'It's time to start': Protesters in Dalton seek true equality

Ryan Anderson/Daily Citizen-News

The protest march began at Harmon Field before moving to the Whitfield County Courthouse, then to City Hall.

The protest wave that has spread across the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota last week reached Dalton on Monday, with some members of the crowd noting it's past time for action on the issue of inequality in America, while also emphasizing the importance of keeping protests peaceful.

"We have spent 400 years talking, and now it's time for action," said Jennifer Austin, who has spent most of her life in Dalton. "We need to be heard, and it's time to see the fruits of what we've been (discussing)."

Now 58, Austin remembers seeing drinking fountains and bathrooms designated separately for whites and blacks as a child, so she's frustrated to see what she says is how little progress has been made on equality in her lifetime.

"Blacks in Dalton have been here for generations, and we don't have anything," she said. "We don't get the funding for what we want to do, and we keep talking, but nothing is changing."

Austin's father was in the military, so, starting at age 5, she lived all around the world before returning to Dalton in her teens.

"I've seen the differences" in those places juxtaposed with Dalton, and "everyone knows what we need, but we haven't done it," she said. "I still stand for my community, and I still love my community, but no more talking: It's time to start acting."

Monday's march was led by Dalton High School graduate Rashun Mack, a member of the Southern Advocacy Group, a new group based in Atlanta comprised of college students from rural Georgia that advocates for issues affecting those areas. Mack noted the protesters attended for a multitude of reasons. He also found it "very encouraging" to see not only African Americans, but several races and ages represented.

"Movements are rainbow coalitions, and this (scene) portrays Dalton how it really is," said Mack. "These are self-determined individuals who want to make a difference in their community, and it's beautiful to see."

Sequoyah Mack, Rashun Mack's mother, concurred.

"It's time for every voice to be heard, all people of color, everybody," she said. "I see a lot of little kids here, and we want them to know they have a voice, too."

Dalton's Cash Robinson, 19; Abby Gleaton, 18; and Julian Perez, 19, all made their first appearance at a protest on Monday.

"Our country has been dealing with racism for far too long, and I grew up learning about it," said Perez, a student at Dalton State College. "As a minority, I don't feel treated as an equal," and he stands in solidarity with those like Floyd who have been "wrongly killed."

"We all just want our voices to be heard" in support of "actual equality," Perez added. "If we're united together, we can be stronger than ever."

People "are being oppressed, and anyone with a voice who can help should definitely do so," said Gleaton, a student at Middle Tennessee State University. "This isn't white versus black; it's people versus racists."

"We need to see people as people, not as colors," Gleaton added. "We need to be more loving and understanding."

It's "no secret there's a lot of unrest right now, (so) it's more important than ever for people like myself who have had fortunate lives to listen to those who haven't been as fortunate," said Robinson, a student at the University of Georgia. "It should be our priority to lift all views up, because we haven't all been treated the same, and it's important to (understand) that."

Rashun Mack's family has "been in Dalton for six or seven generations," and after spending time in Atlanta, including as a field organizer for Stacey Abrams' gubernatorial campaign, he's bringing some of that experience back to this community in hopes of making improvements for all residents, he said. "This is the place I know as home, and we'd hate to see something blow up in Dalton" over racial tensions.

The march began at Harmon Field before moving to the Whitfield County Courthouse, then to City Hall. Mack wants local leaders to understand they have power to take action on certain matters of law, then do so.

For example, "Whitfield County has a drug problem," he said. "We do, but the solution for too long has been to lock people up for possessing small amounts of drugs, which is not constructive at all."

In fact, "it's regressive, and it becomes a cycle" of crime and poverty, he said. "People have to restart their lives" when they're incarcerated, so it would be better to simply issue citations for low-level drug offenses and/or focus more on treatment than punishment.

Robinson concurred with Mack.

"They are addicts, and they need help, not jail," Robinson said. "We can do better" as a society.

Mack also sympathizes with this area's Hispanic population, some of whom fear U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

"The Hispanic community is the lifeblood of Whitfield County, and there's no reason they should be targeted by ICE," he said. "Don't send them back."

He'd also like to see a community review board that could examine the actions of law enforcement, "just in case," he said. "It's preemptive."

Floyd, an African American, pleaded that he could not breathe after a white police officer kneeled on his neck during an arrest, and Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis 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. Chauvin and three other officers involved in Floyd's arrest have all been fired.

"I have a grandson who just graduated high school, and I have to have the talk with him about how he should handle the police, (because) I fear for him constantly," Austin said. "Why should I have to have that talk with him in Dalton in 2020?"

Those "not really living this can (sympathize), but they can't truly understand,'' Sequoyah Mack said. "A lot of people just look at the color of your skin, but that's like judging a book by its cover."

Many of the protests across America in the wake of Floyd's death have been peaceful, but some have seen violence that included rioting and/or looting and damage to property.

More than 1,400 people have been arrested in 16 cities since Thursday, according to The Associated Press. On Thursday night, rioters set the Minneapolis Police 3rd Precinct building on fire.

Many of the protesters in Dalton emphasized the importance of nonviolence.

"Everyone has a (responsibility) to keep the peace," Robinson said. "We're out here advocating for life."

"We want everybody to be safe, that's the most important thing," Rashun Mack said. "This is my city, and I don't want to see it blow up."

Sequoyah Mack echoed those sentiments, noting, "As long as it's peaceful, I'm here."

"You can get your point across without looting or rioting," she said. "Looting and rioting is not going to solve the problem."

Rashun Mack credited Dalton Police Department officers for working with him in staging the protest, rather than putting obstacles in his path.

"The police are protecting us" during the march, he said. "I'm proud of them."

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