Decatur joins nation to protest brutality
June 2, 2015
A cop car was following him, but he didn’t notice until he saw the flashing lights.
At 11 p.m. on a Friday night, black junior Ola Ogoussan was riding his bike home after a day of work at Chai Pani – nothing out of the blue for him. Decatur cops pulled him over and asked to search him.
After finding nothing, the officer gave him a citation for failing to stop at a stop sign and not having a front light on his bike. Moments between his search and citation, another cop car pulled up with bright red and blue lights, watching him.
Ogoussan is no stranger to police encounters like these.
A month later, police stopped him again for jaywalking across an empty street. After arguing for half an hour, Ogoussan said, the police officer finally told him that he was “tired of delinquents like you guys.”
While Ogoussan was at first offended, he “honestly can’t blame them.”
“Society has taught [people] to fear black men,” he said.
Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown – victims of three nationally-recognized hate-crime murders in Sanford, Fla., Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., respectively – were all young, black men like Ogoussan.
Martin died in 2012 when neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman shot him. Zimmerman, charged with second degree murder and manslaughter, was found not guilty.
In July 2014, Garner died after police officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in a chokehold. Although witnesses recorded the incident on video, a grand jury decided not to charge Pantaleo. The decision sparked a new wave of protests inspired by Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe.”
Brown died in Ferguson in an altercation over stolen cigarillos with police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014. That November, Wilson also walked free.
Ferguson’s verdict didn’t surprise senior and activist Callum Rolinson, but he’s mad that Brown’s case “doesn’t even have a trial.”
“If there’s somebody dead in the street, especially when the dude who shot him is completely open about the fact that he shot him, that’s enough evidence that a crime was committed,” he said.
The verdict brought junior Bryson Jones through a “time warp, like [he] was just right back in the middle of the Rodney King-type situation back in 92.” After this, he saw society differently.
“I immediately thought about how there’s a devaluation of this particular group of people – black men,” Jones said. “That was what I initially thought, especially as it continued to pile on. It became more apparent to me that this is not just random. This is something systemic.”
This situation didn’t stop with Brown. While Garner’s case is similar, Rolinson reacted differently.
“The Eric Garner [case] is the one that really pissed me off because it was all on video, and it was very clear,” Rolinson said. “It was the same decision – no indictment when somebody was killed. There were no questions for that case.”
After the grand jury released the Garner verdict in December, Rolinson took a stance and protested at Decatur during school.
“I wanted some kids at our school to at least know what was happening, or possibly care,” he said.
Jones, too, believes that Decatur citizens’ knowledge and support are limited.
“Sometimes I can sense that certain prejudices are embedded in the student culture as well, and I think that’s a lot of times due to ignorance more than anything,” he said.
When it comes to caring, he believes that people are too comfortable to care.
“Many of us have gotten to the point of being somewhat affluent or living in a nice neighborhood like Decatur. The kids are not growing up in the projects,” Jones said. “People are aware, but no one is going to compromise or do anything that would threaten what they’ve worked so hard for. They feel like it could just be torn away from them at any moment because the oppressor is in power.”
On the morning of the rally, Rolinson told everybody at school about his protest at one o’clock.
“Only, like, three other people came,” he said.
Rolinson, seniors Jake Benson and Milan Boea and junior Ben Carpenter made three signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and other slogans inspired by Ferguson. They walked out of the front door, stood by McDonough Road and waved signs, but gained little attention.
“Nobody really honked or anything,” Rolinson said.
Although Rolinson’s four-person demonstration gained little attention, he found faith in another protest. He and his mom flew to Washington to protest alongside infamous families of victims such as Brown, Martin and Garner on December 17th. Their first-hand experience in protesting made the connection “so personal,” according to Rolinson.
“I don’t have any family members that have been killed by cops, or anything remotely close to that,” he said, “but when you’re at a march, there are a lot of people who are in that situation.”
After witnessing a large-scale protest, Rolinson recognizes that the Black Lives Matter movement “definitely makes a difference,” but believes it’s stuck in a difficult time period.
“To some extent, the earlier Civil Rights Movement had it easier because they didn’t have to convince anybody that racism was there,” he said. “Nowadays, the racists don’t know they’re racist.”
Another local outcry gained more attention for the movement. Jones attended a March protest on the Decatur Square in response to March 9th DeKalb county police shooting of Anthony Hill.
Around 80 protesters marched along Commerce Drive, waving signs plastered with pictures of Hill’s face or the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
Jones believes that “we’re stronger together,” regardless of demographics. Every participant contributes Black Lives Matter movement.
“When the protests happened a few months ago downtown and storefronts were busted into, that really had nothing to do with the core of the movement,” he said. “I think that’s where we have to focus – everyone is there for the same purpose, which is to promote and value black lives.”
Although local protesters have responded to national incidents, Decatur has been familiar with the issue of racial profiling for several years.
Police targeted Don Denard, head of the Decatur Community Coalition, on December 18, 2013. They accused him of robbing his own house.
This incident prompted Denard to found the coalition.
“I could’ve gotten so indignant, so humiliated, so upset, and I could’ve displayed bad behavior that they could’ve interpreted in a bad way,” he said. “I remained calm, though, and found a better way to deal with it. I spoke with the city commission, and started the coalition.”
Denard wants to publicize his incident so that people notice racial bias in Decatur.
“I am a cautionary tale for Decatur,” he said. “We can stop ourselves from becoming another Ferguson. No city wants to become synonymous with tragedy, and when you hear of Ferguson, that’s what you think of. We have to find a way to ensure that we don’t go too far to violate people’s rights, and I think that this is the way to do it.”
Denard’s personal experience with profiling in Decatur sparked his movement to tackle the larger, local issues of racism. He believes that even if they don’t realize it, most white people in Decatur have a predisposition to white superiority.
“There’s a dog-whistle sort of mentality we have here in Decatur of racial prejudice,” he said. “People have difficulty with seeing people of color as equals that deserve an equal amount of respect. We’re getting better, but it’s still not even.”
He believes that Decatur is progressive, but the city still has a “long way to go.”
“The demographics and general beliefs of Decatur have changed,” he said. “Decatur is overwhelmingly white, but when I first moved here, it was much more diverse and open.”
Denard hopes the coalition will “educate everyone – people of all races, ages, etcetera – on the issue of racial profiling.”
In addition to the Decatur Community Coalition, other groups that target racial issues have sprung up around the city. The Social Justice group, an interfaith coalition based in Decatur, emerged in December 2014.
When meditation leader Mark Reed kicked off the night’s program with a group reflection, he said, “We are accountable for how we treat God’s creation and all people created in God’s image . . . we’ve got a problem in society and we need to address it.”
Small groups of three split off from the group to talk about the film “Cracking the Codes: The system of racial inequity,” which played during the program. Two video segments from the film addressed bias and privilege.
Jon Spencer, active member of the group and parent of junior Caleb Spencer, brought a white male’s perspective to one of these groups.
“I think of myself as not racist,” Spencer said, “but I may have some unconscious white bias, if I’m going to be completely honest, no matter how openly progressive I am.”
Spencer said that he’s aware of his race, and recognizes that he has “never felt held back in any way, by virtue of race, gender and sexual orientation.” He knows that his opportunities aren’t open to every person.
“It’s [obligatory for] me to act, but not be the superhero white man,” Spencer said.
Brady Radford, black associate pastor at Oakhurst Presbyterian, leads part of the program alongside Reed.
“In the grand scheme, the huge question is, ‘What does a conscious white person do with their white privilege?’” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s about increasing awareness.”