One of the lead organizers of a march set to begin at 4 p.m. today outside Harmon Field said the march is because "Dalton has a lot of issues related to the criminal justice system."
The man declined to give his name because "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. We don't want any of our organizers to be stopped before they reach Whitfield County."
The march is being organized by the Southern Advocacy Group, which the organizer described as a new group based in Atlanta. He was reached at a phone number listed on the group's Facebook page.
"We 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.
The organizer said the group has a "Dalton native" on its board who invited them to come to Dalton to march. He declined to name that board member. But the group's website went live Monday afternoon, and Whitfield County native Rashun Mack is one of three board members listed.
Sheriff's Office Maj. John Gibson said there are deputies at the Whitfield County courthouse because the sheriff's office is responsible for security there. But he adds the Dalton Police Department has jurisdiction for where the march will take place.
"We will have officers available if the city requests them, but otherwise, we will have no involvement with this march," he said.
Gibson said the sheriff's office has no ability to stop the organizers from coming to Dalton.
"We can't do anything unless they break the law," he said.
The group's Facebook page says that "due to COVID-19 and for the safety of our protesters we are asking all in attendance to wear face masks."
City of Dalton Communications Director Bruce Frazier said that as far as he knows no permits have been issued for the march but as long as protesters walk on sidewalks and crosswalks and don't block traffic they do not need a permit.
The organizer said they will be presenting a "list of demands" in front of City Hall.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington said a City Council meeting planned for 6 tonight has been canceled for lack of a quorum, so there likely won't be anyone from the City Council there when the list of demands is read.
The march organizer said their Dalton board member has told them Whitfield County has a large drug problem.
"We are all political science majors and policy majors, so we've come up with some solutions that should help with that problem that might not include locking people up," the organizer said. "We'd like to see officers given more discretion."
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 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 as well as to have possession of less than an ounce of marijuana decriminalized.
A post by the group on its Facebook page says "Whitfield County politicians and local elite know they are corrupt. They do not want the people to hold them accountable for their actions or their lack of action in some cases. We have received calls asking that we do not protest. To those people we have 3 words '(Expletive) that (expletive).'"
Organizers later removed the expletives from the post.
Asked what corrupt actions that post referred to, the organizer said their Dalton board member told them "There is a lot of money in Whitfield County from the carpet companies. The carpet companies do have their hands in politicians' pockets for sure. We do not like the relationship that they have. Our board member told us it has hurt economic growth in Whitfield County because it is not diversified. It is a carpet city."
Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Lynn Laughter said she does not believe there is any corruption among local officials.
"We have been working for over 10 years to diversify the local economy," she said. "Go down to the Carbondale Business Park. Commissioners have put millions of dollars into Carbondale. We currently have two tenants and are working to get more in there."
The tenants are adhesive manufacturer XL Brands and solar module manufacturer Hanwha Q Cells. The Hanwha plant opened in January 2019 and employs more than 700 and is one of the 15 largest private employers in the county.
Pennington said Dalton is "fortunate that the carpet industry was invented here."
"Carpet companies have invested billions of dollars in this community," he said.
During the past week, thousands of people across the country have protested 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. Many protests throughout the country have been peaceful, but others have turned violent as protesters have clashed with police, been arrested and caused damage to businesses and buildings.
"PSA: We are a nonviolent organization, with the mission of fighting hate and empowering rural Georgians," according to the march group's Facebook page. "We plan to have a peaceful march, but we cannot predict how the WCSO will react. If you do not feel safe marching do not come. The fact that we have to be worried about being arrested for exercising our First Amendment rights should give us all more reason to protest!"
Managing Editor Jamie Jones contributed to this report.