Chattanooga community leaders call for end to racism following George Floyd's death

Peaceful disobedience will be encouraged but cannot be guaranteed, the group said

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Protestors and police stand on opposite sides of Georgia Avenue near Miller Park on Monday, June 1, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The people were protesting the death of George Floyd. Floyd, 46, died after being handcuffed and pinned for several minutes beneath Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin's knee. Protests entered their third night in Chattanooga.

A joint letter from multiple organizations representing community and faith leaders in Chattanooga is calling for legislative and interpersonal changes to end racism.

The letter - supported by Chattanooga-Hamilton County BME District Association, Pilgrim Joy District Association, Clergy Koinonia, Servant Leadership, Kingdom Partners, Young Ministers Network and the local NAACP - details action steps for elected officials, people in the community and church members.

The leaders are requesting a meeting with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy and Sheriff Jim Hammond to discuss changes to systems that promote racism.

"The reality is, African Americans have only lived with the possibility of equal rights for the past 54 years," the letter reads. "We have lived with injustices, indignity and racial bias/discrimination for more than 400 years, which is why waiting and asking for more patience from the black community is no longer an option."

Protests have filled Chattanooga's streets, and streets across the country, for more than a week in response to the death of George Floyd in the custody of a Minnesota police officer. The joint statement released last week did not include specific policy recommendations or any of the demands outlined by protest organizers, such as defunding the police, something local activists have made a cornerstone of their demonstrations.

The group said they will support any legislation that will "reduce racism, discrimination and inequities of all kinds" but included that legislative change is not enough on its own to end racism in the United States.

People should examine their own biases, call out racism when they see it and expand opportunities for people of color, the group said.

Protests will continue, the letter reads, as long as it is necessary to achieve equity and inclusion. Peaceful disobedience will be encouraged but cannot be guaranteed, the group said.

"We will not judge those that choose not to engage in peaceful protest because we know that such actions come from those that believe they are not being heard," the letter reads.

Protests in the city have remained mostly peaceful, though some evening demonstrations involved damage to buildings and arrests. At one point, sheriff's deputies used tear gas on protesters gathered outside the Hamilton County Courthouse. Hammond later defended the decision to use tear gas.

On Friday, Berke announced he intended to sign former President Barack Obama's commitment-to-action pledge to review the city's use-of-force policies. During the announcement, the mayor noted the creation of a citizen oversight board for the police department in 2019 and said his government has worked on issues related to this for several years.

The joint statement called attention not just to Floyd's killing but also to what they believe are local cases of police abuse, including Wadie Suttles, who died while in police custody in 1983. Even as Roddy gained national attention for speaking out against Floyd's killing, Chattanooga's police chief has faced criticism locally for not doing more with cases of abuse in his department.

In a statement released Sunday, local NAACP chapter president George Calhoun said Berke and Roddy should make the police department's policies and budget public to allow for citizen-informed reform.

"Clear and concise policies are required and swift action taken when the policies are violated," Calhoun said in the statement. "'Enough is Enough' is a coined phrase, but speaks volumes to the systematic mistreatment of citizens."

Last week, leaders with the Unity Group of Chattanooga issued their own statement, asking local leaders to work together for the "permanent eradication of law enforcement misconduct."

Protests are scheduled to continue tonight at Coolidge Park at 7 p.m.

Contact Wyatt Massey at [email protected] or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.