Volunteers promoting careful listening and candid discussions between Statesboro's African-American and law enforcement communities hope to move forward now based on what they learned last year.
An open gathering of the Beloved Community Steering Committee is set for 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at Rebecca’s Café, also known as the old Julia P. Bryant School cafeteria at 400 Donnie Simmons Way. The group is inviting all who have shown interest previously and others who would like to join.
“In Phase 2 of this we really, really want more local community to participate,” said Beloved Community Steering Committee member Adrianne McCollar. “We had great participation, but we had a whole bunch of our GSU students, and we love our GSU students and they show up for everything, and then you had NAACP folks – you know, folks who were always involved – but we also need people who aren’t always involved, so we want to introduce new people to the process.”
Like several other, but not all, committee members, McCollar is a Georgia Southern University employee. But she is a member as a concerned Statesboro resident, not through her job in facilities services, and the Beloved Community effort started off campus.
Began after Ferguson
It began as a quiet conversation soon after the Aug. 9, 2014, death of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African-American man shot by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson. While protests followed and news reports emerged of the deaths of several other black citizens in encounters with law enforcement around the country, Joe Bill Brannon, who as a full-time volunteer operates Statesboro’s Food Bank, asked what could be done to prevent Statesboro and Bulloch County from becoming “another Ferguson.”
Brannon, Unitarian Universalist pastor Jane Page and retired educator Johnny Tremble, who is also involved with the Food Bank, became the original organizers, adopting the name from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to “create a beloved community.” By the spring of 2015, the Beloved Community Steering Committee grew to 15 members.
The committee brought Herb Walters, head of the nonprofit Listening Project, to Statesboro to train volunteers in leading non-confrontational listening sessions. The committee then held its major event thus far, an eight-hour group listening session attended by 42 people, on Aug. 1, 2015, also at Rebecca’s Café. Besides the facilitators and note takers, those who took part included 14 African-American young people ages 16-25, seven older black community members and 14 officers from the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office, the Statesboro Police Department and Georgia Southern University Public Safety. Individuals reportedly answered questions put to everyone without criticizing one another’s statements.
News organizations were not invited to the listening session. But after a March 24 follow-up session and a survey of participants, the Beloved Community Steering Committee issued a summary report in May. The report was posted it on the group’s Facebook page, “Beloved Community - 'Boro Version.”
When participants were asked to describe an experience they or someone close to them had regarding interactions between law enforcement and African-Americans, organizers heard “a divide” in the way law officers and black civilians perceived things.
The report states: “African-American community members described incidents in which they or someone close to them had negative experiences with law enforcement, including questionable use of force. Many law enforcement officers, on the other hand, indicated interactions that they perceived to be more positive, as well as a desire to ‘move past’ negative past experiences and high-profile national cases.”
The five reporting committee members observed a similar divide on related issues.
Through a question about dangerous misconceptions, the group identified “a misconception that all white police officers are racist” but also “a misconception that black culture is violent and so black people are more prone to violence,” as well as, among others “a misconception that police do not care about black lives; response: police care about all lives.”
Beloved Community volunteers maintain that recognizing these differences in perceptions is a positive step toward understanding and change.
“It’s really interesting to hear how people who grew up in the same country or the same region or oftentimes even the same town, people from Statesboro, having very different experiences, and to get to where we can feel trustful and comfortable to get at the root of what those experiences are and how we make meaning of our everyday lives takes a while,” said steering committee member John Nwosu.
Like McCollar, Nwosu is black and a GSU employee, in his case in student support services. He is also a graduate student. Brannon, who is white and not affiliated with the university, agreed with Nwosu that the things the steering committee has done – including months of discussions among its members, besides the one-day listening session – moved participants closer to a new level of trust.
“We did not achieve the ultimate, but we’ve come closer to being one community, which is what our overall gain is to be, is to be a Bulloch County one community, where everybody gives the respect that everybody is due but everybody doesn’t get,” Brannon said.
By the way, one thing citizens and law enforcement reportedly agreed on at last year’s listening session was that the news media is part of the problem.
“The media was blamed in various ways for inciting anger and confusion on both sides,” the report states.
Police leaders in flux
New challenges have appeared during 2016.
Locally, law enforcement leadership remains in flux. Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jared Akins, who was a Beloved Community Steering Committee member and took part in last year’s listening session, lost his bid for sheriff in the May 24 Republican primary and afterwards expressed doubts about remaining with the department. With Sheriff Lynn Anderson retiring at the end of the year, voters will now decide Nov. 8 between the Republican primary winner, Noel Brown, and Democratic candidate Keith Howard.
Meanwhile, after the departure of Wendell Turner as Statesboro’s public safety director last fall, a search for a new Statesboro Police Department chief yielded three finalists – two black and one white – this summer. But city officials announced last week that they are reopening the search to new candidates.
So the Beloved Community volunteers do not know who they will be dealing with in key law enforcement roles in the long run. But they said they will seek to maintain existing relationships and build new ones.
The enemy is violence
Nationally, the July 7 murder of five Dallas police officers by a sniper at the conclusion of an otherwise nonviolent Black Lives Matter protest march introduced a new element to the conversation. Three Baton Rouge, Louisiana, officers were killed in an ambush 10 days later, and media reports focused on other shootings of police.
“Violence is a bad thing,” Nwosu said. “No one deserves the type of things that have been happening to people in this country.”
But he added that hearing about the deaths of police officers may prompt some people to join the conversation who didn’t see the urgency when the victims were young black men who had committed crimes.
The Beloved Community Steering Committee at this point has about eight regularly active members, McCollar said. Attempting to regroup with Wednesday’s meeting, they are also offering to talk to church and civic groups about the group’s mission and the results of last year’s listening session, said steering committee member Danyel Addes, who is also GSU community and civic engagement coordinator.
“We’re not sure exactly sure what Step 2 is going to be, what our second specific goal, or second community event is going to look like, but we know that we have gotten a lot of interest and a lot of support from people just in terms of talking about the listening session,” she said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.