Welcome back to the Year of Fear. Each week until Election Day, the Delacorte Review and Columbia Journalism Review will bring you another chapter from one of our four towns. Click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
In a long-term project such as “The Year of Fear,” you need a premise to keep everyone on track. Our premise of looking at the 2020 political landscape from four different areas of the country, unserved or underserved by newspapers, has been blown to hell, first by COVID-19 and now by the police killings of George Floyd which sparked weeks of major protests across the entire country.
A similar murder happened in Macon-Bibb, about seven years ago. Sammie “Junebug” Davis, Jr., a forty-nine-year-old black man with a history of mental illness regularly hung around the Kroger grocery store. Most everyone who frequented the store knew “Junebug.” He was a panhandler — and he was big, but slow as molasses in winter, and no threat to anyone. On a sunny day with a high of fifty-two, four days before Christmas, 2012, eighty-four-year-old Vivian Marable called 911 and told the dispatcher, “There’s a guy sitting out front, walking, following me to my car and asking me for money. It’s a big, uh, big black guy.” Other than Ms. Marable, another person who didn’t realize that Junebug was harmless was the Macon policeman who responded to her call. Clayton Sutton, a twenty-nine-year-old officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, arrived at the parking lot with a number of complaints of excessive force already on his record. When Sutton approached Junebug, the officer said Junebug attacked. Sutton fired his service weapon four times killing him. The police department initially said Sutton was there to serve Junebug a warrant — and that he had a weapon. There was no warrant and no weapon — and it took the department a week to clarify.
In the end, Sutton wasn’t charged in Junebug’s killing, and there were three months of marches decrying Junebug’s death. A few weeks into it, the Macon Police Department merged with the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office as part of government consolidation and Sutton had a new boss — Sheriff David Davis. The sheriff has a distinct approach to policing — and that’s probably why the county didn’t explode into violence over Junebug’s murder. Davis wants his deputies to be viewed by the community as protectors, not warriors. The marches over Junebug’s death never crossed the line from peaceful to violent. Certainly, the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office has all the riot gear and SWATery, but you didn’t see deputies in riot gear holding protestors at bay — then or now.
Two years later, Sutton was involved in another shooting downtown and was placed on administrative duty and ordered not to engage in any law enforcement duties. However, he confronted two men he suspected of theft with his gun drawn and was fired for insubordination. He appealed his firing twice, but to no avail. In the summer of 2018, Sutton was indicted for aggravated stalking in Dodge County, south of Macon-Bibb.
Six years after Junebug died, that same Midtown Kroger, located in the middle of three affluent neighborhoods, closed. The store had been built only after a three-year zoning fight that went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court. Now the neighborhoods are left with a twenty-three-acre empty hole and the closest grocery store is more than three miles away.
Macon-Bibb voters remembered this story this month as they learned of four similar tragedies, two of which are in their own state. Breonna Taylor, sleeping in her bed after midnight in Louisville, Kentucky, was killed by plainclothes officers exercising a “no knock” warrant, while the man they were looking for, who lived miles away, was already in custody. Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed for the offense of “jogging while black” in Brunswick, Georgia, while the vigilantes who killed him were not arrested until a video was leaked three months later. The last straw was Floyd’s unnecessary death, in all its gruesome detail, and the nation’s citizens, black and white, erupted. Three weeks after Floyd’s death and subsequent protests began, twenty-seven-year-old Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed while running from police in what should have been, at most, a simple DUI, in Atlanta, Georgia. Officer Garrett Rolfe was fired immediately and later indicted, and the city’s police chief, Erika Shields, resigned.
When the citizens of Macon-Bibb peacefully gathered in Rosa Parks Square on May 31, an “Ecumenical Day of Solidarity” to listen to faith leaders and pray for the families of Arbery, Taylor and Floyd, not a rock was thrown as demonstrators sang gospel songs. Bethel African Methodist Episcopal’s pastor, The Rev. Marvin Colbert said we needed to, “come together to have a day of solidarity, not protest. We are moved to come together today to pray.”
Sheriff Davis, who attended, told The Telegraph, “The things we’re seeing across the country are heartbreaking, and people have to have an outlet for that. They have to have an outlet for that outrage. Very fortunately, we have a good relationship with our community. We’re here to support, we’re here to show our dismay and disappointment in our law enforcement brethren for treating individuals the way they have.”
Two demonstrations were held in Warner Robins, the last one on June 13, was titled, “Unity in the Community.” Marchers, numbering more than 500, carried signs and chanted as they marched about two and a half miles to City Hall along Watson Blvd., the city’s major thoroughfare. Speakers included Warner Robins Police Chief John Wagner, Perry Police Chief Steve Lynn and Houston County sheriff’s Maj. Alan Everidge. At all of the marches, in both cities, the demonstrators were ethnically diverse.
“All this is about is having a conversation about things, said Chief Wagner. “That’s the strong action of talking and should be what’s done. They were very grateful for this and we’ll continue that open relationship and communication.”
May 31, 1921 — May 31, 2020
Those attending the “Ecumenical Day of Solidarity” were aware that ninety-nine years before to the day, on May 31, 1921, white residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma attacked the black Greenwood District, known as the Black Wall Street. Three hundred black residents were estimated to have been killed and buried in mass graves. Hundreds more were injured, and thousands fled. The rampaging white mobs burned everything — churches, schools and hospitals. Greenwood was the first place in the United States to be bombed from the air. In the end, thirty-five city blocks were torched.
Did members of the white mob get arrested? No, but police and National Guardsmen rounded up every black resident who was still around, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. “Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.”
