Race relations addressed at downtown vigil

By Tyler H. Jones

August 22, 2014

A downtown vigil on Lafayette Square last evening evening garnered more than 40 attendees, including the LaGrange mayor, police chief and community religious leaders.

The vigil commemorated the death of an unarmed black teenager who died Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, after being shot by a white police officer. The incident has sparked riots in that city, as well as a controversial national discussion about race and the relationship between police and their communities. The circumstances of the shooting are under investigation by the federal government.

Jeffery Henderson, an associate pastor of a LaGrange church congregation and organizer of the downtown vigil, said he said he sees an opportunity for peace in the chaos of the reports from Ferguson.

“The Lord laid it upon my heart that we should bring the community together for prayer about what’s going on in Ferguson.” Henderson said. “We had a great turn out. The community leaders, the mayor, the chief of police, all came out and gave great support.”

During the vigil, LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton and Public Safety Chief Lou Dekmar addressed the crowd and spoke about what LaGrange can and is doing to support safer communities and enhanced relations between citizens and city officials.

“I think tonight is a great opportunity for the city of LaGrange to come together and be in prayer for the community of Ferguson, Missouri, and connect the community and the police department to build and enhance their relationship,” Thornton said. “We have a good relationship, but it can always be improved. That mutual trust is very important, so that the things that happened in Ferguson won’t ever happen here.”

Jennifer Rutledge, a vigil attendee, said she joined the crowd in prayer because she believes prayer can make a positive impact and lead to a better, safer community.

“I am concerned about the state of violence and tension in our communities and I believe everything starts with prayer,” Rutledge said. “And I feel as though our community needs to come together to pray — not only for our community, but for Ferguson as well. There’s power in prayer.”

Dekmar echoed the general sentiment of the crowd, and said transparency, trust and accountability are the cornerstones of good police work in LaGrange.

“Transparency is important,” remarked Dekmar. “One of the obligations that the citizens and police have is this an ongoing contract. The citizens, though their legislatures, grant police the power to arrest, to take people into custody, the power to search — the power to use force. But the other part of that contact is when we exercise that authority, we have an obligation to explain why we used it and what were the circumstance around its application. That’s why its important to have a community that respects the police, but also police that respect the community.”

The vigil did not come without controversy. A small group of protesters stood on the square holding signs criticizing the state of racial relations in LaGrange.

Nathan Gaskin, the chairman of legal redress for the Troup County NAACP, said he believes more can be done to protect minorities in LaGrange.

“There are a lot of problems here in LaGrange that are comparable to what happened in Ferguson,” Gaskin said. “Young African-Americans are being targeted and picked on for very minor reasons, some of them without provocation. I do not support this. There was a lovely prayer for the police officers, but when do we pray for the young black people.”

Henderson, the event’s organizer, said that the next challenge is for the city of LaGrange and its residents to continue to engage in dialogue.

“There’s always a group of people who don’t stand on the same foundation as other, but what outweighs it is everyone banding together for the good of our community, not just for a particular race of people, or a set of people, but for our community. LaGrange is growing, and we need to grow with LaGrange,” Henderson said.