On Tuesday, July 19, VOX was invited to a town hall hosted by WSB-TV at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. The panel, in front of an audience of about 100, primarily discussed the recent shootings of police officers and black men around the country, and the emotional atmosphere in Atlanta surrounding those events. The program was interspersed with segments from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, and questions via social media from viewers of the live program.
The town hall was moderated by news anchors Jovita Moore and Craig Lucie. The name of the program and hashtag, #AtlantaUnite, trended on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter throughout the night.
As a member of the live audience, I saw a microcosm of the United States around me. The panel included both people within the political system like Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and George Turner, Atlanta’s police chief, and civilians from professional sectors like academia and religion. During the town hall, I wanted to participate in a conversation that would help put the nation back on track. I hoped that my VOX colleague Alimah and I would be able to ask questions about the world we’re in the process of inheriting.
The event raised more questions for me than it answered. It says something profound about the state of our nation — and our fair city of Atlanta — that no one trusted actual residents and community members to ask questions. The event was so tightly scripted that no one — including us — was allowed to ask questions. Indeed, the only questions offered were asked by people pre-selected by the station. Even the questions posed on social media by those back home who were following the program weren’t answered. What’s the point of a town hall when residents’ questions fall on deaf ears?
Surprisingly, Black Lives Matter activist Mary Hooks was invited to comment. Her remarks were so poignant and combative that we knew she wasn’t scripted.
But Mayor Kasim Reed had a point. “You don’t speak for every black person,” he said publicly to Hooks. His words were filled with scorn, but that’s not how I heard them. Perhaps Hooks doesn’t speak for every black person, but she was one of the only ones allowed to speak and vent the frustration bubbling in the black community. If Mayor Reed really wanted to hear the voices of other black people, why didn’t he and WSB-TV open up the floor?
But that wasn’t the only question that haunted my mind. When Mayor Reed spoke about the 25 demands of Atlanta Black Lives Matter activists, he also mentioned counter-terrorism efforts in Atlanta. According to him, the Atlanta Police Department has a strong partnership with the police forces in Israel. His reference to the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange opened a can of worms I didn’t at all expect. Why does an Atlanta police officer have to travel so far to receive counter-terrorism training? What exactly are they learning? And why Israel?
Also, it’s interesting to me how whenever Black Lives Matter is mentioned, people are quick to equate criticism with hatred. This isn’t so. As a college student, both my peers and my professors offer constructive criticism for my writing. Criticizing me doesn’t mean that they think I’m a horrible writer who should never touch a pen again. It’s the same with the conversation surrounding police brutality and Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter hasn’t killed anyone, yet people have petitioned to have it labeled as a terrorist group. The Ku Klux Klan has proudly killed in the past and I’ve never heard people seriously consider it a terrorist group.
Al Vivian of Basic Diversity Inc. was one of the only panelists to mention something that individuals can do. He told the audiences, both live and via television, that the first thing we can do is look within ourselves and conquer our implicit biases — the biases we don’t even know we have. As much as some people claim we live in a post-race society, it seems that racial tension is at the root of many of our problems. It won’t be the solution, but if we take a good hard look at ourselves and ask ourselves tough questions, it might be the way to a future filled with hope instead of hostility.
Arlena is a rising sophomore at Barnard College. She loves writing, reading and fervently believes that all lives will truly matter when black lives matter. Say hi on Twitter @lenamcclenton.
Photos by Alimah Dawkins, 18, a recent graduate of South Atlanta High School.
An invitation to Atlanta teens:
VOX is a by-teens, for-teens communications platform committed to lifting the voices of all Atlanta-area teens, no matter their opinion. This coming semester, VOX Investigates will cover the sometimes controversial topic of race. Have something to say about race or the experiences of Atlanta teens? Apply to be a teen staff member or a contributor here, or send your letters, poems, videos, stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.