The two white papers in town — the Tulsa World and the now-defunct Tulsa Tribune — mostly ignored it, according to Scott Ellsworth, a professor of African American history at the University of Michigan who has written extensively about the massacre, and reported by the LA Times.
The Tribune, Ellsworth noted, didn’t publish a single article about the massacre until 1971. The bottom line is that for half a century, the white newspapers of Tulsa intentionally kept the massacre buried. The only outlet to print accounts of the massacre before 1971 and is still in publication, was the black-owned Daily Tulsa Star founded in 1913, which was torched during the massacre (now the Oklahoma Eagle).
It was in this atmosphere of tragedy and conflict both historical and current — with COVID-19 still having its way and demonstrations all over the nation — that Georgia held its primary elections on June 9.
The biggest upset was in the Democratic Primary for District Attorney. Anita Reynolds-Howard, an African American, trounced the incumbent, David Cooke, by 9,374 votes. Cooke was hit by a perfect storm because many of his supporters voted in the Republican Primary where he wasn’t on the ballot and there was no Republican candidate for the position.
The race for mayor is headed to an August 11 runoff between Lester Miller, the top vote getter, and Cliffard Whitby, an African American candidate, as a new mayor is chosen for the first time in twelve years. Four new Macon-Bibb County commissioners, none with elective experience, will join the board in January 2021. The school board will also see four new members, but one school board race is also headed to a runoff as two political newcomers vie for the seat.
Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats could be decided — in two very different ways — come November. The match up in one has been determined. Democrat John Ossoff beat back six competitors to win the nomination outright without a runoff to face Republican Sen. David Perdue. The other U.S. Senate seat is the subject of a “Jungle” primary where twenty-one candidates, of all political ilk, seek to fill the unexpired term of Sen. Johnny Isakson. If there’s a runoff, the race won’t be decided until January 5, 2021. Whoever wins will have to run again in 2022.
Locally, eight of the nine Macon-Bibb County Commission seats, the mayor’s office, school board seats and Water Authority positions – all nonpartisan – were in play. Voters who selected the Democratic ballot saw the contested races for District Attorney and U.S. Senate. Republican ballots were mostly perfunctory.
It would seem voters in Macon-Bibb County had reasons to vote in the delayed primary, but that was not the case. Only 38,514 ballots were cast in the mayor’s race, the only seat besides DA that was county wide. That’s a paltry 36.3 percent of registered voters. Was COVID-19, long lines, or altered campaigns, to blame?
“A hot mess”
While Macon-Bibb County had its problems election day, some precincts had equipment malfunctions, it was the reporting of the voting results that were particularly galling. Precinct information on election night was unavailable — in fact — no information was available. Some results dribbled out Wednesday, June 10, but a final tally wasn’t released for ten days – until June 19. The Board of Elections, which normally receives about 3,000 absentee ballots, received 15,000, and the chair of the board said 10,000 of those were marked incorrectly. Voters, instead of filling in the bubble next to their choice, circled or marked an X. Workers had to go through each ballot to make sure votes counted. On top of that, many of the absentee ballots mailed by the state were printed on thinner paper than those locally produced, and the scanners couldn’t read them and they had to be manually tabulated.
Additional problems included 289 people who had been mailed incorrect absentee ballots. Voters who requested a Republican ballot in 2nd Congressional District received a ballot for the 8th Congressional District and a new database had to be created to count those voters. The elections board had to wait for the manufacturer of the $107 million new voting system to merge the new database with the old — and the chairman of the Board of Elections Mike Kaplan, said on June 16, “They’re having an extremely difficult time with that. We would’ve been done if we had the old system.” The board of elections is asking for a budget increase before November to handle the anticipated increase in absentee ballots.
Those issues were nothing compared to the Atlanta Metro area where hours-long waits were the norm. It was a noxious combination of human error (not enough trained poll workers, many of them were new); equipment issues (Some precincts didn’t have voting equipment until the morning of the election; and some equipment was delivered to the wrong locations). Polls which were supposed to close at 7 p.m. had to stay open past 10 p.m. One precinct, where the lines stretched for three blocks, was a nursing home, putting voters and residents at risk of COFID-19. Local officials pointed fingers at the Secretary of State’s Office, the agency that oversees elections in Georgia, and state officials blamed locals. Georgia has 159 counties and each county is responsible for selecting precincts to counting votes.
“Georgia We Must Do Better” screamed the front-page-above-the-fold headline tagged to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial board’s opinion. “Georgia blew it — big time,” the editorial began. “An election meltdown that had been simmering here for a long time finally boiled over for all the world to see. The election process — what should be a near-scared ritual of this Republic — quickly developed into what national and local commentators called, with ample justification, a hot mess.”
The Georgia Speaker of the House has called for an investigation. Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state, has asked the Legislature for the power to step in if a county can’t perform its election functions. However, he has enough to say grace over. His office’s website, where all the returns are posted statewide, was useless election night.
The AJC’s editorial said it best: “The back-and-forth we saw Tuesday was simply childish and unbecoming of the leadership for a state that proclaims itself as world-class. Our elections apparatus certainly and spectacularly failed this week to live up to those claims. And it’s fair to ask just what that says about the caliber of leaders we’ve chosen here.”
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.
Charles Richardson has lived in Macon, Georgia, since 1982. His journalism experience spans newspapers, radio and television. He is the recipient of Knight-Ridder fellowships at Duke University and the University of Maryland, College Park. He was the editorial page editor at The Macon Telegraph, from which he retired in 2018.