Following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, people around the world have come together to protest for Black lives and against police brutality. Mariah Parker, Athens Clarke County District 2 County Commissioner, has reshaped public interest by organizing protests and caravans for the Athens community since May, leading the initiative to invest more in communities and less in the police system as well as supporting proposals to increase funding for high school counselors, social workers and restorative justice programs.
“This has been a really great reminder for folks of how powerful it is when we all come together, because I think during coronavirus, we can feel very small because we’re all very isolated. But creating a safe environment in which people can learn about reforms and remembering how strong we are when we stay together were huge outcomes of those protests that I helped organize,” Parker said.
On June 4, Parker started co-hosting “Waiting on Reparations,” a podcast discussing the struggles that underrepresented communities face, as well as the role that hip-hop has in politics. On Sept. 24, Parker and co-host Kendrick Mack talked about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the impact she had on women’s rights, along with the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned if a new conservative Supreme Court justice is appointed. Both co-hosts discussed what hip-hop artists have said regarding abortion, naming artists and listening to songs written about the topic.
In the episode, Parker talked about her experience attending a protest against women receiving forced hysterectomies at Irwin County Detention Center on Sept. 19.
“It was really cool mostly because the speakers that we heard from throughout South Georgia afterwards talked about the intersectionality of the struggles related to ICE, the prison industrial complex and women’s bodily autonomy, especially with the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg the night before,” Parker said on the podcast.
While organized protests called attention to the issues, Parker took action through her elected position as well. Some of Parker’s recent accomplishments through the FY21 budget include the addition of a third mental health co-response team to the Athens Clarke County Police Department (ACCPD), a second social worker in the public defender’s office and a committee to study urban renewal in Athens.
Additionally, Parker has pushed to redirect resources from the ACCPD to other community services. She and District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson developed the 50/10 Plan in early June of 2020, which the commission rejected but met with a compromise. The commission adopted the FY21 budget, which contained elements of the 50/10 Plan except for its core: to transition 50% of policing resources into community health and safety over a 10 year period.
“I would hope to see the crime rate continue to decrease as we start to divert more people from the criminal justice system and into other sorts of programs that help sustain their well being for the long term. I would imagine that we would see stronger communities, stronger neighborhoods, healthier individuals and healthier families because people are having a wider range of their needs met, as opposed to our current model,” Parker said.
Along with divesting from the police department, Parker hopes that teargas and chokeholds are banned and the use of force policy is reevaluated so that police officers issue warnings before using force.
“Police are aware of the broader range of tools at their disposal to nonviolently deal with conflict and crisis, so by banning these things we not only protect the public from undue and excessive uses of force, but we also force the police department to be more creative and more compassionate in the ways that they approach conflict and crisis. They then have to shift towards communication and nonviolent strategies as their only option to deal with these things,” Parker said.
Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz has not agreed with every aspect of Parker’s plans, but recognizes the need to ensure that every Athenian has equal opportunities.
“Athens has never been a community of equal opportunity in its 220 years of existence. And now’s the time when we have to sort of lift every stone and look underneath and ask, ‘What are the tangible things that we can do?’ I think (Parker) recognizes that every day is precious, every year is precious, and if we go a year without making some advance, we’re giving up an opportunity for today’s young people, for today’s working people, for the opportunity to create new homeowners from people, new business owners, and new stakeholders in the community,” Girtz said.
Investing in the community
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Parker helped start the Athens Community Corps, which she hopes will continue even after the pandemic concludes. The program hires currently unemployed people to work on public service projects like cleaning up parks, picking up litter or planting flowers to make public areas look more inviting.
“This is a public safety measure in two different ways. Those who have studied public infrastructure and its relationship to public safety have found that when places look nicer, and there’s a stronger sense of pride in the community, it’s less likely to invite crime than in scenarios where you’re living somewhere rundown,” Parker said. “So on the one hand, you’re creating healthier physical environments for people, and then on the other, you’re employing people who would otherwise be out of work and helping them build employability through resume-building opportunities. You’re also helping people become economically self-sufficient so that they aren’t turning to crime to feed their kids or pay their rent.”
Getting rid of systemic racism in the school system has also been a priority of Parker’s. She believes that to disrupt the school to prison pipeline, there needs to be an increased investment in restorative justice programs, school counselors and social workers with fewer resources put into punitive efforts such as school resource officers who are a part of the police department. In 2019, Clarke County School District introduced restorative justice programs into its two high schools to encourage students to take responsibility for their conflicts and to be able to work them out in group settings.
“I would like our restorative justice programs to be more robust and better funded. I think we need to start these programs at a younger age. By the time you’re in high school, you’ll find it kind of weird to take part in it because you never have before. You’re going to be a little more resistant to that process. Whereas if we were to implement restorative justice in elementary school so that kids grow up accustomed to this form of accountability and healing, I think we’d have even more success with it at higher ages,” Parker said.
To gather support for these different initiatives, Parker believes the best method is simply to start talking to people and listening to what they have to say.
“Listening is the best way to understand where people are coming from, while also using those opportunities to present alternatives to the systems that we currently have. People might read about defunding the police on the news and think it sounds scary, but when they talk to someone who has researched thoroughly what this means and what this has meant to other municipalities who have taken alternative approaches to public safety, it makes a lot more sense,” Parker said.
Parker does not believe that the initiatives she’s pushing for should be controversial. In her mind, redirecting the funding from armed officers toward community programs would create healthier, stronger and safer communities, thus reducing the need for police in the first place.
“I’m just building on the tradition of folks like MLK, Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, Kwame Toure and John Lewis. The movements that they were once part of when they were young, that’s what the young people are continuing. We are all part of this legacy of struggle for equality and that helps smooth over some of the seeming gaps between where our priorities lie,” Parker said.