By Tia Lynn Ivey
After a branch of the KKK held a small two-day gathering in Morgan County on Aqua Lane, replete with a lighted cross, local citizens took to social media to not only decry the group’s presence, but also how law enforcement handled the situation in regards to notifying the public.
Morgan County Sheriff Robert Markley, after consulting with a group of local pastors prior to event, decided to call in 60 officers to patrol the area during the International Keystone Knights (IKK) meeting without alerting the public to the hate group’s presence. Some citizens took issue with this decision as word spread across social media. The event sparked a public conversation about how, when, and with whom law enforcement should communicate such delicate matters.
Morgan County Sheriff Robert Markley sat in the hot seat last Tuesday at a community forum to discuss the issue with concerned citizens. Madison Police Chief Bill Ashburn, Madison Mayor Fred Perriman, and the Sheriff’s Office Chaplain Robert Terrell also sat on the panel beside Markley.
“This was a law enforcement decision,” said Markley. “I made the this decision in the best interest of public safety…to keep the peace and order in this county. I take responsibility for it and I am not going to push it off on anybody else, on any of the ministers…I will talk to anybody about any issue, but I am not going to poll the community when I have to make a life or death decision in Morgan County.”
“We were not protecting the klan,” added Sheriff Deputy Keith Howard, who stressed the property owner was informed if they stepped outside of the law, they would be arrested.
Madison Police Chief noted that groups like the IKK want to cause a stir. “We shouldn’t be giving these people the time of day in my opinion,” said Ashburn.
The public forum was organized by four local community activists, Shalisa Peterson, Sarita Smith, Minnette Lee, and Demarius Brinkley, drawing more than 70 people. Some of the crowd were dismayed that law enforcement chose to keep the IKK event under wraps, while others praised law enforcement for keeping the peace.
For the organizers, the forum was twofold—a chance to clear up any misinformation spreading across social media by hosting this community dialogue with local leaders and a strategic opportunity to create a relevant community action group to work as liaisons with law enforcement officials.
“This space is intentionally set up for a conversation to be had between community members and our local officials,” said Brinkley. “We are not organized as anti-local officials…We are pro-conversation and pro-engagement.
Markley stressed that the public was not notified of the IKK’s presence in Morgan County was because the event being held on private property.
“We would have much rather seen this event go someplace else,” said Markley. “But an event on private property puts certain restraints on us. This would have been an entirely different situation if they were doing this on public property.”
Markley insisted his first priority is peace and safety, and did not want to stir up counter-protests and foster a hostile situations where citizens could be hurt or arrested.
“It was not in the interest of public safety for me to go out and rile up the community and have 300 people show up out there where they weren’t welcome,” explained Markley. “If the event got out of hand, they were going to be dealt with. If counter protesters showed up, we could handle that, too. We wanted to be prepared to deal with both sides if that happened. I didn’t want to get caught with my proverbial pants down and not be able to respond,” said Markley of the decision to bring in 60 officers during the IKK meetings.
Terrell, who has served as the Sheriff’s Office chaplain for the last 15 years, organized the meeting of pastors with law enforcement before the IKK event. He called local pastors he knew personally to gather and consult with law enforcement on how best to handle the situation. Terrell’s advice was to pray and for each pastor to preach love to their respective congregations as they addressed the IKK coming through Morgan County. But the organizers of the event took issue with only pastors being consulted and entrusted with relaying the information to the community.
“Historically, the black church played such a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement, but times have changed,” said Sarita Smith.
“Not everyone goes to church. Not everyone has a religion,” said Brinkley. “How do you reach those people? This is a systemic issue. We need to be looking how we can make structural amendments to allow better reflections of community thought. The religious leadership might not have reflected the entire community sentiment on this.”
“A lot of young people don’t relate to law enforcement official or public officials or pastors,” said Minnette Lee. “The divides in our community, in our nation and the world—it’s because of a lack of communication and a lack of knowledge. We are stuck in individual roles and we don’t communicate with each other…The truth of the matter is One Morgan isn’t One Morgan.”
The organizers were hoping to secure at seat at the table when law enforcement needs advice on delicate community issues, not just when racist hate groups show up, but other matters as well.
“This is about who do we contact when issues happen? said Lee. “Is there a medium we could put in place for law enforcement and community relations. Because we don’t want to see an unarmed person getting hurt by law enforcement like we’ve seen elsewhere. Let’s put something in place now to be a medium for law enforcement. Not only ministers.”
The event hosts expressed the need for trained community organizers to partner with law enforcement officials that involve community relation matters.
Brinkley pressed Sheriff Markley to commit to a follow-up meeting to discuss the formation of a community activists group, but Markley was hesitant.
“My door is always open,” said Markley. “But I am not going to get hamstrung by a committee that believes they are going to make the law enforcement decisions for me.”
Lee argued that a new committee had no intention of taking over law enforcement’s role, but would merely be another community group to work with, just as law enforcement officials have worked with local pastors.
“It’s about making sure every demographic in our community is reached,” said Lee. “I don’t want to make your decisions for you. I don’t want to do your job for you. We are committed to working with you and the community to mend the divide.”
“How can we do better for the sake of the community?” asked Brinkley. “This not about who is right and who is wrong, it is about who is helping.”
The organizers hope to discuss the matter further with Markley.
Madison Mayor Fred Perriman spoke in favor of mutual cooperation and respect moving forward.
“I stand with respect for these young people who put this together and I also stand with our law enforcement officials,” said Perriman. “We strive to be one community and it takes all of us to do it together.”