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Protest March In Atlanta To Call Out Systematic Criminal Justice Failures


Even before the events of the past few days, people in Atlanta planned a march for today. They intended to stand in front of the Georgia state Capitol today and call out systematic criminal justice and electoral failures. The death of Rayshard Brooks gives them more to protest. Police found Brooks asleep in a car last week. They gave him sobriety tests. And they tried to arrest him. When Brooks seized an officer's Taser and fled - a scene captured on video - an officer shot him. An autopsy says bullets struck Brooks in the back. The medical examiner calls it a homicide. James Woodall is president of Georgia's NAACP, which is coordinating today's march to the Capitol. Good morning, sir.

JAMES WOODALL: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: How does that case, the death of Brooks, change your message today, if at all?

WOODALL: The death of Mr. Brooks has not changed our message. In fact, it has only amplified its urgency as a result of the continuation of dehumanizing violence against African Americans here in the state of Georgia and literally all over this nation. What we are marching for today is to let the world know that we are done dying, that we are done allowing this kind of experience to be had in our communities and that, simply put, that the lack of action and address by our elected officials, both on the general assembly, as well as city councils and even Congress. And so today to coincide with the reconvening of the Georgia General Assembly, we decided to march on Georgia.

INSKEEP: Would you speak to people who see this as a very different case than the death of George Floyd in Minnesota? Because Mr. Brooks resisted arrest, because he grabbed a Taser, because he fled, in your mind, is this a different case?

WOODALL: I believe this is not an isolated circumstance. This is a continuation. Even as we saw it - we don't even have to look at George Floyd's case, even though we do, you don't even have to look at it to see that there's a history of problems - Deaundre Phillips, who was also killed in his car here in the city of Atlanta. We had Oscar Cain, who was killed here in the city of Atlanta. We have Jimmy Atchison, who was killed in the city of Atlanta. So - Anthony Hill was killed by a police officer in the state of Georgia. I think it was over in Gwinnett County or DeKalb County. And so what we have is a continuation of the kind of dehumanizing violence that continues to lead up in more people dead. If we're going to have a police department and law enforcement that's called to protect and serve but every single time when we have one of these cases, it's always is a black man who ends up dead, while a white man or a white woman, you know, ends up behind bars, this is just simply unacceptable.

INSKEEP: Your organization said that Rayshard Brooks was killed for sleeping. Do you argue that the police could have just, having woken him up, just sent him home?

WOODALL: Well, that's exactly what he was trying to do. He was sleeping in his car because he was intoxicated. So rather than drive, he elected to sleep. And the fact that somebody called the cops on him because he was sleeping is indicative of a deeper social ill, that every time there is an issue with black bodies or black people doing something, they call the police. And then the police ended up, you know, escalating the force and end up with another black man dead. That's what we're dealing with, the fact that they were even called in the first place instead of somebody just simply calling him an Uber or just simply minding their business.

INSKEEP: You want a change in policing culture. Your organization has said there needs to be a change in policing culture. What does that mean to you?

WOODALL: It means that if - one, in the city of Atlanta, that means to divest from police. There's way too many police officers. Mayor Bottoms has called for even more police. But the city of Atlanta has, you know, one of the highest police per capita rates in the nation. It's way too many people - the oversaturation of law enforcement and militarization is indicative of a deeper problem in that we prioritize, you know, police and criminal activity over education and essential services, like Medicare and health care. So, you know, this is just one of many issues. And this is deeper than just law enforcement. This is a - there's a need for a paradigm shift that actually prioritizes the humanization of its people. And until that happens, we're going to continue to see this. And that's why we march on Georgia, to let them know that we do not stand in support of this.

INSKEEP: Now, you mention Mayor Bottoms. You're talking about an African American mayor has a different point of view than you do on police funding. Would you describe the debate in the black community between people who want less police, less police funding and people who may still want more, in spite of their unhappiness with incidents like this last one?

WOODALL: Well, I would say that the disparity exists because the people who are in the streets protesting are done watching their loved ones, their friends, their brothers, their mothers, their sisters and fathers dead. Like, this is deeper than a funding question. But the funding part of the question shows us the priorities. And so it doesn't matter if the mayor is black or white. What matters is that people who are dead in the streets continue to be, you know, ignored, that, you know, the very causes of why they're dead, their blood is on the hands of leadership who continue to prioritize the militarization and the violence over their actual lives.

INSKEEP: Wouldn't retraining police be something that would cost money, though? Changing the culture is something that may not be cheap.

WOODALL: Well, if it cost money, then that's a worthy investment. I would rather us invest in actually protecting and saving lives over just allowing there to be a continuation of wrongful death suits, of having to pay unemployment claims because some officer got fired or, you know, those kinds of things. So if it costs money, then so be it. I mean, we seem to have enough money every time we need to hire more officers. I think we should do the right thing and also find the money to actually take care of our people.

INSKEEP: Reverend Woodall, pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

WOODALL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: James Woodall is president of the Georgia NAACP, whose members are marching on the Georgia state Capitol today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.