The five panelists came from different interest groups, but many shared a belief that local law enforcement have unfairly targeted minorities and that the local school system has failed students in low-income neighborhoods.
The Cobb United for Change Coalition organized the meeting Thursday night at Trinity Tabernacle Baptist Church on Veterans Memorial Highway in Mableton. It plans to conduct more public meetings on a bi-monthly basis. About 40 people attended and were encouraged to ask questions.
The panelists were the Rev. Lionel Gantt of the Cobb Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Lisa Davis, CobbWorks program services manager; GALEO Executive Director Jerry Gonzalez; educator Dr. Michael Rhett; and Nation of Islam minister Charles Muhammad.
The issues addressed in Thursday’s two-hour meeting included education, jobs, immigration, racial profiling and prisons, topics that at times produced passionate discussions.
“When I live in suburbia and I’m white, I don’t get stressed when I see lights flashing in the background,” Muhammad said. “If I’m Latino or I’m black, I get scared. It’s a reality. It’s a reality in Cobb County and in America.”
Muhammad, who called the prison system a 21st century plantation, said he had no confidence in the ability of police to enforce the law without racial bias, an opinion shared by many in the room. Audience member Carlos Garcia of Marietta said he could personally attest to local police practicing racial profiling.
“They tailgate you and they find any possible reason to stop you and check your immigration status; that is what I call racial profiling,” Garcia said. “They said there’s no racial profiling? I’ve been harassed by police officers in Cobb County, and I’m sick and tired of it.”
The Cobb Sheriff’s Office was the first agency in Georgia to participate in 287(g) program, which gives local governments access to a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement database. Since July 2007, thousands of Cobb inmates have been identified as illegal immigrants.
Gonzalez has been an outspoken critic of the 287(g) program and Georgia House Bill 87, legislation currently under a federal court’s review, which would allow police to investigate the immigration status of a suspect. He said such measures have enabled officers to harass minorities.
“We need to change the make-up of the Cobb County Commission to ensure that they will hold law enforcement accountable to do what they are supposed to be doing, which is to uphold public safety,” Gonzalez said.
“I get a phone call when someone’s house is broken into in Cobb County, not 911. I get a phone call saying, ‘Mr. Gonzalez, if I call the police, are they going to harass me because I’m undocumented?’ Unfortunately, I have to say, ‘In Cobb County, yes.’”
Gonzalez also said he has been working with residents to file complaints against police with the U.S. Justice Department.
On the other hand, Gantt said that his organization has found common ground when speaking to police about residents’ concerns. He stressed the need for all individuals to be held accountable for their actions, regardless of their skin color.
The topic of education also raised an intense debate about what should be done to improve public education. Given the lack of jobs, which has raised unemployment over the national average in black and Hispanic communities, many questioned the current system’s effectiveness in preparing students to enter the workforce.
Davis said her organization, a nonprofit that provides employment and educational resources for jobseekers, has seen children dropping out of school to help their families financially.
Rhett, an Air Force veteran who has taught in Cobb, said one problem that exists in education is excessive standardized testing. “By the time they get to high school and don’t pass any of these tests, then they’re out,” Rhett said. He suggested that more students should be prepared for vocational and technical schools.
Muhammad said the present school system had run its course and that the curriculum is not helping students. He urged community members to come together and set standards for their children’s education.
While he stated that too many school education systems have been undermined by budget cuts, Gonzalez emphasized the importance of education in helping disadvantaged people to improve their circumstances in life.
“We’re pointing externally and saying the educational system is a mess, but we’re not doing anything about it,” he said. “We need to take ownership of the problems we have in education and we need to invest and make sure we can take charge of these problems and make solutions, and not just complain.”
No elected officials had attending the meeting. Many of the panelists urged residents to express their dissatisfaction by voting for better representation on school boards and local government bodies.
“How bad can our problems be when we’re here and I don’t think there’s an elected official around?” said audience member Michael Murphy of the Austell Community Taskforce.