the community, I think we can be instruments in bringing about positive communication between the groups that have differences,” Wangemann said.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said that he was upset both by Floyd’s death and the protests that did not remain peaceful.

“The killing of George Floyd is appalling. Every American should be outraged after witnessing the horrific brutality used against him, and I support every Georgian exercising their constitutional right to protest,” Collins said in a statement. “But what we saw in Atlanta and across the nation over the weekend should devastate every American. Many peaceful protests were overtaken by rioters with the sole purpose of setting our cities on fire. These riots are – literally and figuratively – tearing our country apart.”

Doug _Collins
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins

Collins encouraged the community to be united to find solutions.

“Our community is strong, and now more than ever, we need to work together to bridge gaps. We need to work together to further our shared goals of justice, peace and prosperity for every one of our fellow citizens,” he said. “And we need to work together to love all of our neighbors, as we are all created equal in the eyes of God.”

Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said Floyd’s death had angered the law enforcement community.

“The callousness, the disregard that was shown for George Floyd is sickening, and it leaves everyone, including law enforcement, shocked and appalled and infuriated. So, I completely understand the reasons for the protest,” he said. “I think people should exercise their First Amendment rights, but of course that does not include any type of damaging property or breaking the law or infringing on someone else's rights.”

The Sheriff’s Office sent about 65 deputies to downtown Gainesville on Saturday and Sunday night. The Oakwood Police Department also assisted. 

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Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch holds a press conference Monday, July 8, 2019, at the Hall County Sheriff’s Office Headquarters concerning the death of Deputy Nicolas Blane Dixon Sunday night in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

Couch said the actions of the Minneapolis officers did not represent the majority of the law enforcement community.

“Those officers certainly do not represent all officers across this country. We have so many great people and public servants serving in law enforcement, especially here in this community,” Couch said. “Conduct like this, it hurts our reputation and standing in every community.”

Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests highlight the need for community policing and communication, Couch said.

“All of this, to me, is just a painful reminder that we have to continue as a community and as a nation to work on justice and work on relationships with the communities that we all serve,” he said. “We need to listen to concerns and also criticism, and we have to earn and work to keep the trust of our communities.”

The Associated Press contributed.