Last week communities across Atlanta came together for the annual observance of National Night Out, an event meant to forge partnerships between neighborhoods and law enforcement, and educate community members about crime prevention tactics.
The event comes on the heels of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, which has electrified black communities across the country, and the opening of the film “Fruitvale Station,” which tells the story of Oscar Grant, an unarmed Black man who was killed by a police officer.
Both happenings have sparked discussions about the value of Black life in the U.S. and the way in which black communities engage with law enforcement.
During National Night Out on Tuesday Night, some community residents shared their opinion of the way in which the Atlanta police interact with their respective communities.
Llyasha Treadwell, a local massage therapist, is new to the Booker T. Washington community. She said that she sees a heavy police presence in her neighborhood, and that while she feels safe, it’s not because of the officers.
“I feel safe, but I think I feel safe because I have good neighbors and I just always know that I’m protected,” she said. “I’ve been told that the neighborhood was worse, and that the police are really helping as far as just with their presence alone.”
William Cannon, the president of the Booker T. Washington Community Association since 1995 and the chair of the Zone 1 Citizens’ Advisory Council since 1997, said that his community has a “very good relationship” with APD.
“Our community is substantially better simply because, even through the change of police chiefs, the change of zone commanders, we have maintained a consistent relationship with the police department,” he said.
Cannon went on to say that over the years he thinks the police have been responsive to the concerns of his community, though he also said that feelings about that vary from person to person.
In contrast, Shawn Walton, the current president of the Ashview Heights Neighborhood Association, said that in his experience as an Atlanta youth in the Ashview Heights community, “you really don’t have a relationship with the police unless they’re just riding around your community patrolling.”
“I think it’s naïve and irresponsible for us to have [the police] solve it, when all they’re going to do, especially in this community, is lock up our children,” he said. “We’re dealing with problems that are not at the branch but they’re at the root, and the police are only going to cut the branches.”
Walton added that while he believes it’s best to have communities engage their own youth through structured programs and activities, one of the best things police and officials can do is support neighborhood activities for young people.
In East Atlanta, the community is still recovering from a string of crimes that have plagued the area since May. The suspects were described as Black teenagers, and so far five have been arrested in connection with the crimes.
During a community public safety meeting held earlier this month, one African-American mother was moved to speak out against neighbors who sought to profile Black youth or engage in vigilante justice.
Adita Howard of the East Atlanta Kids Club noticed that racial profiling was on the minds of the club’s kids and teens in the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial and organized a panel discussion. The discussion, held July 19, allowed EAKC students to talk with community leaders about topics that concerned them, including racial profiling and interactions with police officers.
“They were saying they never really had anybody to open up to about things that were on their minds and their development issues that they were going through,” Howard said. “I just felt that if they didn’t have that opportunity we would give them the opportunity.”
Howard says that some of the youth are feeling “a little targeted” in the wake of the crime wave.
“At this point they were saying that it’s just a little more obvious that people are looking at them as if they may be up to no good, or participating in some mischievous activity,” she said.
Jill Sieder, the executive director of the EAKC, said that the officials present at the panel discussion were sympathetic to the concerns of the students. She said she thought that they communicated a “desire to build relationships” and “break down the barrier that exists between police and young people.”
Nicholas Bell, a 13-year-old student at Charles R. Drew Charter School, was present at the panel discussion. When it comes to racial profiling, Bell said that he doesn’t think the police target Black youth, and that he has never felt singled out by police because of his race.
“All the people think that [police target Back youth] because of segregation, you know, racism,” he said. “But I don’t think that because I have plenty of policemen that come to me and want to talk to me, and play ball with me.”
Howard considered the panel a success, saying it revealed that the students “had a lot to say, and that they’re very bright and intelligent young people who have real concerns.”
“They need to have a voice so that people who are advocates and program directors and people who make policies and laws can know how those policies and programs actually affect their lives. And I think that’s what it revealed, that we can do that and come together as a community, and hear them,” she said.