DALTON, Ga. — They filled the south lawn of the Whitfield County Courthouse Monday afternoon — black and white and brown, male and female. Some 300 of them kneeling in support of criminal justice reform.
"This is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," said Rashun Mack, a Dalton High School graduate and a board member of the Atlanta-based Southern Advocacy Group, which organized the protest.
"We (the group) are college students from rural Georgia. We are all political science majors, and when we were in the capital we realized that rural Georgia wasn't being reached. People in rural Georgia were being left behind. So we created an organization called the Southern Advocacy Group that advocates for issues in rural Georgia. We aim to educate rural Georgia about civic issues," he said.
Mack had refused to give his name when speaking to a reporter on the phone Monday morning, saying, "We feel like there may be an overreaction by the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office. We want to ensure that this protest does go on."
But on Monday afternoon he said he was pleased at how law enforcement was handling the march.
"I'm completely satisfied," he said. "I was in Atlanta this weekend, and on the first night of protests, the police rolled out, hundreds of police officers, before there was even a riot. That set people on edge and escalated the situation. I didn't want that to happen here. But the officers here, they understand this is going to be very peaceful, and they have been cooperative."
Since the protest took place in the city of Dalton, the Dalton Police Department had jurisdiction.
"We will do what we can," Police Chief Cliff Cason told Mack. "We are here to help you."
"He's a very nice man," Cason said to a reporter about Mack. "We are here to support the community. We have officers along the march route to make sure there are no pedestrian-vehicle accidents. It's easier to do that if we know in advance what the plans are."
In fact, Cason and police Capt. Jamie Johnson took part in the march, as did Whitfield County Sheriff's Office Lt. Gary Stephens.
"We are here to show that we support the First Amendment, and we support their right to express themselves," said Johnson. "We just want to show them we are there for them and want everything to go well. It was difficult because we did not know who the organizer was. Usually, they go through the permitting process, and we sit down with them and get a better idea of what their plans are and we can determine what we need to do and what manpower we will need."
City Council members Annalee Harlan and Tyree Goodlett also took part in the march.
"I just felt compelled as a city official to show my support for the First Amendment," said Harlan. "I'm just here as an observer, but I would say that in the future it is better for the safety of the participants if they ask for a permit so that we have a better idea of the planning that is needed."
Goodlett said he wanted the protesters to know "I am with them."
"At the same time, I want them to make sure this is peaceful," he said. "People have a right to free speech, and we will defend that. But we aren't going to let things get out of hand."
Mack said the Southern Advocacy Group organized the march "because of what is going on in the country right now," referring to the protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who died in police custody on May 25. Derek Chauvin, the fired police officer seen pressing his knee against Floyd's neck while he was handcuffed and pinned to the street, has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
"There's a focus on criminal justice issues right now," Mack said. "A lot of people are upset right now, but this is going to end, things like this are going to end. So we need to capitalize on the momentum while we can."
The march began outside Harmon Field. As the crowd assembled, numerous cars traveled west on Crawford Street, drivers apparently looking to see what was going on.
"This is ballgame traffic," Cason said, referring to Friday night football games at Harmon.
The marchers went east on Crawford Street, left onto Jones Street and right onto Waugh Street. They then came down Pentz Street to King Street to the courthouse.
There, Mack told the crowd that after a Facebook post went up over the weekend announcing the protest he had numerous calls asking him to call it off, saying they feared violence would erupt. He praised the crowd for proving them wrong.
He then turned things over to Dalton resident Susie Brown.
"First of all, you are a person, no matter what color you are," she said. "Second of all, you need to get your heart right with Jesus."
Brown urged young people to get an education, and she urged people to register to vote and to vote. She said knowledge and voting can make the country and the community better.
The protesters then went up Selvidge Street to City Hall. There, Mack outlined changes he said his organization would like to see in the criminal justice system in Whitfield County. He praised Whitfield County and the Conasauga Judicial Circuit for having accountability courts — Domestic Violence Court, Drug Court and Mental Health Court — which can keep some offenders out of prison and in the community.
"But we have to expand that further," Mack said. "We have to keep improving. I'd like to see more money for rehabilitation because Dalton has a drug problem. I don't think people who abuse drugs are necessarily bad. They have a sickness. Criminalizing drugs makes no sense."
He said he'd like to see the City Council adopt a resolution telling the police department not to arrest people for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.
He pointed to an April 7 article in the Daily Citizen-News on a decline in arrests during the prior month, which officials with the Dalton Police Department and the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office said could be due to discretion given to officers to give citations rather than make arrests for minor, nonviolent crimes during the coronavirus pandemic.
He said the group would like to see that policy continue.
He also said he'd like to see the sheriff's office leave the 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement to check the immigration status of individuals who have been taken into custody. Mack said that program can cause those who are arrested to be deported.
"There's a large Hispanic population here," he said. "They were brought here for cheap labor, to be honest. But many of them have been part of this community for decades. They have had children here who are citizens. They pay taxes. They are our neighbors. I'm not calling for open borders. But they are so integrated into the community, it makes no sense to remove them."
Asked if local officials would make any of those changes, Goodlett said, "That's something that would have to come down the pipeline. It's something we would have to study and consider. But I don't think we are going to make changes just because of this."