LGBTQ officials join ‘no justice, no peace’ protests in Atlanta

Two LGBTQ elected officials are playing an increasingly visible role in the Atlanta protests that have consumed the city since Friday.

Atlanta City Councilmember Antonio Brown and state Rep. Park Cannon have marched with demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25. On Sunday, they joined with other young elected officials to publicly unveil a plan for impacting lasting change after the “no justice, no peace” protests. 

“It’s important that as a people we channel our emotions and we move into action and actionable plans so that we can start demanding justice,” Brown said. “Young people are feeling as though they are not being heard, and it’s important that we ensure that their voices are heard today.”

Brown’s comments came Sunday as he led a press conference near the Fulton County Jail. The event was held just hours after Atlanta police violently arrested two college students during the city’s curfew crackdown on Saturday. Police released Taniyah Pilgrim on Saturday, but Messiah Young was still housed in the jail when Brown, Cannon and other lawmakers gathered on Sunday afternoon.

“We are standing here together united. We are standing here as Messiah Young is in court for an incident that happened last night. We stand united with him,” Brown said. 

Brown (top photo) and Cannon were joined by state Sen. Nikema Wiliams, chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, Rep. Erica Thomas and talk radio personality Rashad Richey. The group announced the launch of a hotline (470-542-9657) to track police misconduct during the protests, called for the creation of the Metro Atlanta Uprising Task Force, lobbied for the passage of legislation to track use of excessive force by law enforcement officers and urged people to vote.

“I stand here a 28-year-old Georgia-born girl who is absolutely frustrated and disheartened,” Cannon said at the press conference.

“Young people are speaking up and are speaking out about police brutality, but they are not being listened to, and we are standing here in the middle to say share the full story of what is going on in America, in Atlanta and in Georgia,” Cannon added.

Brown is the only LGBTQ member of the Atlanta City Council. Cannon is one of five LGBTQ lawmakers in the Georgia House. 

'Put structural changes in place'

Cannon (second photo) and Thomas called on supporters to lobby their local lawmakers to pass House Bill 636. The legislation from state Rep. Renitta Shannon – another of the state’s five LGBTQ lawmakers – would require law enforcement agencies to report use of force incidents to a publicly available database. Shannon introduced the Use of Force Data Collection Act in March 2019 but the bill has not received any attention from lawmakers. 

“They are trying their best not to even let us get a committee hearing or get it to the House floor,” Thomas said. “They are going to try and defeat this bill left and right.”

The lawmakers said H.B. 636 would help hold police accountable for their actions, an issue at the center of the protests in Atlanta and across the country. Cannon said law enforcement tactics are becoming “increasingly escalated.”

“We must put structural changes in place to address these issues. We know excessive use of force can be put in a database,” she added.

Cannon also urged lawmakers to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes bill. The legislation passed the state House last year but stalled in the state Senate. It has gained renewed traction since the killing of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick on Feb. 23.

“What we know about hate crimes in Georgia is that they don’t just look one way. So what we need is to create in the same way a database, a file system, a way for policing officers to put these infractions into a database for review,” Cannon said.

Lawmakers return to the State Capitol in mid-June to complete a session that was put on hold in March during coronavirus lockdowns.

The participants at the press conference called for the creation of a Metro Atlanta Uprising Task Force to harness the energy of the protests into actionable results. The task force would work to bring reform to law enforcement in the same way that a criminal justice task force chaired by former Gov. Nathan Deal recommended sweeping changes to federal criminal justice systems, Cannon said.

Brown also urged supporters to vote on June 9 in the primaries and again in November’s general election.

“We have the ability to elect our sheriffs. We have the ability to elect our district attorney. We have an obligation that we take our rightful place and ensure that we are holding our elected officials accountable,” Brown said.

On Monday, Brown led a rally on the steps of Atlanta City Hall a day after again marching with protesters in the streets. 

“Our message was clear: no justice, no peace. We have to be smart. We have to organize strategically. It is pointless to march without a plan, without a mission, without a call to action. We need to work together to put our solutions down and demand them of our elected officials,” Brown said. 

He said as he learned of the arrest of Pilgrim and Messiah, he called Chief Erika Shields – Atlanta’s first LGBTQ police chief – and called for action and the release of body camera video footage from the officers involved. 

“I told her this is unacceptable, that we needed to get body camera footage and hold these people accountable. And guess what? They were fired, and we will not stop now,” Brown said.

On Tuesday, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced criminal charges against six officers involved in the incident. Officers Ivory Streeter and Mark Gardner, who were fired on Sunday, are charged with aggravated assault.

Also Tuesday, Cannon and Shannon were among female lawmakers who addressed police accountability during a press conference at the State Capitol.